Clay tablets reveal Babylonians discovered astronomical geometry 1,400 years before Europeans
Text A. (Trustees of the British Museum/Mathieu Ossendrijver)
The medieval mathematicians of Oxford, toiling in torchlight in a land ravaged by plague, managed to invent a simple form of calculus that could be used to track the motion of heavenly bodies. But now a scholar studying ancient clay tablets suggests that the Babylonians got there first, and by at least 1,400 years.
The astronomers of Babylonia, scratching tiny marks in soft clay, used surprisingly sophisticated geometry to calculate the orbit of what they called the White Star — the planet Jupiter.
These tablets are quite incomprehensible to the untrained eye. Thousands of clay tablets — many unearthed in the 19th century by adventurers hoping to build museum collections in Europe, the United States and elsewhere — remain undeciphered.