Science of the Ancients: How Our Distant Predecessors Laid The Groundwork for Our Success

Science is all about observation and contemplation.

When you make an observation that the days of the year are becoming shorter as fall turns to winter and think to yourself, Huh – I wonder why that is, you are performing science. Granted, this isn’t the comprehensive, empirical  method put forth by the likes of Francis Bacon, but it’s science in a philosophical sense.

Why is the grass wet with dew in the morning?

Why is the sky blue?

Why do we get sick?

This process is human nature. It’s what separates us from lesser animals and it’s turned the gears of human ingenuity for thousands of years. We tirelessly ask these questions when we’re young with the constant inquisition of Why? Why? Why?

Some of the most important foundational concepts in modern science were being explored in the years BCE (before common era). Foundations that we have since built upon to arrive where we are today. Today, scientists study phenomena like quantum entanglement and induced pluripotent stem cell therapies, but these observations would not have been possible without those that came before.

Mathematics

Though mathematics are not a natural phenomenon in the tangible sense – though that may be debatable considering math is an abstraction of mental processes – they are crucial in the advancement of the sciences, so I feel that their inclusion here is appropriate. After all, could we have landed on the moon without a little math? Not even close.

Some of the earliest instances of the use of mathematics are found in Ancient Egypt – as far back as 3,000 BCE. The area flanking the Nile River was subject to seasonal flooding, damaging property and homes. The Egyptians developed methods of geometric surveying, or “rope-stretching”, to define new land demarcations in which they could be free of the flooding.

They used plumb-bobs, short cubit sticks, and ropes of 100 cubits in length. They developed the cubit as a unit of measurement based roughly on the length from the elbow to the tips of the fingers, roughly 0.5 meters (or 19.7 inches). Historical references attribute different lengths to the original cubit, so that’s a matter of contention.

265px-Pythagorean.svg.png
Courtesy of Wikipedia user Michael Hardy

They also used 3-4-5 triangles as a way of finding 90o angles, an application of the Pythagorean Theorem, though the Egyptians are not credited with providing sufficient proof of the theorem to get full credit, essentially being “scooped” by the Greek math-wiz Pythagoras.1 (EDIT: Or at least I though they were. Edmark Law provided a more detailed account in the comments below.) This use of Pythagorean Triplets has also been reported to be used by ancient civilizations in China, India, and even Ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

Medicine

Thanks to modern advances in the health sciences, the expected longevity of human life has increased markedly in the past century. Thanks vaccines and public sanitation! Our knowledge of medicine is really a knowledge of how our bodies work and respond to harmful events and its development has been a natural progression as a result of how aware we are of our mortality and morbidity. We use that knowledge to develop interventions that prevent or halt the damage of events. Interventions like vaccines, medications, surgeries, and even radiation. As it was in the mathematics, many of these methods were developed thousands of years ago in many different parts of the world.

Yet again, we have the Ancient Egyptians with some of the earliest known writings

edwin_smith_papyrus_v2
The Edwin Smith Papyrus

outlining medical practice. A collection of papyri have been found that outline perspectives of medical approaches, the Edwin Smith Papyrus being the most well known for including only empirical, rational approaches to medical practice and leaving out much (not all) of the supernatural healing practices that were also practiced at that time.2 The papyrus largely outlines 48 cases of traumatic injury, including everything from examination to treatment (surgical, herbal, and a smattering of spells and incantations).

Similar medical texts have been found in Mesopotamia dating as far back as 2000 BCE, the most famous, the Diagnostic Handbook, written by a scholar of the time, outlines examinations, diagnoses, prognoses, and treatments in a similar fashion as did the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This particular medical text also happens to contain the first mention of etiology, the study of causation and an important factor in the development of modern public health, as well as therapy (yes, even the mighty Babylonians needed shrinks).4

As similar as many of these texts are, many containing mentions of herbalism (the root development in the production of medicine), no other region’s medical developments were as deeply affected by the influence of herbal remedies as they were in Ancient India. India’s record of medical knowledge dates back as far as 1000 BCE.

Ancient India’s premier medical text, the Atharvaveda, detailed accounts of using herbal remedies for myriad treatments. This herbalism helped give rise to the system of medicine, Ayurveda, or ‘complete knowledge for long life’, around 600 BCE. Ayurveda describes 8 fundamental fields of medicine, some of which are remarkably modern: internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, ENT (ear, nose, and throat), toxicology, spirit medicine, ‘rejuvenation’, and aphrodisia.

