The dominant archeological perspective gives us a good baseline as to what our ancient ancestors knew, but every so often a discovery comes along that challenges those theories. We can thank the late, great journalist George Plimpton for one artifact that has recently challenged that narrative, potentially setting back the history of mathematics and casting a new light on the ever-intriguing culture of the ancient Babylonians. That artifact known as Plimpton 322, is a cuneiform tablet that was purchased almost a century ago from the real-life Indiana Jones, and could potentially prove that the ancient Babylonians were the first civilization to understand trigonometry.
Plimpton 322 was dated between 1822-1762 BC, around the rule of King Hammurabi, and contains a reference chart with four columns and 15 rows, laying out a table of ratios of right-angled triangles. These triangles range in proportion from nearly a square to a near flat line. The table is thought to have been used for construction purposes and could provide insight as to how the ancient Babylonians were such skilled architects and engineers. The ziggurats, hanging gardens and novel urban planning of the ancient culture are signs of a mathematically adept civilization, so it should be unsurprising that they could have been the first to develop trigonometry.
Cuneiform is the oldest written language in the world, created by ancient Mesopotamian civilizations using wet clay that was etched into and then baked in the sun or ovens. Written in either Akkadian or Sumerian, the majority of these tablets were excavated by Edgar J. Banks who was an archeologist and antiquities dealer, also thought to be the archetype for the character of Indiana Jones. Banks is thought to have uncovered and sold thousands of cuneiform tablets toward the end of the Ottoman Empire. The one sold to Plimpton however, has been one of the most controversial, regarding its implications on the history of trigonometry, while thousands of other tablets remain in private collections and museums that could shed further light on the subject.
Plimpton 322 was excavated in what would have been the ancient city of Larsa and was originally thought to be a scribe’s tally sheet or inventory report for transactions at a marketplace. If the cuneiform translations of Plimpton 322 as a trigonometric table are true however, they would not only change the study’s provenance, but also be considered the world’s oldest completely accurate trigonometric table. If this is true it would add yet another layer of profound sophistication to an already oddly advanced ancient civilization.
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