What the Ancients Did for Us


A general view of the Uruk archaeological site at Warka in Iraq / Photo by SAC Andy Holmes (RAF), Wikimedia Commons

Did you know the ancient Greeks measured the circumference of the earth, invented robots and the first computer?


Ancient China

Along the River during the Qingming Festival, detail of the original version showing wooden bridge, by Zhang Zeduan (12th century) / Wikimedia Commons

China is the fastest growing economy on earth. One in four of every person on the planet is Chinese, and Shanghai is six times the size of London, offering a home to twenty million people. But while China is developing rapidly now, the Chinese civilization is one of the oldest surviving in the world.

The ancient Chinese thought they were at the center of universe. Cut off from the rest of the world for centuries the Chinese developed a unique culture, and made many technological, scientific and artistic advances long before the West.

To pay for this delicacy, they came up with paper money, printing with moveable type and a unified system of weights and measures. To move all their goods they invented canals, and the unique segmented arched bridge.

To protect their new borders they discovered gunpowder, exploding bombs, paper armor, flamethrowers and the kite. To advance their culture they made the first seismograph and highly efficient double action piston bellow. For pure beauty they gave spun silk, created the firework and lacquer – the world’s first plastic. And, finally, for fun they gave us the beautiful game – football.

Ancient India

India is one of the oldest and richest civilizations in the world. It is home to the world’s first planned cities, where every house had its own bathroom and toilet five thousand years ago. The Ancient Indians have not only given us yoga, meditation and complementary medicines, but they have furthered our knowledge of science, maths – and invented Chaturanga, which became the game of chess.

According to Albert Einstein, they “taught us how to count”, as they invented the numbers 1-9 and ‘zero’, without which there would be no computers or digital age. Unfairly we call this system of counting Arabic numbers – a misplaced credit.

Two thousand years ago the Indians pioneered plastic surgery, reconstructing the noses and ears on the faces of people who had been disfigured through punishment or warfare. They performed eye operations such as cataract removal and invented inoculation to protect their population from Smallpox, saving thousands of lives.

To create images of their gods they invented a technique of casting bronze called ‘Lost Wax’, a five-millennia old process still in use today. India was one of the first civilizations to successfully extract Iron from ore and they quickly learnt how to cast huge structures with it – some of them surviving. Their metallurgists went on to invent steel which they called Wotz. Although apparently mentioned in Beowulf, it would take the British until the 19th century to rediscover same substance.

In 1790 the Indians defeated the British Army in the battle of Pollilur with a secret invention – the rocket. The British eventually stole the idea and used it against Napoleon’s fleet.

But perhaps the most important invention the Indians have given us is cotton. 3500 years ago whilst we were lumbering around in animal skins and itchy wool they were cultivating a plant and weaving it into a material that would revolutionize Britain. They also pioneered the printing and dyeing of cotton in a staggering array of colors and invented the spinning wheel – something Europe wouldn’t catch up with until the Middle Ages. The mechanization of this simple device by Hargreaves and Arkwright led to the industrial revolution and turned Britain into a superpower.

Ancient Mesopotamia

A large cuneiform inscription found on the south side of the Van Castle hill, four kilometers west of modern-day Van, in eastern Turkey. It’s several meters tall and wide, 25 centuries old and the message comes from the Persian king Xerxes. / Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons

There has always been a great debate as to who kicked off civilization: was it the Egyptians, the Greeks or the Romans? Well, actually, none of them did. Human history began in the great alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, with its rich and immensely fertile soil: a land known as Mesopotamia. The people that dwelled here eight thousand years ago had learned to irrigate the land with canals and ditches, and were keen farmers. From this came plenty, which relieved man of the need to fight for survival. The Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations flourished here in an area stretching from modern Turkey, to western Syria, and Iraq.

But what did they do for us? For a start, they invented writing, with the oldest book, the epic of ‘Gilgamesh’, written around 4,500 years ago. They also gave us the first written laws – apparently to restrain ‘drunkenness’ in the population; a side effect of another of their innovations, beer.

They invented brick, which they produced in millions to build the first cities and their ‘Ziggurat’ temples. In warfare they gave us the first professional army and invented the tank or siege engine, and it was here that the wheel was invented; and then the chariot in 4,000 BC.

They observed the movement of the stars, and created the Zodiac, thereby being responsible for both astrology and astronomy.

