Mythos 20 – Sumerian Legacy

 

The Sumerians left us a lot more than some odd stories that may or may not have happened a very long time ago. Most of modern mathematics and geometry can be traced to them. When the Macedonians and Greeks conquered Persia, they began studying the so-called Babylonian Mathematics. Many Babylonian mathematical texts still exist.(1)Asger Aaboe (1991) “The culture of Babylonia: Babylonian mathematics, astrology, and astronomy” in John Boardman et al. editors, The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C. In contrast to the scarcity of sources in Egyptian mathematics, our knowledge of Babylonian mathematics is derived from over 400 clay tablets unearthed since the 1850s.

Written in Cuneiform script, tablets were inscribed while the clay was moist, and baked hard in an oven or by the heat of the sun. The majority of recovered clay tablets date from 3,800 to 3,600 years ago, and cover topics that include fractions, algebra, quadratic and cubic equations and the Pythagorean theorem. The oldest of the clay tablets are in Sumerians and dating from around 5,000 years ago. From 4,600 years ago the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets and dealt with geometrical exercises and division problems.(2)Duncan J. Melville (2003) Third Millennium Chronology, Third Millennium Mathematics Each of the following can be traced back to Sumer and Akkad:

  • 30 days in a month

  • 12 months in a year

  • 360 degrees in a circle

  • 1 meter length (called a ĝiri or šēpu, meaning step)

  • 1 square meter area (called a gin or šiqlu, meaning shekel)

  • 1 liter volume (called a sila or qu, meaning bowl)

The modern meter was originally defined in 1793 as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. In 1889 it was redefined in terms of a prototype meter bar, and the actual bar used was subsequently changed twice in order to be more accurate.(3)Wilkins, J. (c. 2007) “An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. Metrication Matters It is odd that the Sumerians would have stumbled across a measure the same length, however would make sense if they had decided on the length of the ĝiri for the same reasons modern civilization decided on the length of the meter.

References   [ + ]

1. Asger Aaboe (1991) “The culture of Babylonia: Babylonian mathematics, astrology, and astronomy” in John Boardman et al. editors, The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C.
2. Duncan J. Melville (2003) Third Millennium Chronology, Third Millennium Mathematics
3. Wilkins, J. (c. 2007) “An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. Metrication Matters