Babylonian Achievements Revealed After 3,700-Year-Old Tablet Deciphered

Babylonian tablets contain amazing mathematical information. (Image: via wikimedia)

Plimpton 332, an ancient Babylonian tablet, has always been an object of fascination for archaeologists since its contents remained undeciphered for much of history. Discovered in Southern Iraq in the early 1900s by American archaeologist Edgar Banks, the tablet is estimated to be 3,700 years old. In 2017, a team of researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, shocked the world by deciphering the tablet. The 3,700-year-old tablet contained one of the most accurate trigonometric tables in the world.  

Babylonian mathematics

“Our research reveals that Plimpton 322 describes the shapes of right-angle triangles using a novel kind of trigonometry based on ratios, not angles and circles… It is a fascinating mathematical work that demonstrates undoubted genius. The tablet not only contains the world’s oldest trigonometric table, it is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry,” Dr. Daniel Mansfield of the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the UNSW Faculty of Science said in a statement (The Telegraph).

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Receive selected content straight into your inbox.

Hipparchus from ancient Greece, who lived around 120 B.C., was believed to be the father of trigonometry since his “table of chords” was the oldest trigonometric table ever discovered. However, Plimpton 332 changes the history of trigonometry radically. Since the tablet precedes Hipparchus by more than a thousand years, it can be safely said that ancient Babylonians were far more advanced than anyone has estimated.

Panorama view of the reconstructed Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, 6th century BC, Babylon, Iraq. (Image: Dr. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)
Panorama view of the reconstructed Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, 6th century B.C., Babylon, Iraq. (Image: Dr. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

The trigonometry we use today is based on a number system with a base of 10. In contrast, Babylonians used a sexagesimal system for their calculations, which had a base of 60. This was adopted by the Babylonians since 60 can easily be divided by three, therefore making calculations much more accurate. In some aspects, Babylonian trigonometry is actually better than the trigonometry we use today!

“It opens up new possibilities, not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education. With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own. A treasure-trove of Babylonian tablets exists, but only a fraction of them have been studied yet. The mathematical world is only waking up to the fact that this ancient but very sophisticated mathematical culture has much to teach us,” Norman Wildberger, Associate Professor at UNSW, said in a statement (Newsroom).

Contributions of Babylonian civilization

Mathematics was not the only area the Babylonians were proficient in. Much of the ancient world’s foundational knowledge can be attributed to Babylonia.

The civilization gave the world its first codified law, as mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi. The laws were engraved in a stone 8 feet high that was erected in the temple dedicated to the God Marduk. Hammurabi’s law basically followed an “eye for an eye” principle. So if anyone was convicted of murder, they would be given the death penalty.

Babylonians also laid down the foundation of Western astrology and astronomy. They are the first known people to possess a functional knowledge of how planets worked. Astrology was largely used by Babylonians to decipher the will of the Gods.

Babylonians laid the foundation for Western astrology. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The zodiac we know today and its 12 signs can be traced back to the Babylonians. They had the knowledge of Saros cycles and eclipse cycles. Babylonians recorded astronomical observations with great reverence generation after generation, which allowed them to predict future cyclic events with great accuracy.

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our weekly email

Recommended Stories

White radishes.

Foods to Keep Your Lungs Healthy in Winter

The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which originated in Wuhan, is spreading fast. Apart from preventive measures ...

A black hole consuming its companion star.

Black Holes Eat Stars in Variable Mood Lighting

When a black hole chews up a star, it produces visible light or X-rays, but ...

A black hole near a red giant star.

Scientists May Have Just Discovered a New Class of Black Holes

Black holes are an important part of how astrophysicists make sense of the universe — ...

A young Chinese girl wearing a mask.

Liberation From the Wuhan Epidemic

The Wuhan coronavirus epidemic in mainland China is spreading across the land at an alarming ...

A patient with caronavius.

China Coronavirus Could Trigger Pandemic: Harvard Epidemiologist

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, a Harvard epidemiologist and health economist, has warned that the Chinese coronavirus ...

Chinese wearing masks.

How Is the Coronavirus Spreading Across the Globe?

The first case of a novel strain of coronavirus has been confirmed in the United ...

Chiang Kai-shek.

How Formal Education in China Was Ruined by Communism

Before 1949, Chinese society, especially university education in China under the Republic of China, enjoyed ...

Dominic Barton.

Canada’s Ambassador to China Says Relations Chilled After Huawei Executive’s Arrest

Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, recently testified before the special House of Commons committee ...

A young Chinese boy.

A Sordid Tale of Raising a Child in Communist China

Kirsty Needham is a journalist who works as the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning ...

Send this to a friend