The list goes on – the reed boat and the sail, glass blowing… They even came up with the electric battery, although no one is quite sure what they did with it.

Ancient Egypt

The agricultural lands were irrigated by the water of the Nile River and its canals. / Creative Commons

Egypt became a unified country five thousand years ago and – until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC – remained a fiercely independent land with its own very distinctive art, religion and culture. Egypt was the superpower of its day and her kings were treated as demigods throughout the Mediterranean world – but what did they do for us?

It goes without saying they gave us mummies and mummification, and one of the great wonders of the ancient world – the pyramids. On a more practical level they invented the sewn plank boat, a method of boat construction using wooden pegs and fiber rope – no nails. Huge boats were built using this technique, the most famous one belonging to King Khufu, the builder of the great pyramid in 2500 BC. The recent discovery of a Bronze Age boat in Britain reveals that this method of construction had found its way here and could have influenced our own boat builders.

Trying to control the flood water of the Nile, the Egyptians built the first dam, a huge undertaking which unfortunately didn’t survive a severe flash flood.

Technology and tool-making are high up on the list of Egyptian inventiveness. To speed up the smelting of bronze they invented the foot bellows and devised the multiple headed drill – a drill that could cut through at least three beads at the same time.

As a spin-off from their bead and jewellery making, the Egyptians came up with faience, an attractive glazing material made from quartzite; they quickly put it to use for pottery and tile making. The Egyptians adored decoration and although they didn’t invent glass-making they developed the technique to produce highly colorful glass objects; these were highly prized by the wealthy.

With royalty in mind they gave us the wig, make-up and wonderful clothing, and to keep all this safe they came up with the first lock. To pass the time of day they invented fishing as a hobby and the folding stool to sit on whilst waiting for that bite.

And last but not least the Egyptians liked to keep meticulous records and invented paper from the papyrus plant. It’s a wonderful material with long fibers and can also be used for basketry, sandals and rope.

Ancient Greece

The palaestra of Olympia, a place devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes / Photo by Bgabel, Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Greek civilization flourished for about a thousand years, not as a unified country but rather as a loose association of city states, both on the mainland of Greece and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. The philosopher Plato described the states as being like a series of frogs sitting around a pond. Although the Greeks drew on the ideas of various earlier civilizations, they were the people who, more than any other, handed down to us the foundations of our democracy, our notions of ethics and justice, our science, our mathematics and our music.

But it mustn’t be forgotten that the Greeks were a warlike lot and in order to pursue their territorial ambitions they invented some deadly weapons – for instant take the bow and arrow. Aware of its limitations and short range they mechanized it like a giant cross bow. It was loaded by bearing down on it with your whole body weight and it became known as the Belly Bow. The Greeks also invented the catapult and designed monster machines that could throw huge pieces of ammunition crushing their hapless opponents. Archimedes is reputed to have built a solar powered death ray which could set ablaze any enemy ships that came in range. In wartime communications between allies is vital so they came up with telegraphy and later semaphore.

To keep their troops in the peak of fitness they invented the Olympic games of 776 BC and built wonderful stadiums to hold them in. To keep the sport fair they also invented the starting gate which was based on a torsion mechanism. To keep things fair in politics they encouraged democracy and invented Jury Allotment Machines – a clever device designed to select people for jury service which aimed to cut out the possibility of corruption. When it came to having fun they gave us drama, acting, stage sets, literature and built wonderful outdoor theaters. They also invented the first Robots to amuse and baffle the audiences, and to raise their spirits they listened to the Water Organ, a machine that claims the first known use of compressed air.

But perhaps their most amazing invention is the first known computer. This was a small box stuffed with cogs and moving parts all skillfully made and by turning a handle it would display the movements of planets to an astonishing degree of accuracy -in fact it was a planetarium.

Ancient Rome

Interior of the Pantheon in Rome / Photo by Wknight94, Wikimedia Commons

The city of Rome was founded on the banks of the Tiber in 753 BC and for a thousand years the western world was ruled from within its walls. To support this vast Empire the Romans created complex infrastructure and used the techniques of mass production, centuries before the industrial revolution.

For a start they created the first professional, salaried army and invented fearsome war machines. To move around the Empire they constructed thousands of miles of roads – and we find out what it actually takes to build one of these.

They built ampitheaters and race tracks and in the process brought gladiatorial games and equine sport to every corner of their empire.

