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Planet Earth

Dawn of the ABC's

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Egyptian petroglyphs --rock writings --show the alphabet has been around at least 4,000 years. Without a Rosetta Stone, their meaning is unclear.

Courtesy: Bruce Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg/West Semitic research

Two 18-inch stone inscriptions, carved into the rock walls on a barren desert valley in southern Egypt, are the world's oldest alphabetic graffiti. Nearby Egyptian hieroglyphics indicate that the inscriptions were made around 1800 b.c., hundreds of years before any previously recognized written alphabet. But the carvings clearly contain letters--the oldest evidence yet of the origin of the ABCs. "We can recognize the letters and see how they evolved into modern forms. An m looks like the m you or I would write, only with more zigzags," says P. Kyle McCarter Jr. of Johns Hopkins University, an expert on the archaic alphabet. Because no other examples of this alphabet exist to serve as a key, the inscriptions cannot be translated completely. McCarter has identified the words "chief" or "leader." The carver may have left the message as a plea for safe passage through the wasteland, which was a strategic shortcut from Luxor to Thebes, across a bend in the Nile. Experts previously thought that the alphabet originated in Levant (a region covering modern Syria, Israel, and Lebanon) sometime after 1750 b.c. "Now we believe it was developed around 2000 b.c. by Semitic people who lived in Egypt," McCarter says. He notes that we are still in debt to those unknown innovators. "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." --Kathy A. Svitil

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