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First known Canaanite sentence a plea for beard lice relief

One small ancient comb offers insight into a millennia-old itchy issue.

(CN) — New research out of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Tuesday identified the first Canaanite sentence, dating back to 1700 B.C. But it wasn’t discovered on a wall, tablet or tombstone.

It was found on a lice comb. 

The first alphabet was invented around 1800 B.C. in the area of Egypt. It then spread to neighbors and eventually to most languages. For years, the Canaanites used it sparsely, with a word or two here and there found inscribed in what is now Israel. 

Found in Lachish, a town southwest of Jerusalem in 2016 and tested for lice and louse DNA, it wasn’t until December 2021 that Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu at the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noticed the sight inscription. Dr. Daniel Vainstub of Ben Gurion University then deciphered it.

“May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

The comb is made of elephant ivory, making it an item of prestige and implying a high status. Archaeologists found the piece in an excavation site area known for public spaces such as temples and palaces. The researchers note in the study a high-class item would not be unusual in that space. However, there were no elephants in Canaan, leading the team to believe the bug-sifting tool was imported from Egypt. 

The city-state of Lachish was significant to Canaanites and the second most important city in the biblical Kingdom of Judah. It is known for its use and preservation of the Canaan alphabet. Currently, Lachish holds more Canaanite inscription discoveries than any other site in Israel. 

The comb measures about 1.5 inches by 1 inch. It has teeth on both ends and strikingly resembles modern-day lice combs. One end has six thick teeth, presumably for detangling, and the other has fourteen small teeth for lice removal. Some teeth are broken due to the comb’s age, and the middle is worn down, which researchers suspect is from being held. 

Using a Dino-lite microscope and photographs, the scientists found miniscule lice remains on the second tooth. Additionally, remains of a head louse were found on the comb.

The struggle of head lice has a long history well beyond modern kindergarten classrooms, with some cases being found by archaeologists as early as 10,000 years ago in Brazil. In another study, lice eggs were found in hair samples in Israel dating back 9,000 years. 

Besides revealing the first Canaanite sentence, the discovery sheds light on life in the Bronze Age. It is also the first object in the area that isn’t just labeled with an owner's name, but rather directions for use. Another interesting finding is just how small the inscription is, with the letters up to a tenth of an inch wide — evidence the engraver was highly skilled. 

“The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3,700 years ago. This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write,” said study author Yosef Garfinkel from the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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