Who is the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?
Who is the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?

Who is the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?

Natasha sheldon - May 16, 2017

Signs of human individuality first began to appear over 30,000 years ago, when artists began to leave their ‘signatures’ in the forms of handprints on cave walls. But we cannot name these artists. Nor can we name the hunters they depict or the people who lead them.

The late fourth millennium BC saw the beginnings of writing. The earliest examples, preserved on baked clay tablets, come from in the ‘Cradle of Civilization‘ in Mesopotamia, dating to sometime around 3300 BC. Based on the evidence, hieroglyphics did not begin to appear in Ancient Egypt until approximately 3200 BC and later still in China, Meso-America, and other major cultures.

Who is the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?
The Kushim Tablet. Google Images

These early scripts used either symbols or pictures to represent objects or sounds. But it is not until the cusp of the third millennium that we see names begin to appear. Among these early names are ordinary citizens- even slaves- as well as priests and Kings. Kings, but ordinary citizens -even slaves.

But out of these early names, whose is the earliest one we know? There are several contenders.

Kushim the Accountant

The earliest written records from Mesopotamia are accounts- unsurprising, as with cities comes commerce and the accompanying need to keep records. So our first contender for the first named individual in history is an accountant.

The record in question was inscribed on a clay tablet using a reed stylus sometime between 3300-3000 BC. It is written in symbols and pictograms, which we can translate by comparison to later, similar, cuneiform systems whose meaning we know.

The tablet describes a shipment of barley. The symbol for the grain is a simple picture of a barley stalk. 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 reads: “29,086 measures barley 37 months”

But at the end are two symbols whose representative sounds are known- but not their meaning when taken together. They form the word ‘kushim”. Based on their positioning at the end of the sentence, it has been suggested that Kushim is, in fact, a name. If this is the case, Kushim could be the first name we know from history.

The problem is, there is no way of knowing if Kushim is an individual’s name -or a job title. Then there is the question of dating. For there is no way of establishing exactly when this record was produced compared to other examples. And there is another, similar record from Mesopotamia that is roughly contemporary -and contains not one but three names.

Gal Sal and his Slaves

The record in question is a tablet, from the ancient city of Shurrupak, now modern Jemdet Nasr in Iraq. It is commonly dated to around 3100 BC and is believed to be a generation or two younger than the Kushim tablet. But its naming evidence is much more unambiguous.

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

We do not know the context. But the fact that there are three named individuals: not important, just a citizen of Shurrupak and his slaves does make the Jemdet Nasr tablet look to be a contender for holding the earliest known name of individuals in history.

But despite writing originating in Mesopotamia, it appears that Egypt could, in fact, trump these examples from the cradle of civilization.

Who is the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?
Iry Hor. Google Images


Many of the names we have for Egypt’s earliest kings cannot be substantiated, as no physical evidence can be found to back up their existence. There are one or two exceptions, however, where names can be found recorded in these early King’s lifetime. Iry Hor is one.

Iry Hor was King of Upper Egypt in the pre-dynastic period, ruling around approximately 3100 BC, making him more or less contemporary with Kushim and Gal Sal-give or take a century. His name has been translated as “belonging to Horus” because of its pictograph of a falcon.

His tomb has been identified in the cemetery of Abydos-one of the oldest cities in Egypt and was excavated by Flinders Petrie in 1902. A series of tall narrow jars, stamped with the pictograph that denotes his name helped identify it. In 2012, a rock inscription in the Sinai desert was found. This again mentioned Iry Hor, showing his pictograph on a boat next to the symbol for “white walls”- the city of Memphis. This was taken as the final evidence that Iry Hor was indeed an early Egyptian King.

However, there are some problems. For a start, Iry Hor’s name never appears in a serekh, the façade that always surrounds the names of Egyptian royalty. Indeed, like Kushim, some experts believe the falcon motif does not denote a name at all but rather the title of an office holder.

However, there is one more Egyptian name to consider. And unlike the other three examples, this one can be dated.

Scorpion I

There is another tomb in the cemetery of Abydos, known as the U-J tomb. Much more elaborate than the tombs around it, it was plundered in antiquity but contained several hundred pottery vessels, made both locally and in Palestine. These vessels bear inscriptions within a royal serekh panel containing a scorpion and a tree. An ivory-headed heqa scepter- a symbol of kingship was also found.

Based on the evidence, the tomb is believed to belong to Iry Hor’s predecessor Scorpion I. His name is believed to derive from the scorpion goddess Serket whose symbol forms part of his name.

Scorpion was Upper Egypt’s first true king A 5000-year-old graffito in the Theban desert depicts him in his victory over another king, ‘Bulls head’. Bulls’ head’s name also appears in tomb U-J, strengthening the evidence for Scorpion as a significant King.

But it is the content of the jars that clinches the matter. For they contain the residue of wine-wine that can be dated. And based on this, we can say that Scorpion I died and was buried in 3150 BC.

So with Scorpion I, we have a verifiable royal name that can be given a place in history -which means that Scorpion I is the first person in history whose name, we can say with any kind of certainty, we know.