New research, published on the 29th of January in Science, suggests that complex geometry may have been in use long before previously thought. Study of Ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets has revealed potential evidence that the Babylonians used the mathematics of shapes to track Jupiter across the sky at night. If true, this would mean that this sort of mathematics was in use at least 1,400 years earlier than previously thought.
The Ancient Babylonians lived in what is now Syria and Iraq, their civilisation first emerging around 1,800 BCE. The tablets date to around 350 BCE. Prior to this study, it was thought that complex geometrics was first used in the Medieval era in Europe.
Professor Mathieu Ossendrijver, from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, and who authored the report, described to the BBC how the tablets were used to track Jupiter: “This figure, a rectangle with a slanted top, describes how the velocity of a planet, which is Jupiter, changes with time. We have a figure where one axis, the horizontal side, represents time, and the other axis, the vertical side, represents velocity.”
“The area of trapezoid gives you the distance travelled by Jupiter along its orbit”, he continued.
This discovery is particularly noteworthy in that mathematics of this type and complexity is unheard of from antiquity. It is unclear how common it was, whether it was just one individual or widespread.