They pioneered the mass production of glass and double glazing, and created enormous aqueducts that fed water from distant sources into the heart of their cities and bath houses, created clever heating systems, and flushing toilets. They produced vast quantities of marble veneer to clad their cities and recent evidence suggests they cut the stone using multiple bladed water-powered saws. To move such heavy material they constructed cranes and invented the first ball-bearings.

But perhaps their one invention that has had the biggest impact on the modern world more than anything else is concrete, they used it everywhere from houses to bridges, (it would set hard under water), and without it they couldn’t have built the Pantheon and its vast domed roof – unsurpassed in size until the 19th century.

Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome

Roman surgical instruments found at Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons

The Greeks combined dietetics, medicines, surgery and regulating the whole life-style in their treatment of ailments. Diet, or regimen – in the broad sense of the whole lifestyle – was the first resort. Individuals were advised on how to live in order to remain healthy. Training for the army and athletic competition (such as the Olympics) similarly focused on regulation of food and drink, exercise, bathing and massage. In line with this ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach, On the Nature of Man, one of over 70 texts attributed to Hippocrates , suggested that there were four humours. These must stay in balance if the person is to be healthy, and they are affected not only by the person’s lifestyle but also by external factors such as the seasons, the climate and the place where someone lives. Surgery remained the last resort, but surgical skills were developed on the battlefield and, by the great doctor Galen, in the gladiatorial arena.

Between lifestyle and surgery lay a huge range of medicines made mostly from plant substances. Many drugs were purges, intended to evacuate any humoral excess. Lists of remedies would often include readily-available options as well as more exotic spices, thus catering for different patients’ purses.

A religious healing system, the cult of Asklepios (a Greek god of healing), had begun in Greece by at least the eighth century BCE, and by the third century BCE it had spread to Rome, then throughout the Roman empire, as the cult of Aesculapius. As the cult spread, the original shrines developed into great spa complexes with hostels, baths, gymnasia and theaters growing up around the healing waters of the thermal or mineralized springs. Healing took place by ‘incubation’, in which the pilgrim slept and dreamed that the god gave advice on how to cure the disease. However, doctors were also on the staff at healing shrines.

The Roman penchant for bathing, which could take an entire afternoon and include a massage and having your eyebrows plucked, as well as your sauna and swim, may account for the continuing popularity of the Greek spas. Excavations of Roman towns and military forts have uncovered baths and flushing toilets. A good water supply was provided via aqueducts, although the extent to which these were associated with hygiene, in our sense of the word, remains a topic of academic debate.

The first buildings for housing the sick were the Roman military hospitals (valetudinaria) constructed in forts across the empire. These hospitals, such as the one at Chester, were designed with small rooms opening off a corridor around a square or rectangular courtyard and primarily cared for the sick, rather than those injured on the battlefield. There is still debate over whether all buildings of this shape were hospitals, or whether the rooms were storerooms.

The Romans made use of home remedies, such as Cato’s universal panacea, the cabbage, for which he describes endless uses, both internal and external, from a hangover cure to treatment for wounds and sores. Dioscorides’ De materia medica (On Medicines) gave detailed descriptions of how to harvest, prepare, store and test for contamination of medicinal herbs and continued in use well into the Renaissance.

Midwives were highly respected in Roman society and those servicing elite households were either slaves or freedwomen (ex-slaves). Soranus’ Gynaecology, the first surviving medical text concerned with obstetrics, describes various methods for assisting childbirth. He described the use of a birthing stool, a four-legged stool with arm and back supports as well as a crescent-shaped opening for delivery of the baby.

Doctors were often either slaves or foreigners, who were exempt from military service and taxation, and were attached to a household, independent or paid by the town. But by the second century CE wealthy free individuals such as the Greek Galen (c.129-c.216 CE), who eventually practiced in Rome, were merging practical medicine with philosophy. Galen’s observations of anatomy were based on animal dissections and vivisections, which he then used to interpret human anatomy. His first anatomical observations of humans were made during his time as a gladiators’ surgeon, where the gaping wounds resulting from combat provided windows into the internal structure of the human body. He also studied the bodies in roadside catacombs.

After Galen’s death his ideas were simplified and became the basis of medicine up to the Renaissance. In particular, his focus on the four humors was merged with other ‘fours’, including the elements, qualities, seasons and age groups.

The Britons

A lot of people still think that we were just woad-covered savages before the Romans came along. Well, we weren’t – firstly we weren’t covered in woad but dressed in a rather elegant new-fangled invention – trousers; more importantly we were organized, spiritual, technologically advanced Brits with European business connections – all without towns and cities or being able to read and write!

