The first written sentence in the world? An anti-lice spell


We know that the main difference between prehistory and history is that, conventionally, the second differs from the first due to the invention of writing, without however being able to attribute a precise date between the end of one and the beginning of the other. The discovery of the phrase on this comb is perhaps one of the elements that more precisely delimits the temporal boundaries between the two periods. The find features an entire sentence in the Canaanite language ( Canaanite is an ancient geographical term that referred to a region that included, more or less, the present territory of Lebanon, Israel and parts of Syria and Jordan), dating back to 1700 BC approximately. It is engraved on a small ivory comb and includes a charm against lice.


“May this [ivory] tusk eradicate lice from hair and beard.”

This is the sentence transcribed on the comb.

The comb was unearthed in Tel Lachish, Israel by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and Southern Adventist University in the United States. The inscription was deciphered by Semitic epigraphist Daniel Vainstub of the Ben Gurion University (BGU). The ivory was analyzed by Professor Rivka Rabinovich of the Eastern University and Professor Yuval Goren of the BGU and was found to come from an elephant’s tusk . Their findings have been published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.

Since there were no elephants in Canaan at the time, it is likely that the comb was manufactured and imported from neighboring Egypt, indicating that even people of high social status suffered from lice. The research team examined the comb itself under a microscope to check for lice as well and took photographs of both sides. Well, the remains of lice, the size of 0.5-0.6 mm, were found on the second tooth. The ivory comb is small, measuring approximately 3.5 x 2.5 cm and engraved with 7 Canaanite words of an archaic form, dating back to the first phase of the invention of alphabetic writing.


“This is the first Canaanite sentence ever found in Israel. The comb inscription is direct evidence of the use of the alphabet in daily activities about 3700 years ago. It is a milestone in the history of writing,” comments one of the authors of the study.

The inscription on the comb sheds light on many other hitherto little-known aspects of daily life at the time, for example hair care and pest management, or the engraver’s skill in successfully making such small letters (1 -3 mm wide) which could blow up all theories of literacy in Canaan in the Bronze Age.

  • A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish. Jerusalem Journal of Archeology (


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