Who Invented Paper? A New Discovery in Egypt Upends the Consensus

The recent find at a long-neglected site reveals it was used there more than 2,000 years before first appearing in China

Who Invented Paper? A New Discovery in Egypt Upends the Consensus
A fragment of papyrus found in front of one of the galleries. (Pierre Tallet)

“When we entered one of the galleries, it was like the workmen had just put down their tools and left yesterday.” This is what Egyptologist Pierre Tallet told me about the archaeological site Wadi el-Jarf, when we were traveling together in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, years ago. He described a boat propped up on wooden supports, tools leaning against the wall — there was even some rope used to lift the boat, untouched since it was dropped on the floor some 4,600 years ago.

Ever since Tallet described this scene to me, I had been desperate to visit and experience archaeology for myself, eager to relive such moments where time collapses, with a connection to the distant past through objects last held thousands of years ago. And these finds were by no means the last of the treasures that Wadi el-Jarf yielded.

This ancient harbor site, with its nearby storage galleries cut into the rock, has up until recently been neglected by archaeologists, despite hiding in plain sight for millennia, its walls visible to all. This is partly because of its remote location, far from any settlement or even a source of water, and partly because it lacks the more glamorous funerary objects and art of Egyptian tombs. Yet this peripheral site has produced more insights into human history than many of its glitzier archaeological cousins, the Pharaonic temples and pyramids. From the oldest papyri ever found to materials previously thought of as invented far later, this forgotten site in the desert has revealed evidence that upends long-held historical ideas. Paper, for example, once thought to have been invented in the early centuries of the Common Era in China, seems to have made an appearance much earlier, here in Egypt. And the papyri discovered at this remote place in the desert have given new insights into how the enigmatic pyramids were built.

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