The people of Britain progressed from Stone Age hunters to Iron Age warriors. From early people who used animal bone picks to dig mines to a society skilled in the use of metallurgy, bronze, iron and gold. From a nomadic existence to a society organized into tribes with their own coinage and identities. From farmers using simple wooden ploughs to ferocious warriors driving thousands of chariots and repulsing the invading Roman army of Julius Caesar.

The Islamic World

Ibn Umail describes a statue of a sage holding the tablet of ancient alchemical knowledge. Illustration from a transcript of Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi’s book Al-mâ’ al-waraqî (The Silvery Water), Islamic miniature probably from Baghdad / Wikimedia Commons

The rise of Islam is one of the most important events in world history. In the 7th century, Mohammed’s intention was to unite the divided Arabs through a new religion. A century after his death, he’d succeeded in producing a medieval superpower. The Arabs and Moors had spread through Spain towards the Pyrenees. Cordoba became renowned as one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Europe. Moorish cities such as Toledo and Seville were famed for their new culture and universities.

The early Muslims are credited with inventing distillation and could distil just about anything – from alcohol to perfume. Hygiene is very important in the Muslim world so they invented and manufactured soap – centuries before the West – and hundreds of bathhouses were built throughout Muslim cities. They understood the fundamentals of light and how we see, and gave us the camera obscura. They invented algebra and worked out the angle of the tilt of the earth. They built the first windmill, pioneered the concept of the crank rod, and designed the first ever torpedo. Muslim creativity also led to the invention of a unique instrument called the astrolabe – it could find the direction of Mecca, tell the time and, with the help of the stars, navigate you across deserts and oceans. But perhaps most important of all they pursued the cause of knowledge, translating and preserving the works of the ancients and building the world’s largest libraries – their ‘houses of wisdom’.

The Aztecs, Maya, and Inca

El Castillo (pyramid of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá / Photo by Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

These three peoples lived in a vast area of modern-day Central and South America which incorporates coastal strips, hot and steamy jungles, savannah grassland and cold windy highlands. Though they spoke different languages, they had broadly similar cultures and they worshiped many of the same gods (although they gave them different names). They all used digging sticks, ate maize and beans, respected the number 13 and practiced human sacrifice. Interestingly, although they developed the wheel as a toy, for some reason they didn’t adapt it for other purposes.

The Aztecs built their settlement in a swamp in what is now Mexico City and when the Spanish arrived they thought it more spectacular than Venice. The Aztecs were fantastic warriors but they were also excellent farmers: because they had stumbled on hydroponics, their floating fields produced an abundance of nutrients in the food they were growing.

The Mayas built some of the tallest buildings of the ancient world – without the use of the wheel, or even horses. The pyramid El Castillo in Chichen Itza is the Mayan calendar, literally set in stone. Each staircase has 91 steps which, when added to the single step at the main entrance to the temple, totals 365 steps. At sunset on the spring equinox, the great serpents’ heads at the foot of the main staircase are joined to their tails by a “body” of shadow. They developed a very accurate calendar that could predict solar and lunar eclipses, transits of Venus and – most importantly – the coming of the rains and the time to plant.

These people – known collectively as Mesoamericans – have been processing rubber and latex for over 3500 years (imagine a world without rubber or chewing gum) and they also invented the rubber ball and used it in their deadly ball game where the losing team would be sacrificed.

As an alternative to iron these inventive people made their knives, spears and arrow heads from Obsidian, an extremely sharp stone. Nowadays, surgeons use Obsidian instead of steel scalpels.

They understood the healing power of the rain forest and its plants – amazingly three quarters of all our medicine comes from plants – and in their hands, the wild yam formed the basis of world’s first birth control pill. They understood quinine and many European settlers preferred to attend the local Aztec healer rather than their own doctor.

More than half the foods we eat originated in the New World, including potatoes, tomatoes, maize and turkey. But there was one thing that the Aztecs loved above all: chocolate. To them, the cacao bean was so precious they used it as their currency.

Because the Incas lived in the mountains of South America and had to cross very deep ravines they invented the world’s first suspension bridges espite not having hemp or sisal ropes. They made their bridges out of twisted fibers of long stemmed grass, another amazing feat of ingenuity from an inspired region.


Originally published by The Open University, 01.01.2005, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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