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Babylonian tablet predicts the path of Jupiter 1,400 years before telescopes existed

A historian has decoded a series of trapezoidal figures on a mysterious ancient Babylonian astronomical tablet . Upon analysis of the tablet, it has been concluded that the Babylonian astronomers had calculated the motions of Jupiter using an ancient form of geometric calculation .

Keep in mind that this is approximately 1,400 years earlier than this type of mathematics has been thought to have been invented by Europeans. Its precepts “anticipate the use of similar techniques by medieval European scholars by at least fourteen centuries,” said the translation’s author, astroarchaeologist Matthieu Ossendrijver of Berlin’s Humboldt University.

The Science Alert portal points out: “This means that ancient Mesopotamian astronomers had not only discovered how to predict the trajectory of Jupiter more than 1,000 years before the first telescopes existed, but were also using mathematical techniques that would form the basis of modern calculus as we know it now.

The trapezoidal geometric figures that appear on the Babylonian cuneiform tablets , preserved in the British Museum, «are geometric in a different sense, since they describe configurations, not in a physical space as the Greeks did, but in an abstract mathematical space defined by time and speed or daily commute.


Cuneiform tablet next to a trapezoidal geometric figure. The distance traveled by Jupiter after 60 days is 10º 45′, a calculation obtained through the area of ​​the trapezoid. The trapezoid was divided into two parts to calculate half the distance traveled by Jupiter. Credits: Trustees of the British Museum / Mathieu Ossendrijver.

This is a great discovery , the tablet is one of more than a hundred that were found in an excavation during the 19th century. Anthropologists and archaeologists have been working for almost a century trying to decode them all. They date from around 100 or 200 BC .

Ancient astronomical techniques

The tablet shows that ancient astronomers used time to calculate the speed and distance of a celestial object. It turns out that the Babylonians were plotting the path of Jupiter in a specific amount of time.

Tokens found in the supposed tomb of the Scorpion King, at Abydos. Credit: Juan de la Torres Suárez/Egyptomania

Although they looked like primitive drawings, like those found in other expressions of ancient art, Dreyer believed there was more to it. Using hieroglyphics as a guide, they wanted to show that the figures were actually symbols and represented the most ancient writing system .

Thus, taking the card with the figure of an elephant on some mountains and adding a phonetic value of a hieroglyph, the elephant would represent the sound «Ab» and the mountains the sound «Yu». Together, they represent the syllables “Ab-Yu”, which means Abydos


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