Monday, 1 February 2016

Babylonian Astronomers Were Cleverer Than We Thought

Jupiter plays a major role in a recent discovery of the prowess of Babylonian astronomers. Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), public domain.

Joel Kontinen

Many people tend to think that ancient men could not have been as clever as we are. This is in keeping with the Darwinian idea that humans evolved very gradually from ape-like creatures and learning was a hit-or-miss affair. They were not expected to accomplish much intellectually.

However, many discoveries suggest that this view is badly outdated. Homo Erectus, for instance, made engravings and Neanderthals were anything but the caricature presented by 19th century evolutionists, who portrayed them as stooping, grunting ape-men.

Cave paintings were astonishingly sophisticated. New Scientist even speculated that cavemen might have invented the cinema.

Then, the ruins of Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey showed that instead of living in simple dwellings, hunter-gatherers could already build towns.

Stonehenge in Britain has also caused a rethink of evolution-based views.

Then there’s the Antikythera Mechanism. With at least 30 gear wheels and pointers, it was a mechanical computer for calculating the movements of the sun, moon and probably also some planets.

And it was built 2,000 years ago.

There’s more. Recently, astroarchaeologist Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin examined Babylonian clay tablets at the British Museum. The documents, dated from 350 BC to 50 BC, were a great surprise to him and everyone else.

The journal Science summarises the findings, stating that Babylonian astronomers

also employed sophisticated geometric methods that foreshadow the development of calculus. Historians had thought such techniques did not emerge until more than 1400 years later, in 14th century Europe.”

Ossendrijver also published a report in Science entitled The Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiter’s position from the area under a time-velocity graph.

Jupiter was important for Babylonians, as they identified it with their chief god Marduk. It seems that astronomers wanted to know precisely where the planet was at each stage:

Ossendrijver figured out that the trapezoid calculations were a tool for calculating Jupiter’s displacement each day along the ecliptic, the path that the sun appears to trace through the stars. The computations recorded on the tablets covered a period of 60 days, beginning on a day when the giant planet first appeared in the night sky just before dawn.”

Comparing the tablets to older Babylonian texts from ca. 1800 BC to 1600 BC, he was able to see that the Babylonians had developed “abstract mathematical, geometrical ideas about the connection between motion, position and time that are so common to any modern physicist or mathematician.”

The discovery also throws light on how Noah could build a big ocean-going vessel 4,500 years ago and how the wise men from the east were able to reach Bethlehem after the birth of Christ.


Cowen, Ron. 2016. Math whizzes of ancient Babylon figured out forerunner of calculus. Science (28 January).