The Lost Knowledge of the Ancients: Were Humans the First? Part 2
Until documents of bygone ages are unearthed, located and recovered we are stuck with sacred texts, classical writings and myths of the past. Can these documents we know of now be considered as reliable material for reconstructing the picture of the past?
One hundred and fifty years ago, no scholar took the Iliad or the Odyssey of Homer as history. But Heinrich Schliemann put faith in it and discovered the legendary city of Troy. Then, like a sleepwalker, he followed the homeward route of Odysseus and discovered golden Mycenae.
Gold artifacts from Grave Circle A at Mycenae, Greece (CC BY NC-SA 2.0)
The city of Ur, referred to in the Bible, as the town from which Abraham had come, was not afforded any geographical or historical significance by the sages of the 19th century. Actually, until recent times, few historians have taken the Bible seriously as a source of historical data. But after Sir Leonard Woolley had discovered the ancient city of Ur in Mesoptamia, the situation began to change.
Legends can therefore be interpreted as fanciful records of actual happenings. The myth of the birth of Zeus in Crete points to the Cretan origin of the Ancient Greek culture. Until 1952 when Michael Ventris decoded Linear B script of Crete and ascertained it was early Greek, no one in ancient or modern times had taken this Zeus myth seriously. So as we can see, folklore preserves history in the guise of colorful tales.
Clay tablet (PY Ub 1318) inscribed with Linear B script, from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos (CC BY 2.0)
In his Dialouges, Plato made a reference to an archaic form of Greek language. Naturally, his contemporaries had never heard of this lost dialect. But late in the 19th century an old script was found which, when deciphered in the fifties, turned out to be pre-classical Greek.
In the Critias, Plato tells the story of Solon to whom the priests of Sais in Egypt confided in 550 BC that 9,000 years before their time, Greece had been covered with fertile soil. Now that information is scientifically correct because the soil of Greece was rich a few thousand years ago. In the remote period the Sahara was a steppe where abundant vegetation grew. This is but one example of the climate change which has taken place in the Mediterranean basin. But how could Plato, Solon or the priests of Sais have known about soil erosion in Greece for so long a period unless accurate records had been kept for 10,000 years by the Egyptian priesthood?
Solon and Croesus by Gerard van Honthorst (Public Domain)
But even further back in time there were other ebbs and flows of cultural progress. The rock paintings of aurochs, horses, stags and other beasts in the caves of Altamira, Lascaux, Ribadasella and others, are masterpieces not only of prehistoric art but of art in any period.
Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks painted stylized bulls. But the bisons or horses of Altamira or Lascaux look like they might have been painted by Leonardo or Picasso. The realism and beauty of these cave paintings make them immensely superior to the paintings of animals in Egypt, Babylon or Greece.
Altamira Bison. Reproductions at the Museo del Mamut, Barcelona 2011 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Sketches and trial-pieces have been discovered in the caves, suggesting the existence of art schools over 15,000 years ago. This is another example of the way a wave reaches a peak in the curve of civilization and then goes down.
In recent centuries, we have been rediscovering forgotten ancient science. Almost four hundreds years ago the great German astronomer Johann Kepler correctly attributed the cause of tides to the influence of the moon. He immediately became a target for persecution. Yet, as early as the second century BC, the Babylonian astronomer Seleucus spoke about the attraction which the moon exercises on our oceans. Posidonius (135-51 BC) made a study of the tides and rightly concluded that they were connected with the revolution of the moon around the earth.
Kepler was a German mathematician and optician. (Public Domain)
During the course of fourteen centuries-from Ptolemy to Copernicus, not a single contribution to astronomy was made. Even in Ptolemy´s time thinkers looked back to former centuries for knowledge as if there had been a Golden Age of Science in the past.
The ancient Indian astronomical text Surya Siddhanta recorded that the earth is “a globe in space”. In the book Huang Ti-Ping King Su Wen the learned Chi-Po tells the Yellow Emperor (2697-2597 BC) that “the earth floats in space”. Only four hundred and fifty years ago Galileo was condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities for teaching this very concept.
Diogenes of Apollonia (5th century BC) affirmed that meteors move in space and frequently fall to earth. Yet the 18th century pillar of science Lavoisier thought otherwise: “It is impossible for stones to fall from the sky because there are no stones in the sky.” We know now who was right.
Democritus, gave an accurate description of the Milky Way (by Hendrick ter Brugghen)(Public Domain)
Two thousand five hundred years ago the great philosopher Democritus said the Milky Way “consists of very small stars, closely huddled together”. In the 18th century the English astronomer Ferguson wrote that the Milky Way “was formerly thought to be owing to a vast number of very small stars therin’; but the telescope shows it to be quite otherwise”. Without a telescope Democritus was certainly a better astronomer than Ferguson. It was a case of a large telescope but a small mind against a great mind without a telescope.
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the Chilean Atacama Desert (CC BY 3.0)
Seeking the Source
From this collection of examples, we can see a pattern of knowledge existing in the distant past that has been lost, only to re-emerge as ‘new’. It seems likely that other, valid knowledge existed in the past that we currently do not know of or is not considered reliable according to reasonable modern criteria. The loss of documentation means we cannot always be sure of the ancient source or have the evidence to prove its validity and so it is believed to be folklore, myth and storytelling. But the above instances are evidence of there often being some truth within the lines. Perhaps we should give some ancient sources more credit and seek to investigate the ideas further.
For ancient sources that have turned out to agree with modern truth, the question remains, who provided these insights and on what are they based? Ancient science? Ancient reason? Some other source?
Part 3 will present a number of curiosities from the history of science – tangible evidence of a distant source of science.
Top Image: Rafael's School of Athens, depicting Plato's Academy. (Public Domain)
By Sam Bostrom