The Origins Of 'Yo Mama' Jokes Are A Lot Older Than Think

History is generally treated as a serious subject. Your history textbook will almost certainly be filled with passages about wars, conquest, famines, political assassinations, and other dreary stuff. But what the history books largely leave out is that "the ancients" –- from whichever time period in history you're referring to –- largely lived their lives just as we do today. They had families, maintained relationships, had trades to practice and businesses to run, and did all of the things that we do today, just in different ways.

It seems that another thing "the ancients" did that modern humans do is crack jokes with each other. Though comedy is largely a spoken-word medium, some of those jokes did manage to get written down (or carved into stone, or painted, as the case may be). Of course, translation issues, matters of different cultures, and the passage of centuries have lessened the impact of some of those jokes, but some stand the test of time (more or less). For example, the walls of buildings that remain standing in Pompeii are chock-a-block with dirty jokes.

Archaeologists in the Middle East have turned up a treasure trove of ancient japes carved into stone, and one of the gags was a proto version of a joke that got big in the latter half of the 20th century and is still popular today. The ancient Babylonians cracked "yo mama" jokes, according to HuffPost

The 'Yo Mama' Joke In History

The "modern" version of the "yo mama" joke, the ones wisenheimers throw at each other in the name of playful banter, goes back a few decades, but with origins going back a couple of centuries earlier. To make a long story short, as the Baltimore Sun reported in 1994, the "yo mama" joke, as we know it today, emerged from a game, of sorts, played by African Americans, called "the dozens," which itself has its roots in slavery. In "the dozens," the participants try to insult each other's relatives "to test emotional strength," as author Clarence Major describes it. Of course, no such game is going to be complete without the participants comedically insulting each other's mothers.

Three and a half millennia ago, the ancient Babylonians were also dishing out "yo mama" jokes. As Gizmodo reports, a clay tablet dug up in 1976 contains several whole jokes (riddles, more accurately), and pieces of others. For example, one asks, "In your mouth and your teeth, constantly stared at you, the measuring vessel of your lord — What is it? — Beer." And one joke, of which we only have a part, is a similar riddle. "... of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?" Unfortunately, the punchline of that zinger wasn't on the tablet. 

Since we don't know the setup, the humor is kind of ... lacking, but in its context and in its original language, it must have been a knee-slapper. Plus it proves that dissing someone's mom is a time-honored tradition. 

Other Ancient Jokes

If the Babylonian "yo mama" joke isn't working for you, the same tablet has a few other riddles/jokes, some of which you may find funny (or probably not). For example, here's one, via HuffPost, that mixes sex and politics and could work today (conceptually anyway, but probably not directly) in a late-night comedian's opening monologue. "The deflowered (girl) did not become pregnant. The undeflowered (girl) became pregnant — What is it? — Auxiliary forces." 

Another political joke/riddle leaves out the sex but leaves in the politics. "He gouged out the eye. It is not the fate of a dead man. He cut the throat: A dead man. Who is it? A governor."

The oldest known joke, however, predates the Babylonian riddle tablet by a few centuries, according to Reuters, and it comes via a Sumerian tablet dated 1900 BC. And it seems that toilet humor was just as popular with the ancient Sumerians as it is with 6th-grade boys on the school playground in 2022. Specifically, the oldest known joke in the world is a fart joke. 

"Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap." Needless to say, sex, bodily functions, and political jabs were as much a source of humor four millennia ago as they are today.