Ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets show that they knew about our Solar system a lot. They had knowledge of the shape of planets including Earth. In ancient Mesopotamia, all five planets visible to the naked eye were known and studied, along with the Moon, the Sun, the stars, and other celestial phenomena. It was Sumerians who invented the very first concepts of astrology, the 12 zodiac signs in 1894 BC.
In 2015, a historian decoded a mysterious trapezoid from ancient Babylonian astronomical tablets. After the analysis of the tablet, it was concluded that the Babylonian astronomers had calculated the movements of Jupiter using an ancient form of geometric calculus. It should be noted that this is approximately 1500 years before we thought this type of math was invented by the Europeans.
The tablet was translated by astro-archeologist Matthieu Ossendrijver of Humbolt University in Berlin after a colleague visiting from Vienna in Austria handed a stack of mid-20th-century photographs. This means that the ancient Mesopotamian astronomers not only figured out how to predict Jupiter’s paths more than 1,000 years before the first telescopes existed, but they were using mathematical techniques that would form the foundations of modern calculus as we now know it.
Ancient Babylonian astronomers developed many important concepts that are still in use, including the division of the sky into 360 degrees. They could also predict the positions of the planets using arithmetic. Ossendrijver translated several Babylonian cuneiform tablets from 350 to 50 BCE and found out that they contain a sophisticated calculation of the position of Jupiter. The method relies on determining the area of a trapezium under a graph. This technique was previously thought to have been invented at least 1400 years later in 14th-century Oxford. This surprising discovery changes our ideas about how Babylonian astronomers worked and may have influenced Western science.
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This is a big discovery, the tablet is one out of hundreds that were excavated during the 19th century. Anthropologists and archaeologists have been working for more than one hundred years trying to decode all of them. They are from around 100 or 200 BC.
The tablet shows that ancient astronomers used the time to calculate the speed and distance of a celestial object. It turns out that the Babylonians were tracing the trajectory of Jupiter for a specific amount of time. They did this by measuring its speed every single day, and by using a very advanced geometric “shortcut” that allowed them to measure the planet’s speed on the first and 60th day of the measurements, which gave them the distance it traveled.
By calculating the area inside the trapezoid, Babylonian astronomers could find where the planet would be in the sky – exploiting the same link between velocity and displacement taught in introductory calculus classes.
This makes it the only known geometrical method in Babylonian astronomy. It is also different from Greek astronomy, in which shapes were used to represent dimensions of real space and time, but nothing as conceptual as velocities.
Scholars at Oxford’s Merton College and in Paris during the 14th century are typically credited with the same insight about velocity and displacement. They even connected it to the trapezoid shape. These ideas were the antecedents of the calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz – but the Babylonians had them far earlier.
In 2020, Mathieu Ossendrijver published another paper where he explained Moon and other planets in ancient Mesopotamia. He stated from ca. 3000 BCE onward, Mesopotamians used a calendar with months and years, which indicates that the Moon was studied at that early age. In cuneiform writing, the Sumerian and Akkadian names of the Moongod, Nanna/Sin, are attested since ca. 2500 BCE. The most common Akkadian names of the five planets, Šiḫṭu (Mercury), Dilbat (Venus), Ṣalbatānu (Mars), White Star (Jupiter), and Kayyāmānu (Saturn), are attested first in 1800–1000 BCE. The Moon, the Sun, and the planets were viewed as gods or manifestations of gods.
From ca. 1800 BCE onward, the phenomena of the Moon, the Sun, and the planets were studied as signs that were produced by the gods to communicate with humankind. Between ca. 600 BCE and 100 CE, Babylonian scholars reported lunar and planetary phenomena in astronomical diaries and related texts. Their purpose was to enable predictions of the reported phenomena with period-based, so-called Goal-Year methods.
After the end of the 5th century BCE, Babylonian astronomers introduced the zodiac and developed new methods for predicting lunar and planetary phenomena known as mathematical astronomy. At about the same time, they developed horoscopy and other forms of astrology that use the zodiac, the Moon, the Sun, and the planets to predict events on Earth.
Another Sumerian Astronomical treasure
A 5,100-year-old clay tablet discovered in the 19th century in the underground library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh is another astronomical treasure. The ancient “document” excavated in present-day Iraq by Sir Henry Layard offers unprecedented insight into astronomical observations that took place more than 5,100 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.
It’s amazing how little we actually know about the ancient civilizations that once roamed our planet. From what we know so far, they were extremely advanced, possibly even more advanced than modern-day humans. What’s even more interesting is that many of these ancient cultures speak of “gods” that came from the cosmos and shared this type of information. There is even evidence of highly sophisticated technology.