An overlay clearly shows letters of the earliest known alphabet, carved on limestone.

An Egyptian Birthplace for ABC's

Egypt could long brag of inventing hieroglyphics, the pictures and symbols used to convey their spoken language. Now the country can lay claim to the first alphabet, too. Scientists have uncovered two limestone inscriptions in the Egyptian desert dated to between 1800 and 1900 B.C. The alphabet wasn't invented by Egyptians, however; the inscriptions were most likely made by Semites from Palestine and Syria working in Egypt as mercenaries, merchants, and miners.

Until now, the earliest use of the alphabet had been traced to Semites in Sinai, who left writing on the walls of a turquoise mine sometime between 1700 B.C. and 1500 B.C. They democratized writing by simplifying hieroglyphics--a system requiring knowledge of hundreds of symbols--to an alphabet comprising fewer than 30 symbols, says Chip Dobbs-Alsop, a Semitist at Princeton Theological Seminary. To express the Semitic language, the letters were derived from hieroglyphics: "aliph," for example, which meant "ox," became the letter A (5th sign from left in inscription); "bet," for house, became B (2nd from right). And a zigzag hieroglyph meaning water became today's "M" (5th from right).

A team led by John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, came upon the older inscriptions in a dry river bed called Wadi el-Hol while mapping ancient caravan routes in the desert west of Thebes, the ancient Egyptian capital, and the Nile. While the area is now deserted, it "was alive with people in the Pharaonic era," says Darnell. Some of the old roads, whose ruts can be seen in the limestone, were so heavily traveled that he says they are "carpeted" with layers of broken pottery from the trade caravans, couriers, police and military operations, and way stations for travelers.

The two inscriptions of about a dozen characters each were found about a meter apart among Egyptian inscriptions of the same era. The discovery, first announced in The New York Times, "allows us to revise amazingly a lot," about how the first alphabet evolved, says Dobbs-Alsop. For example, he says, the inscriptions show that elements of hieratic--the cursive form of hieroglyphic--were incorporated into the earliest letters.

Scholars are now huddling to try to decode the inscriptions. Marilyn Lundberg of the University of Southern California says one inscription seems to have the word for God (El) in it, suggesting a religious dedication.