The Oldest Name in The World

Apr 12, 2022 1 comments

Humans have been calling each other by names probably for hundreds of thousands of years ever since the first human beings evolved from Homo heidelbergensis and emigrated out of Africa. We don’t know what these early names sounded like because there was no method to record sounds. Writing would not be invented until very late in human history—about 5,500 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerians were the first to develop a script to record information. Known as cuneiform, it used a combination of pictorials and symbols to record facts and figures, such as business transactions.

For example, this 3 inch by 3 inch clay tablet, recovered from the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, and dating back to 3,100 years, details a transaction of barley with these pictograms:

At the center bottom of the tablet is a sheaf of barley. To its left is a brick building with a chimney, probably a brewery. To its left is a sheaf again now inside a vessel, representing that the barley is to be turned into beer. The quantity involved is marked above the picture. To the left is the time period involved, marked by 3 circular holes and seven small depressions. Taken together, the record probably reads: “29,086 measures of barley received over 37 months”.

In the upper left above the vessel with the barley sheaf, are two symbols whose representative sounds are known- but not their meaning when taken together. They form the word “KU-SIM”. Based on their positioning at the end of the sentence, it has been suggested that Kushim is a name—the name of the person or accountant who received the barley. If this is the case, Kushim could be the first name we know from history.

However, Kushim could also have been the generic title of an officeholder or a profession rather than the name of the person. The cuneiform characters "KU" and "ŠIM" were not presented with much context, and therefore it is difficult to determine whether such sign combinations denote a person, the person's office, or even an entire institution. Kushim’s name appears on 18 separate tablets from this period. He was probably responsible for the production and storage of barley. Some of the tablets charge the distribution of barley to several officials as various debits, with the summation on the reverse as a single credit for the discharge of Kushim's liability. One relatively simple account shows the charging of various amounts of barley to three officials on the obverse, while Kushim was credited for the total amount distributed to the officials on the reverse. However, the reverse could also be interpreted as Kushim's account. Other tablets are more intricate, showing the input of various ingredients on the obverse (malt, hops, etc.), while showing different kinds of beer as output on the reverse side. One tablet shows Kushim providing 14,712 liters of barley to four officials, for which they were properly discharged.

Another contender for the oldest name is a tablet dating from the same period as the Kushim tablet, found in the ancient city of Shurrupak, now modern Jemdet Nasr in Iraq. Although this tablet is believed to be a generation or two younger than the Kushim tablet, the writing here is unambiguous.

The tablet begins “Two slaves held by Gal-sal” and is then followed by their names:“En-pap X and Sukkalgir”.

So the world’s oldest names that we know belong not to some great conqueror or prophet, but to ordinary citizens—an accountant, a slave owner and some slaves.

The earliest known name of a person who held some position of power dates back to 32nd century BC from Egypt, making him contemporary with Kushim and Gal Sal. His name was Iry-Hor and he was King of Upper Egypt in the pre-dynastic period. Iry-Hor probably ruled from Hierakonpolis over Abydos and the wider Thinite region and controlled Egypt at least as far north as Memphis. Some Egyptologists believe that Iry-Hor also controlled parts of the Nile Delta.

When Iry-Hor’s name was first discovered, some Egyptologists did not believe that Iry-Hor was a king, because his never appeared in a serekh, the façade that always surrounds the names of Egyptian royalty. However, with the discovery of Iry-Hor’s tomb in the cemetery of Abydos and numerous clay vessels and pottery jars near it, with his name inscribed, Iry Hor’s existence was proven. The final evidence came in 2012 with the discovery of an inscription in Sinai, showing his pictograph on a boat next to the word Inebu-hedj meaning "white walls", the ancient name of Memphis.

Iry-Hor is now believed to be the Egypt’s oldest king that we know of, predating the dynastic pharaohs.

The fascinating thing about the name Kushim is that it is still used in Russia, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. According to Forebears, Kushim is the 2,168,711th most commonly last name in the world held by approximately 1 in 95 million people. Kushim is also the 910,230th most widespread first name in the world.


  1. FYI, Sumerian beer would not have had hops as an ingredient.


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