Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fjordman: A History of Astronomy, Part 1

Fjordman has begun a new series of essays called “A History of Astronomy”, and the first installment is at Jihad Watch. Some excerpts are below:

Note from Fjordman: This text is about the history of astronomy before Islam. I will deal with the history of astronomy after Islam in a separate text. This essay overlaps to a significant extent with my essay The Ancient Greeks and the Invention of Natural Philosophy, to some extent with my histories of astronomy in prehistoric Europe and of the calendar and to a much lesser extent with my history of geology.

In the Fertile Crescent agriculture was gradually established after 10,000 BC, with settlements at the Neolithic town of Jericho near the Dead Sea dating back to 9000 BC. The success of Chatal Huyuk or Çatalhöyük, a large site in Anatolia that existed from ca. 7200 to after 6000 BC, is thought to have resulted from its trade in the volcanic glass known as obsidian.

The greatest change in the history of the Near East and indeed the world came with a people called the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. During the Uruk period (ca. 4000 to 3100 BC), the Sumerians are credited with many “firsts” in human history, from the first writing system to the first monumental statues in an urban setting. Their origin is unknown and their language has no proven connection to any other language, living or dead, yet they produced lasting literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

There were other cities or proto-cities in the Fertile Crescent stretching from northern Mesopotamia into northern Syria, Anatolia and western Iran, but Uruk by 3300 BC contained a population of perhaps 40,000-50,000 people, gigantic compared to any other known settlement on the entire planet at that time. The “Uruk Expansion” during the fourth millennium BC spread its cultural influence to neighboring regions. With the growing complexity of society and the ensuing expansion of bureaucracy came the development of a system for recordkeeping which evolved into cuneiform script, the first true writing system.
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In the book Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, scholar Stefan Wimmer comments on the fact that in ancient Egypt in contrast to Mesopotamia, hieroglyphs emerged almost fully formed in the generations before the unification of the Egyptian state after 3100 BC. During this period a number of cultural characteristics similar to those of southern Mesopotamia such as cylinder seals and certain artistic motifs appeared in Egypt. In other words, we know that the Egyptians had contact with Mesopotamia just as this region was developing writing.

In Europe, the Minoans on Crete adopted a form of writing, probably inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs, after 2100 BC. Author Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel favors the concept of idea diffusion to explain why a numbers of societies from the Indus Valley in India to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean region developed writing within a short period of time after the Sumerians: “It would be a remarkable coincidence if, after millions of years of human existence without writing, all those Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies had just happened to hit independently on the idea of writing within a few centuries of each other.”

While I am sometimes critical of Mr. Diamond I agree with him in this case. Those who believe in an independent evolution of writing in Egypt and the Indus Valley will point to the fact that these writing systems do not outwardly resemble Sumerian proto-cuneiforms, but it remains possible that they imported the very concept of writing from nearby Mesopotamia. While ancient China was not as isolated as some Chinese historians like to claim, an independent development of writing here should nevertheless be considered as a possibility. If we assume that the Mayas and others in Mesoamerica had no significant contact with Eurasia then writing has been independently invented at least a couple of times in human history.

In his fine and well-researched book A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 — 323 BC, second edition, scholar Marc Van De Mieroop states that in Uruk, “a sexagesimal system, relying on units with increments of ten and six, was used to account for animals, humans, and dried fish, among other things. A bisexagesimal system, which diverges from the previous one as its units also show increments of two, was used for processed grain products, cheese, and fresh fish. Volumes of grain or surfaces of fields were measured differently.”

This sexagesimal (base 60) system was later adopted and passed on by the successive cultures that dominated Mesopotamia down to the ancient Persians and Greeks and from them on to us. We retain sexagesimal numbers today in our system for measuring time (60 minutes to an hour) and angles (60 minutes in a degree and 360 degrees in a circle), but it dates back in a straight line to the civilization of the ancient Sumerians more than five thousand years ago.

Read the rest at Jihad Watch.


Fjordman said...

Thank you for posting. This will be the first of at least three parts where I focus on the mathematical aspects of astronomy. I hope to post part two before or immediately after New Year's Eve. I will continue with a history of astrophysics and cosmology, with a special emphasis on the life-cycle of stars, in January 2010.

Anonymous said...

Fjordman, how old are you? I'm really curious because you said in a comment that you are young enough to witness the way this thing will unravel, which made me think you are in your late 20s or early 30s, but you have some interests that most people this age don't really have. I realize it's an odd question and irrelevant at that, but ever since I thought about it the first time, it doesn't let me go. lol. It's like one of those itches that no matter how much you scratch it, it won't go away.

I have to say that I randomly got over your old blog while searching something about rape an year and a bit or so ago and you really made me interested in all this mess. Maybe I would have had a happy life if it wasn't for you making me learn about things that worry me now, so you're part to blame and you should make up for it. :P

Fjordman said...

Vanilla: Maybe I will disclose my real name and identity some day, but for the time being I won't say anything more than that I'm Norwegian and male.

I wish all GoV readers, and of course the Baron and Dymphna in particular, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I will be back in business here in early January.

X said...

If, when all this is over and done with, it turns out that Fjordman is younger than I am I'm going to be very upset. So upset I'll barely be able to cry into my whisky.

I mean, he's already smarter. Probably more handsome too.

Oh well. Merry Christmas. God jul och gott nytt år everyone, I'm disappearing as well now. And Fjordman, keep up the good work, I look forward to reading your future essays.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Fjordman. I wasn't really interested in your identity, I just cared to know the first number in your age, but I understand why you wouldn't disclose it, considering I have written things less aggressive than you about Islam and got threats. :)

At least in my country, I don't have to worry about the police too. What a sad state of affairs.