Ten Things the Ancients Did Better than Us

Ten Things the Ancients Did Better than Us

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Just a couple of decades ago, the people of ancient civilizations were viewed as simple, primitive people.  However, numerous discoveries since then have revealed a number of surprising facts about ancient cultures, namely that many of them possessed advanced knowledge of metallurgy, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and more. With this knowledge they forged steel stronger than anything else seen until the Industrial Revolution, created a recipe for concrete so durable that their buildings would endure for millennia longer than the constructions of today, cut stones and assembled walls so precisely that attempts at modern-day replications have failed. Scientists are still scratching their heads over some of the amazing accomplishments of ancient civilizations. Here we feature ten of them.

1. Aqueducts and hydro technology

Aqueducts and hydro technology

Who would have thought that 21 st century governments would be looking to 1,500-year-old technology for guidance on how to solve water access problems? But that is exactly what is happening in Lima, Peru.

Peru has been facing a severe water crisis as chronic problems, such as polluted water supplies, and environmental change combine to undermine the water security of the entire country. However, a new plan has been put forward by Lima’s water utility company, Sedapal, to revive an ancient network of stone canals that were built by the Wari culture as early as 500 AD, in order to supply the population with clean, unpolluted water.

The Wari built an advanced water conservation system that captured mountain water during the rainy season via canals. The canals transported the water to places where it could feed into springs further down the mountain, in order to maintain the flow of the rivers during the dry season.

Many ancient civilizations are known for their advanced construction of cisterns, canals, aqueducts, and water channelling technology, including the Persians, Nabataeans, Romans, Greeks, Harrapans, and many more.

2. Steel

Steel Sword

Over 2,000 years ago, ancient people in the Levant were forging swords made of steel so advanced that blacksmiths would not come close to creating anything of equal quality until modern times. The metal was so strong that the swords could slice straight through objects made of other metals.

The steel, known as Damascus steel, was produced out of a raw material, known as Wootz steel, from Asia. Other materials were added during the steel’s production to create chemical reactions at the quantum level. It was first used around 300 BC, but was produced en masse in the Middle East between 1100 and 1700 AD.

The secret of making the Middle East’s Damascus Steel only re-emerged under the inspection of scanning electron microscopes in modern laboratories.  

3. Concrete

Roman Concrete

Today’s concrete structures are typically designed to last between 100 and 120 years. However, the Romans built structures from concrete 2,000 years ago that have maintained their structural integrity to this day. So what was their secret?

The Romans made concrete by mixing lime, volcanic rock, and seawater. The combination of the three instantly triggered a chemical reaction in which the lime incorporated molecules into its structure and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together.  The ancient seawater concrete contains the ideal crystalline structure of Tobermorite, which has a greater strength and durability than the modern equivalent.

As well as being more durable, Roman concrete was also more environmentally-friendly compared to today’s concrete. Conventional modern cement requires heating a mix of limestone and clay to 1,450 degrees Celsius which releases significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, Roman cement used much less lime and made it from baking limestone at 900 degrees Celsius, requiring much less fuel.

4. Road-building

Ancient Road Building

These days, we’d be lucky to get a decent highway built within a year. But it was not always this way. Ancient people recognized the importance of roads and networks linking together cities and settlements across regions and countries… and they built them fast! 

Qhapaq Nan, otherwise known as the Main Andean Road, is a huge network of roads once used by the mighty Inca Empire that extends over more than 30,000 kilometres. It was the backbone of the Inca Empire’s political and economic power, connecting production, administrative, and ceremonial centres of pre-Inca Andean culture. The Incas of Cuzco achieved this unique infrastructure on a grand scale in less than a century, extending their vast network across what is now Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The Romans too are known as expert road builders. About 1.7 million square miles of territory was covered by the Roman roads, which were made with gravel, dirt, and bricks made from granite and hard lava. Many ancient roads are still used today.

Comments

I am pretty impressed the Roman cement was way more durable than ours is today. However, I don't think that it had to do entirely with the amount of lime or how hot it was baked at. That is because they also added things like ox blood and horse hair to their mixture to make it more durable.

M.Alphan Namlı's picture

Peru has been facing a severe water crisis as chronic problems, such as polluted water supplies, and environmental change combine to undermine the water security of the entire country. However, a new plan has been put forward by Lima’s water utility company, Sedapal, to revive an ancient network of stone canals that were built by the Wari culture as early as 500 AD, in order to supply the population with clean, unpolluted water.

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Alphan Namli

The first sentence of this article makes me wonder if the writer is herself only two decades old. Please grow up. Perhaps you should spend time in your local library reading material on these subjects that was published five, twenty and yes even 50 decades ago!! My!! What wondrous articles you could write then!!! Please keep writing - but check a few books before you do - you'd be amazed(apparently) at what those of us alive forty to five hundred years ago knew.

While ancients did some things fine, better is something more controversial

  1. Hydro technology? Yes in some points. Like unpowered water transferr. Though why to do so in modern times when we have power pumps and pressurized pipes. Damming technology nowadays is far in advance any ancients could ever  have dreamed about.
    2. Steel. Modern metallurgy is more science than art. We have finely tuned temperatures, finely tuned additives and so on.  For example: Try making light weight gun barrel from ancient steel and you would quickly be very sorry.
    3. Concrete, yes Romans did long lifed concrete, though modern buildings are usually intentionally made short lived. If we really wanted we could make long life concrete. And even our limited age stuff has superior strength. As it is usually rebarred and pre-tensioned.
    4. Roads. Pre-modern roads needed to withstand quite light loads. Modern passenger car weights more than most of animal-powered carts, and 60-ton trailer trucks way much more. That kind of loads generally also degrade road bedding fast. As gravel in bedding tends to pounded to sand by masses involved. And road builders tend to have limited budgets, so they cannot be done with all available technological finesse. 
    9. Astronomy: Yes ancients could finely follow movements of stars and planets, but what they knew cannot really be compared with modern knowledge of cosmos. 10. Weapons: Modern weapons while they can deal mass destruction in unprecedented scale, they also can deal nearly surgical accuracy from vast ranges. And beam weapon mentioned in article can be easily reconstructed and surpassed. Even solar powered one. As modern parabolic mirrors can project more intense head over bigger range. And artificially powered high power laser could easily ignite wooden ship over great range.
 
Tsurugi's picture

I get the point you're making, but I think you're using a somewhat short-sighted definition of "better". For instance, the beam weapon. Yes, I could make a high-powered, highly accurate laser weapon and fry you on the spot, IF I had an army of technicians, factories, power plants, engineers, and physicists to help me out. But long before I could arrange all of that, you could have fried me with your much simpler arrangement of mirrors. So which one is "better"?

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