Around 1,500 BCE, a student in ancient Babylon inscribed six riddles on a tablet. 3,500 years later, these proto-jokes lose a lot in the translation, but one thing's for sure: the Babylonians are saying something about your mother.
The tablet in question was first discovered back in 1976 by an archaeologist named J.J. van Dijk during excavations in present-day Iraq. Sadly, the tablet itself has since disappeared, but van Dijk left behind a copy of what the tablet had to say, as well as the delightfully pissy assertion that the tablet featured "very careless writing" and so was obviously the work of a student.
The tablet features a half-dozen riddles, which researchers Nathan Wasserman and Michael Streck recently analyzed for the journal Iraq. Though they call the tablet an example of "wisdom literature," meaning these the riddles were metaphors meant to impart pithy little truths. And while there's definitely an aspect of that, at least a few of the riddles sound like some very early stabs at comedy. Take this one for example:
In your mouth and your teeth, constantly stared at you, the measuring vessel of your lord. What is it?
Would it make that riddle any funnier if I told you an alternate translation for "your teeth" is "your urine"? Maybe not. Well, how about this bawdy joke about deflowered women?
The deflowered girl did not become pregnant. The undeflowered girl became pregnant. What is it?
Admittedly, that one is a bit conceptual. It's also possible that we've discovered the ancient Babylonian answer to Andy Kaufman. Either way, I want to see "auxiliary forces" as everybody's go-to punchline starting...NOW. Next up, a cutting bit of political humor:
He gouged out the eye. It is not the fate of a dead man. He cut the throat: A dead man. Who is it?
The translation across 35 centuries does the riddle no favors, but to be fair - I can at least see how that has the structure of something we might call a joke, in that it describes the punitive powers of a governor in less than flattering terms. But enough with these warm-up acts - let's get to the headliner, the ancient Babylonian "yo mama" joke. Here it is...or what's left of it, anyway:
...of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?
Yes, tragically, this no doubt devastating takedown of somebody's mother's sexual proclivities has been lost to history. Though I do appreciate Wasserman and Streck leaving it ambiguous whether the word is "who" or "what" the mother is having sex with - even in ancient Babylon, you just can't rule anything out when talking about one's mother. Or perhaps the original answer wasn't lost at all, and maybe the whole point is that nothing human or otherwise would ever deign to have ancient Babylonian sex with this poor unfortunate's mother. We may never know, but I feel confident saying this is the single most important question facing modern archaeology.
Incidentally, the oldest known joke is - and it makes me very proud of humanity to be able to say this - a fart joke. Here's a 3,900 year old zinger from Sumer:
"Something which has never occurred since time immemorial - a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."
Well, it's certainly about farts, although I suppose the "joke" bit is debatable. Then again, I shudder to think what people are going to make of what we considered comedy in the year 5,500. Except Parks and Recreation, of course - the brilliance of Ron Swanson transcends all known boundaries of space and time.