The Evolution and Spread of Science and Philosophy from the Bronze Age to The Classical Age
Science in antiquity was at times devised to be useful and at other times to prove to the people that the gods looked favorably on the ruling class. Greek philosophers tell us a lot about how the ancient world developed. Or at least, they tell us a Western history of antiquity. Humanity began working with bronze some 7,000 years ago and the Bronze Age came in force in the centuries leading up to 3,000 BCE.
By then there were city-states and empires. The Mesopotamians brought us the wheel in around 3500 BCE, and the chariot by 3200 BCE. Writing formed in Sumeria, a city state of Mesopotamia, in 3000 BCE. Urbanization required larger cities and walls to keep out invaders. King Gilgamesh built huge walls. They used a base 60 system to track time, giving us the 60 seconds and 60 minutes to get to an hour. That sexagesimal system also gave us the 360 degrees in a circle. They plowed fields and sailed. And sailing led to maps, which they had by 2300 BCE. And they gave us the Epic, with the Epic of Gilgamesh which could be old as 2100 BCE. At this point, the Egyptian empire had grown to 150,000 square kilometers and the Sumerians controlled around 20,000 square kilometers.
Throughout, they grew a great trading empire. They traded with China, India and Egypt with some routes dating back to the fourth millennia BCE. And commerce and trade means the spread of not only goods but also ideas and knowledge. The earliest known writing of complete sentences in Egypt came to Egypt a few hundred years after it did in Mesopotamia, as the Early Dynastic period ended and the Old Kingdom, or the Age of the Pyramids. Perhaps over a trade route.
The ancient Egyptians used numerals, multiplications, fractions, geometry, architecture, algebra, and even quadratic equations. Even having a documented base 10 numbering system on a tomb from 3200 BCE. We also have the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, which includes geometry problems, the Egyptian Mathematical Leather Roll, which covers how to add fractions, the Berlin Papyrus with geometry, the Lahun Papyri with arithmetical progressions to calculate the volume of granaries, the Akhmim tablets, the Reisner Papyrus, and the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which covers algebra and geometry. And there’s the Cairo Calendar, an ancient Egyptian papyrus from around 1200 BCE with detailed astronomical observations. Because the Nile flooded, bringing critical crops to Egypt.
The Mesopotamians traded with China as well. As the Shang dynasty from the 16th to 11th centuries BCE gave way to the Zhou Dynasty, which went from the 11th to 3rd centuries BCE and the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, science was spreading throughout the world. The I Ching is one of the oldest Chinese works showing math, dating back to the Zhou Dynasty, possibly as old as 1000 BCE. This was also when the Hundred Schools of Thought began, which Conscious inherited around the 5th century BCE. Along the way the Chinese gave us the sundial, abacus, and crossbow. And again, the Bronze Age signaled trade empires that were spreading ideas and texts from the Near East to Asia to Europe and Africa and back again. For a couple thousand years the transfer of spices, textiles and precious metals fueled the Bronze Age empires.
Along the way the Minoan civilization in modern Greece had been slowly rising out of the Cycladic culture. Minoan artifacts have been found in Canaanite palaces and as they grew they colonized and traded. They began a decline around 1500 BCE, likely due to a combination of raiders and volcanic eruptions. The crash of the Minoan civilization gave way to the Myceneaen civilization of early Greece.
Competition for resources and land in these growing empires helped to trigger wars.
Those in turn caused violence over those resources. Around 1250 BCE, Thebes burned and attacks against city states cities increased, sometimes by emerging empires of previously disassociated tribes (as would happen later with the Vikings) and sometimes by other city-states. This triggered the collapse of Mycenaen Greece, the splintering of the Hittites, the fall of Troy, the absorption of the Sumerian culture into Babylon, and attacks that weakened the Egyptian New Kingdom. Weakened and disintegrating empires leave room for new players. The Iranian tribes emerged to form the Median empire in today’s Iran. The Assyrians and Scythians rose to power and the world moved into the Iron age. And the Greeks fell into the Greek Dark Ages until they slowly clawed their way out of it in the 8th century BCE. Around this time Babylonian astronomers, in the capital of Mesopomania, were making astronomical diaries, some of which are now stored in the British Museum.
Greek and Mesopotamian societies weren’t the only ones flourishing. The Indus Valley Civilization had blossomed from 2500 to 1800 BCE only to go into a dark age of its own. Boasting 5 million people across 1,500 cities, with some of the larger cities reaching 40,000 people - about the same size as Mesopotamian cities. About two thirds are in modern day India and a third in modern Pakistan, an empire that stretched across 120,000 square kilometers. As the Babylonian control of the Mesopotamian city states broke up, the Assyrians began their own campaigns and conquered Persia, parts of Ancient Greece, down to Ethiopia, Israel, the Ethiopia, and Babylon. As their empire grew, they followed into the Indus Valley, which Mesopotamians had been trading with for centuries.
What we think of as modern Pakistan and India is where Medhatithi Gautama founded the anviksiki school of logic in the 6th century BCE. And so the modern sciences of philosophy and logic were born. As mentioned, we’d had math in the Bronze Age. The Egyptians couldn’t have built pyramids and mapped the stars without it. Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t have built the Mesopotamian cities and walls and laws without it. But something new was coming as the Bronze Age began to give way to the Iron Age. The Indians brought us the first origin of logic, which would morph into an almost Boolean logic as Pāṇini codified Sanskrit grammar linguistics and syntax. Almost like a nearly 4,000 verse manual on programming languages. Panini even mentions Greeks in his writings. Because they apparently had contact going back to the sixth century BCE, when Greek philosophy was about to get started.
The Neo-Assyrian empire grew to 1.4 million square kilometers of control and the Achaeminid empire grew to control nearly 5 million square miles.
The Phoenicians arose out of the crash of the Late Bronze Age, becoming important traders between the former Mesopotamian city states and Egyptians. As her people settled lands and Greek city states colonized lands, one became the Greek philosopher Thales, who documented the use of loadstones going back to 600 BCE when they were able to use magnetite which gets its name from the Magnesia region of Thessaly, Greece. He is known as the first philosopher and in the time of Socrates even had become one of the Seven Sages which included according to Socrates. “Thales of Miletus, and Pittacus of Mytilene, and Bias of Priene, and our own Solon, and Cleobulus of Lindus, and Myson of Chenae, and the seventh of them was said to be Chilon of Sparta.”
Many of the fifth and sixth century Greek philosophers were actually born in colonies on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Thales’s theorum is said to have originated in India or Babylon. But as we see a lot in the times that followed, it is credited to Thales. Given the trading empires they were all a part of though, they certainly could have brought these ideas back from previous generations of unnamed thinkers. I like to think of him as the synthesizers that Daniel Pink refers to so often in his book A Whole New Mind.
Thales studied in Babylon and Egypt, bringing thoughts, ideas, and perhaps intermingled them with those coming in from other areas as the Greeks settled colonies…