History of Science, Vol I – Antiquity

Since we started this blog we have brought you useful advice on how to live a smarter & healthier life, discussed opinions regarding the future of pharmacists and brought you the latest news regarding medical research.

One of our objectives is to bring you the latest medical research presented in a comprehensible manner. To better understand what medical research is, we are starting a new series regarding the History of Science, where you can see the long road that mankind has traveled in our search for greater scientific knowledge. The author of this series, Dr Adrien, will be presenting the History of Science in Antiquity (the period between 10000 and 1500 B.C.) in this first piece from the series. Let’s take a look at the beginning.

Antiquity, from 10000 to 1500 before Christ

It is recognized that modern Homo sapiens appeared 200,000 thousand years ago, somewhere in eastern-central Africa. The earliest home of human written civilisation is now generally supposed to have been Sumerian, with another root decending from ancient Egypt. The Chinese written evidence goes way back in time, several thousand years after Sumerians and Egyptians, and this is consistent with the usual speed of human migration. Egypt had developed as a kingdom from about 3100 before Christ (BC). Egyptians developed very early on an art of healing which was based not on mere superstition but also upon actual observation. Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, followed by Indians and Chinese succeeded in collecting a considerable mass of individual facts, sometimes extremely astute, which were organised along the local religious or ethical creeds. Then, about 2,500 years ago, with the creation of the « Presocratic philosophy » in Greece, science was born, with an entirely new and original way to organise human knowledge.

Science, which can be considered as an extension of philosophy, is an organized way to explore. During that ancient time, the quasi-absence of China from the scene is strange, despite its extremely old and involved aptitude in developing new techniques. Probably through interactions with the Greek world, science certainly started to develop in China and India. However, China, geographically, politically, and economically emphasizes stability, not questioning or exchanging. This explains why science was kind of uprooted there when it become to be visible to the world. It’s possible to estimate or find dates where scientific facts, questions and hypotheses were put forward and slowly organised to yield present day science. Here, on farmacist.info, we are interested in the science of life, which is the science associated to agriculture and medicine. But since science also means development of reasoning and development of an experimental approach, the first dates with which we shall be concerned will correspond to the creation of logics and the creation of the first experiments.

Science needs stable transmission of knowledge

This requires something more practical and less error prone than oral transmission. We need therefore to retain as major dates those in which writing was invented, then writing on supports that were easy to construct : stone, clay tablets, papyrus, animal skins etc. It must be taken in consideration that all civilisations tend to self-appropriate the origin of discoveries to their own people and it seems clear that the origin of most important early discoveries were made in civilisations which have since evolved in different cultures, such as the Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations.

Here is a selection of the main events in science and technology during the first part of Antiquity (summarized in Fig.1), from 10000 to 1500 before Christ:

≈10000 BC : The taming of animals (dogs, pigs) and the cultivation of plants begins to spread in Mesopotamia both eastwards and westwards, at the speed of about 50-100 km per century.

≈6000 BC : Yeast is used by Sumerians to make beer and wine and process metallurgy begins as one of the oldest sciences with the processing of gold.

≈5000 BC : The horse is domesticated which significantly increases capabilities for exploration, agricultural labor and warfare.

≈4200 BC : Copper is discovered as a metal susceptible to processing and remains a symbol of the beginning of civilisation in the middle East.

≈4000 BC : The Egyptians discover both how to bake leavened bread using yeast and how to process silver.

≈3500 BC : The Egyptians begin to write down accounts of important royal events on wood and use lead sulfides, called « galena » as cosmetic for blackening eyes and eyebrows. Here we can see the first “ancestors” of modern dermato-cosmetics and beauty-products.

≈3400 BC : The first symbols for numbers as simple straight lines, corresponding to a decimal number counting system, without the zero, appear to be in use in Egypt.

≈3250 BC : The wheel is in use in Mesopotamia and Sumerian writing on clay tablets becomes a common practice.

≈3000 BC : The Sumerian writing evolves into cuneiform, the abacus is developed in the Middle East and in areas around the Mediterranean and hieroglyphic numerals are used in Egypt.

≈2900 BC : Sumerian medicine discovers the healing qualities of mineral springs and during the same period, the weaving loom is known in Europe.

≈2800 BC : Beginning of systematic astronomical observations in Egypt, Babylonia, India, and China. Egypt introduces a calendar of 365 days without adjustments.

≈2500 BC : Egyptian carvings depict existing techniques of surgery. In Egypt, papyrus becomes a common support and another way to make vegetal paper is rediscovered in China. It’s the beginning of the historical record of the Chinese civilisation.

≈2000 BC : The Egyptians introduce a form of contraceptive. Harappans adopt a uniform decimal system of weights and measures.

≈1900 BC : Four basic elements are known in India to describe material objects : Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, and it becomes the rational basis of the description of all forms of matter throughout the Middle East.

≈1800 BC : The Code of Hammurabi, who founds Babylonia, includes guidelines for permissible fees and medicale practices such as eye surgery. We can say that Hammurabi wrote the first “medical guidelines”.

≈1700 BC : In Crete, Minos palace has the first bathrooms with water supply. Irrigation system in Egypt systematically utilizes Nile floods.

≈1650 BC : Babylonia uses highly developed geometry as basis for astronomic measurements and creates the signs of the zodiac. During the same period, tin is discovered and added to copper in metal alloys.

≈1600 BC : From this period, medicinal bloodletting has been practice. Almost every ancient and modern culture has drawn blood to cure disease. Early cultures believed that illness was caused by evil spirits and that these could be removed by withdrawing blood from the patient. The earliest known illustration of the use of leeches for medicinal purposes is a painting in an Egyptian tomb.

≈1500 BC : The sundial is used in Egypt to measure the time of day by the sun’s shadow and hours are shorter in winter and longer in summer.


Fig.1 Most important advances in science during Antiquity (10000 – 1500 BC)

How does all this contribute to scientific advance?

In the course of this first period of scientific development, in a relatively small (compared to 13 billion years of earth evolution for example) time-frame of about 8500 years, man has greatly developed his skills to work the land and himself. He has understood basic principles of agriculture, writting and measuring (passing on knowledge) and has evolved into society-based cultures. All these steps along with many others not yet presented have contributed to the first advances in reasearch, and has helped man evolve from individual to society-driven interests.

Alone, man cannot hope to achieve greater knowledge. Only in collaboration with similar-minded individuals can the borders of knowledge be streched beyond the current status of affairs. Our power lies not only in numbers but in the communication and interactions between us as human beeings. Man is stronger in a group thanks to the common thoughts and ideas that push him further in the conquest of his humanity. Only in this manner can we hope to achieve greater knowledge and understanding.

Dr. Adrien and the Pharmacists

For more information regarding this series on The History of Science, follow farmacist.info and you will be the first to receive our exclusive teasers and interesting facts on the evolution of research and the most important discoveries in makinds history.


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