The Humble Comb

Today, after I woke up and got out of bed, and as I dragged my comb across my head, I thought briefly of the humble comb.

An early Egyptian comb

The earliest tools made by human ancestors go back hundreds of thousands of years.  Not surprisingly, they seem to be things likes axe heads, knives, and other implements that help with hunting, killing, and skinning animals; you would expect the struggling early humans to focus on getting food and making it edible.

Combs, however, are distinctly different.  They aren’t essential to survival and seem to be a product of a more advanced civilization, where people were more attentive to their appearance and had the leisure time to do something about it.  Perhaps they gazed into a pool of water, considered their reflection, and thought:  “My hair looks like crap!”  They dragged their fingers through their hair and noticed a slight improvement, and then they realized that just as tools helped with the killing and gutting of prey, so tools could help to make their hair look better.  After some experimentation, the basic design of the comb — with its rows of tines working to tame and untangle unruly hair — was devised.

Ancient combs from Qumran

I don’t think archaeologists know exactly when combs were first invented.  I’ve seen combs from ancient Egypt that were created more than 5000 years ago, and combs apparently spread around the world after the first century B.C. The combs shown on these links look pretty similar to the combs available today.  Substitute antler bone, ivory, or hard wood for plastic, and there’s really not much difference.  The basic design of the comb therefore seems to have pretty much stayed unchanged for 7,000 years.  Is there any other man-made tool or device that has been used, continuously and without material change, for as long as the humble comb?

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