Since the dawn of human­i­ty, we have been look­ing up at the stars and try­ing to under­stand them. We learned to use them for nav­i­ga­tion, and watched as they moved around our skies, sig­nalling a change of sea­son, or time for an impor­tant ritual.

The recent dis­cov­ery of an ancient Baby­lon­ian tablet has revealed that our abil­i­ty to accu­rate­ly pre­dict the move­ment of celes­tial bod­ies dates back way fur­ther than we thought, sug­gest­ing that there is more to be learned about ancient sci­en­tif­ic knowledge.

How we cal­cu­late movement

Up until recent­ly, we cred­it­ed a group of Oxford boffins from the 14th cen­tu­ry with the idea of astro­nom­i­cal geom­e­try. It requires a good han­dle on con­cep­tu­al, abstract think­ing, a firm grasp of arith­metic, and an under­stand­ing of geom­e­try, to be able to look at the stars and plan­ets, and accu­rate­ly pre­dict where they will appear over time.

This was an ear­ly form of cal­cu­lus (that scary thing from maths class that you’ve tried to for­get about ever since). It was a more sophis­ti­cat­ed method of track­ing celes­tial bod­ies than the basic arith­metic pre­vi­ous­ly used. Where arith­metic is about num­bers, and alge­bra is about rela­tion­ships between num­bers, cal­cu­lus is about rela­tion­ships between equations.

Ancient Babylonia

A new study of ancient clay tablets, dat­ed between 350 BCE and 50 BCE, reveal that some clever clogs liv­ing in ancient Baby­lo­nia, a state with­in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), were using a sim­i­lar method of cal­cu­lus to plot the move­ments of Jupiter. 

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Although it looks like a deli­cious bread loaf, this Baby­lon­ian clay tablet is actu­al­ly inc­scribed with cuneiform. Image cour­tesy of Trustees of the British Museum/​Mathieu Ossendrijver

Apart from having a very cool title, astroarchaeologist Matthieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University has spent the last few years studying these clay tablets, housed in the British Museum in London.

“I couldn’t understand what they were about," he told the Washington Post. “I couldn't understand anything about them, neither did anyone else. I could only see that they dealt with geometrical stuff."

Only after the text of another, unstudied tablet was revealed, did it all click into place.

Measuring just 5cm by 5cm, this tiny tablet, marked with the tick-shaped imprints of the ancient cuneiform script, contained “numbers and computations, additions, divisions, multiplications," says Ossendrijver. "It doesn’t actually mention Jupiter. It’s a highly abbreviated version of a more complete computation that I already knew from five, six, seven other tablets."

It was the missing piece that proved that the ancient Babylonians were using sophisticated methods of tracking the stars and planets some 1 400 years earlier than we thought possible.

What's the big idea?

So, besides revealing that historians have been horribly wrong about the origin of calculus all this time, why is this discovery significant?

Well, if no other evidence emerges that this Babylonian knowledge was preserved and carried on through the ages to 14th century Europe, it shows that new knowledge can emerge independently, in different parts of the world. This is useful when exploring other human origins, like language and agriculture, or religion.

It shifts our understanding of an “enlightened Europe", and gives more credence to the idea that the ancient Babylonians were a sophisticated civilisation.

Lastly, it begs the question: what other amazing discoveries are yet to be made from artifacts gathering dust in the back rooms of museums around the world?