In mentioning herbalism, let us not forget traditional Chinese medicine wherein herbal remedies are used commonly alongside acupuncture and massage.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Hippocrates, the famed Greek ‘Father of hippocratesWestern Medicine’. Hippocrates, from the Greek island, Cos, between 500-400 BCE,  is associated with the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical treatises. Though we are unsure of who all was involved in the development of the Corpus, it is thought that the best and most important treatises came directly from Hippocrates, including a few on epidemics. The Corpus outlines a multitude of rational (not magical) approaches and perspectives on medicine. And of course one of his greatest contributions to the field is the Hippocratic Oath, which is used by physicians to this day to lay a groundwork for their own moral and ethical practice of medicine. Scholars are unsure whether Hippocrates or one of his students wrote the original oath, but either way his influence resonates through the centuries.6

Physics & Astronomy

Astronomy, the study of celestial bodies (planets and stars) and events, is perhaps the cream of the crop when it comes to ‘popular science’, that is science that most people find fascinating. It tries to answer the question of, ‘where does it all come from?’ It’s impossibly large. It’s scenes of rocket ships blasting off, stars exploding, and black holes swallowing light itself.

By and large, physics is required in the study of modern astronomy. But astronomy came first by thousands of years.

Though every ancient civilization appears to have practiced astronomy, the first mentions of empirical (math and science based) astronomy arose in Babylon. It is believed that, through analysis of cuneiform tablets detailing geometric calculations, the Babylonians were able to track the movements of celestial bodies such as Mars and Jupiter as early as 350 BCE and were able to predict lunar eclipses as early as the 7<sup>th</sup> century BCE.<sup>7,8</sup>

babylonian-tablet-jupiter-calculation
Cuneiform tablet detailing the geometric tracking of Jupiter.

This information eventually found its way to Ancient Greece where it was used, along with other principles, to further develop astronomy and, eventually, gave rise to more modern concepts in physics<sup>8</sup>.

Microbiology (Fermentation)

I saved one of my favorite subjects for last. Being from Wisconsin, a state known for its beer and cheese – microbiology plays a very important role in my daily life. Interestingly, it’s among the oldest sciences practiced in human history… by far. Granted, the practitioners didn’t know they were conducting science, but science nonetheless.

In ethanol fermentation, microorganisms break down molecules of sugar and produce ethanol as a byproduct of metabolism. Thanks, microbes!

The use of microbiology to craft fermented (alcoholic) beverages has roots in the Neolithic age, specifically, the 7<sup>th</sup> millennium (7000-6000 BCE), in China where evidence was found of fermented concoctions of rice, honey, and fruit. The use of this alcoholic beverage, as it was (and is) in many cultures, is of enormous cultural significance<sup>9</sup>. Evidence of fermentation used to produce alcohol has also been found in ancient civilizations in Georgia, Iran, Sudan, Babylon, and Egypt (thanks Wikipedia).

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Pathway of ethanol fermentation – courtesy of Wikipedia user David Carmack
image156
Pathway of lactic acid fermentation

 

Ethanol fermentation isn’t the only fermentation pathway, equally as useful is the lactic acid fermentation pathway. The sugar in the food that is going to be fermented is consumed by microorganisms and converted to lactic acid. The acid that is produced as a byproduct is what gives fermented products their bite and oftentimes is used to curdle dairy products. This method of fermentation is used to produce yogurt, cheeses, kimchi, saurkraut, and other cultured food products.

It’s absolutely fascinating how the oldest science practiced in the world has gone largely unchanged for millennia.


References

  1. Paulson, J., Geoinformatics, F. P. T., & Paulson, J. F. (2005). Surveying in Ancient Egypt.
  2. Frey, E. F. (1984). The earliest medical texts. Clio medica (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 20(1-4), 79-90.
  3. Nunn, J. F. (2002). Ancient egyptian medicine. University of Oklahoma Press.
  4. Horstmanshoff, H. F., Stol, M., & Van Tilburg, C. R. (Eds.). (2004). Magic and rationality in ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman medicine (Vol. 27). Brill.
  5. Wujastyk, D. (Ed.). (2003). The roots of ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit medical writings. Penguin.
  6. Hanson, A. E. (2006). Hippocrates: The” greek miracle. Medicine.
  7. Ossendrijver, M. (2016). Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiter’s position from the area under a time-velocity graph. Science, 351(6272), 482-484.
  8. Jones, A. (1991). The adaptation of Babylonian methods in Greek numerical astronomy. Isis, 82(3), 440-453.
  9. McGovern, P. E., Zhang, J., Tang, J., Zhang, Z., Hall, G. R., Moreau, R. A., … & Cheng, G. (2004). Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(51), 17593-17598.

2 thoughts on “Science of the Ancients: How Our Distant Predecessors Laid The Groundwork for Our Success

  1. There is no credible evidence that Pythagoras (or one of his students perhaps) had given a proof for the Pythagorean theorem. Those are just mostly speculations. It was Euclid who gave the first detailed proofs (2 proofs) of the theorem in “Elements of Euclid” more than a century after Pythagoras’ time.

    Besides, there was already a proof of the theorem which predated Pythagoras for around 600 years in China. It’s in the book called Chou pei suan ching. And I have no doubt that the Babylonians and Egyptians have their own proofs as well which we just haven’t found yet or have lost permanently… (which is very unfortunate if that’s the case)

    Like

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