4,000-year-old head lice comb found inscribed with phrase using the alphabet
The comb was made by the Canaanites, an ancient people that lived in what is now Israel and Palestine around 4,000-5,000 years ago.
A tiny ivory comb inscribed with the first ever full sentence found written in the Canaanite language has been discovered by researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The comb, which dates back to around 1,700BC, was unearthed at Tel Lachish in Israel - a major Canaanite city state in the Biblical Kingdom of Judah.
The inscription on the comb reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”
The alphabet was invented around 1,800BC by a Semitic people living in the Levant. Shortly after, it was adopted by the Canaanites – an ancient people that lived in what is now Israel and Palestine around 4,000-5,000 years ago. Before the discovery of the comb, the only Canaanite inscriptions found were limited to just two or three words.
The phrase inscribed on the comb is made up of 17 Canaanite letters that form seven words. The engraving is very finely detailed, with letters measuring just 1-3mm across.
“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel. There are Canaanites in Ugarit in Syria, but they write in a different script, not the alphabet that is used till today,” said study leader Prof Yosef Garfinkel, of the Hebrew Univeristy of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology.
“The Canaanite cities are mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Amarna letters that were written in Akkadian, and in the Hebrew Bible. The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3700 years ago. This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write.”
The comb is made from elephant ivory and measures roughly 3.5cm by 2.5cm. On one side it has six thick teeth that were used for untangling air and 14 fine teeth for removing head lice and their eggs on the other.
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As ivory was an expensive material, it’s likely that the comb belonged to someone of high social status – an indication that even wealthy Canaanites suffered from head lice, the researchers say.
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Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.