What Do Hair Salons Have to Do with Prayer, Magic, and the Development of Literacy?
It turns out, the first complete sentence ever written by a human (at least, as of what we know now) concerned hair.
New archaeological evidence — discovered in Israel in 2016 and analyzed recently — confirms that “the oldest instance of a sentence written using the alphabet is on an inscription on an ancient ivory comb” — and it highlighted head lice.
Some 3,700 years ago, a wealthy man in Tel Lachish, an ancient Canaanite city in the foothills of central Israel, wrote seven words in the Phoenician (or Canaanite) alphabet that can be translated roughly as: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and beard.”
The ancient author was not being paranoid: “A tooth of the comb was actually discovered to possess the tough outer shell of a head louse.”
From analyzing technical components of the writing, the brilliant archaeologists who discovered this amazing find (Daniel Vainstub et al.) believe that the comb was produced not long after the earliest forms of the Phoenician alphabet was created. Given that the Phoenician alphabet eventually served as the foundation of what became the Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Cyrillic alphabets, dare we speculate that modern Western writing systems have their origins in efforts to control the natural world via supernatural means?
Another interesting point suggested by this find: The author inscribed his wish on ivory from an elephant’s tusk that would likely have come from Egypt. This provenance suggests that the comb’s owner was wealthy enough to buy a luxury item imported from a distance.
Four contemporary implications I take away from this fascinating research:
- then as now, attention to hair responds to an elemental human need
- then as now, income inequality allowed a minority of elites to gain access to rarities inaccessible to most
- then as now, riches didn’t inure humans from pest-based afflictions
- then as now, prayer — as a particular, verbal form of magic — was a tempting solution to all sorts of life’s troubles, including itchy head bugs.
I was never very good at archaeology (don’t ask), but I love learning what intrepid archaeologists uncover.
Curious about how the scholars managed to decode the faintly visible scrawls? Read the details of their impressive methods here.