World's Oldest Alphabet
November 22, 1999 The oldest alphabet has been discovered as ancient graffiti on rocks in a barren desert valley in Southern Egypt known as "The Valley of Horrors."
The ancient writings were discovered by Egyptologist John Darnell, an assistant professor at Yale University, who stumbled across the rocks in 1998 while surveying the area. The significance of the discovery was provided by a team of scholars from Hopkins, Yale University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the West Semitic Research Project in California. The group presented their findings November 22, 1999 at an American Oriental Society conference.
Darnell photographed his discovery of the rock writings that were then examined by Lyle McCarter, Jr. an expert in epigraphy, the study of ancient writings, at John Hopkins University. McCarter said, "Darnell's discovery is considered to be the equivalent to epigraphers as the discovery of Lucy was to paleontologists. Until now, we believed that the alphabet had been invented by Semitic-speaking people of the Levant Valley, in what is now modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel, in 1700s B.C., who were inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyphics." McCarter added, "This discovery suggests that it was invented at least two centuries earlier than we believed, in 1900s B.C. It also tells us that the alphabet was probably invented in Egypt by some of the many Semitic-speaking people who lived or worked in Egypt."
McCarter is uncertain exactly what the inscription says, although "leader" has been translated as part of a phrase in which the traveler in the desert is probably requesting a safe passage from the gods. McCarter says "A better translation will come as the early alphabet becomes better understood and more examples are found." He notes we are still in debt to these unknown innovators of the alphabet, "The one-sign, one-sound alphabet they devised could be learned by an adult in a few hours. It was the great revolution in human literacy."
Photograph courtesy of John and Deborah Darnell
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