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9 of the World’s Oldest Jokes and Brainteasers

Since the humble beginnings of language itself, people have been trying to make others laugh—or challenge their cleverness by asking them to figure out confounding riddles. From perplexing puns and fart jokes that transcend time to historical brainteasers that will make you scratch your head, here are some of history’s oldest efforts to get a laugh or break the brain.

In 2008, historians announced that they had identified the oldest recorded joke in history: A Sumerian quip dating back to 1900 BCE. What layered comedic marvel did the ancient Sumerians who invented cuneiform and arithmetic pass down as part of their legacy? A fart joke, of course.

The joke reads, in an approximate translation: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

The “joke” probably wasn’t ever intended to be a laugh-out-loud Sumerian Comedy Club zinger—it’s actually more a humorous proverb than a straight joke. But what exactly it’s proverbing isn’t clear.

Archaeologists discovered the world’s first recorded bar joke in the 1800s on a roughly 4000-year-old ancient Sumerian clay tablet. It went something like this: “A dog walks into a bar and says, ‘I cannot see a thing. I’ll open this one.’”

Don’t get it? Sumerian language expert Edmund Gordon provided this alternate translation: “The dog, having entered an inn, did not see anything, (and so he said): ‘Shall I open this (door)?’”

Still not getting it? You’re not alone. Historians believe that the humor could be lost on us because we haven’t experienced ancient Sumerian culture. But that still doesn’t answer the question of what a dog walking into a bar and opening something actually means.

Gordon suggested that the bar in question could have been a brothel of sorts, and the dog was opening the door to another room where he would then—to put it in PG terms—feel very grateful that dog neutering wouldn’t become commonplace for another few thousand years. And some believe the juxtaposition of I cannot see a thing and the use of the word open points to the dog opening its eyes. Thus, a new, half-funny meaning is extrapolated: The dog can’t see anything in the bar, so he opens his eyes.

All that considered, there’s always the possibility that the joke wasn’t meant to be funny, and an ancient Sumerian adding this to their tight five would have been booed off the stage of the comedy hut. Perhaps it should read more like a proverb: Be mindful of your surroundings lest you mistake a brothel for a bar. (Or it could just be the equivalent of “why did the chicken cross the road,” in which the punchline is more of an anti-joke—unless you take the punchline to mean “to get to the other side” as in the afterlife, in which case the joke takes on an entirely different, funnier meaning.) Like the dog’s vision, the meaning of this joke is shrouded in mystery.

Oedipus And The Sphinx, 1880

Oedipus And The Sphinx, 1880. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Riddles show up in a good deal of old and ancient texts.The most famous is probably the one asked by the Sphinx to Oedipus. There are a few different versions, but here’s the general gist: What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon and three at night? The answer, Oedipus correctly replied, was: “Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a walking stick.” The Sphinx, astonished at Oedipus’s answer, kills herself afterward.

Another old riddle shows up in a biblical tale. Samson, a judge who ruled over Israel in the Hebrew Bible, held a wedding party with 30 guests and posed a high-stakes riddle to his guests. If they were to answer correctly, he would give them all expensive articles of clothing. If they guessed wrong, he would get the fancy garb. The riddle was as follows, according to the Bible’s New Living Translation: “Out of the one who eats came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.”

Stumped? So were Samson’s guests. The answer to the riddle was not common knowledge. Prior to the dinner, Samson had ripped apart a lion with his bare hands, and later found out that bees had started swarming and making honey in its carcass. The lion, in this case, is “the one who eats” and “the strong,” and the bees’ honey is “something to eat” and “something sweet.”

Where else could we find the world’s oldest jokes if not the world’s oldest surviving joke book? Philogelos, which roughly translates to “lover of laughter,” is a 4th century book, originally written in Greek, that contains over 200 ancient jokes. Here are a few of them:

This Sumerian joke/riddle/legal problem chronicles three travelers, and ends in more questions than answers: Essentially, three ox drivers from Adab got into an argument and went before the king to settle the matter.

They said that of the three, one owned an ox, one owned a cow, and one owned the wagon. One day they were thirsty. The ox’s owner was asked to get water and he refused, fearing that his ox would be eaten by a lion. The cow’s owner refused because his cow might wander off into the desert. Then the third man refused, because—well, there’s a bit of disagreement, but probably because he feared the load in his wagon would be stolen. So they all left and in their absence the ox procreated with the cow which gave birth to a calf that ate the wagon’s load. So the question was, who owned the calf?

The king didn’t have an answer, so he visited a court lady for advice, and then … the next 30-plus lines are missing, and what’s after that is difficult to decipher, though it seems that everyone was dissatisfied with the arrangement.

Experts are pretty sure this is supposed to be humorous and maybe was supposed to be a lesson about cooperation, since this whole thing could have been avoided if one person got water and the other two helped out—but it’s hard to tell.

A joke book from 1739 titled Joe Miller’s Jests promises “most brilliant jests; the politest repartees; the most elegant bon mots, and most pleasant short stories in the English language.” We can’t confirm that claim, but see for yourself: “A famous Teacher of Arithmetick, who had long been married without being able to get his Wife with Child: One said to her, Madam, your Husband is an excellent Arithmetician. Yes, replies she, only he can’t multiply.” That is  a pretty brilliant, polite, elegant, and pleasant way to tell a sex joke.

Flirting man with three women, ca. 1900.

They’ve just heard a particularly good pun. / Kirn Vintage Stock/GettyImages

Puniana, a book of puns published in 1867, contains a plethora of puns that, according to one review, “present the usual anomaly of being good, because they are so bad.” While not every joke holds up (which is to be expected, considering the 1800s weren’t history’s most politically-correct era), there’s still some pretty good stuff in there. Here’s a lightning-round of Victorian-era puns:

Cat With Kittens

They don’t find this joke very funny. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

When The Irish Times printed their newspapers in the 1890s, they had a weekly joke contest for their readers, and winning jokes were put in the Cream of Jokes section. Here’s one entry: “‘Papa,’ said Maudie, ‘why [do you] put [a] muzzle on Fido’s mouth?’ / ‘Because he bites.’ / ‘Then you ought to put a muzzle on [the cat’s feet], she scratches me with [them].’”

It seems to be less of a joke and more of an observation, but the people running The Irish Times in 1892 thought it was funny enough to publish. Who are we to say they were wrong?

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This story was adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube. Subscribe for new videos every week.