Did You Know: How Egyptians Rocked the World of Science Long Before the Greeks

There is a commonly held modern view that a handful of Greeks from the sixth and fifth century B.C were the pioneer of modern science. It is undoubtedly true that they attempted to explain natural phenomena in nonreligious and rational ways and coined technical terms for them, and they passed their scientific ideological knowledge to the Roman and eventually in the fifth century after the fall of Rome, some groups of Medieval Arabic and European scholars were enriched with the fragments of Greek and Roman knowledge. However, well documented and definite version of Science existed long before Greeks, as can be found in Indian, Babylonian and Egyptian history. Very few ancient thinkers talked about the existence of the progression of knowledge from one age to another, readily accepting the idea that knowledge didn’t just grow out of nowhere, instead is the result of nourishing for ages and would one day be surpassed by the new exciting discoveries. In this segment I will mostly concentrate on the Egyptian endeavors and which is a lot.

Science is older than history, which for practical purposes began with the introduction of writing and record keeping. The first known systems of writing to emerge in the Mediterranean world were those of the Egyptians and Babylonians by the river Nile and Tigris-Euphrates respectively. They were the first people in that world, who created cities, national governments with sustainable governing services, large scale irrigation projects, working medical practices and interestingly long-term celestial observational records. The fancy story of Greek and Roman science and even religion began its journey in ancient Egypt and Babylonia.

Long before Herodotus, the so called father of History visited Egypt, the great Athenian lawgiver Solon traveled to the valley of Nile, where the Egyptian priests told him,

O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are never anything but children…. In mind you are all young; there is no opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age.

After a century, Herodotus visited Egypt and wrote in his famous Histories, that the Egyptians discovered the solar year and were the first to devide it into twelve parts. He also accepted that their method of calculation was better than that of the Greeks’. Greek mathematician Thales and even another great scientist Pythagoras are said to have visited Egypt and influenced and inspired by the level of learning. A great deal of modern scientific information related to the fields of mathematics, astronomy and medicine trickled down to Greeks from Egyptians. Solon’s hosts in the Egypt had been perfectly correct in asserting that when Greece was mere a young emerging civilization, Egypt had already seen twenty-five hundred years of eventful advancements including those gigantic pyramids at Giza (ca 2600-2500 B.C).

The one of the most important contributions Egyptians made in the field of mathematical systems with their magnificent record keeping technology and of course the numerals. Here I will discuss their other ideas and understanding of concepts about Astronomy and Medical science as well.


Numerals and counting system: Well before they started working on those eye-catching pyramids, The Egyptians had a well developed mathematical system. Their counting system was decimal in form and had signs for 1, 10, 100, 1000, 10000 and 100000. To express a certain number, they simply repeated the corresponding signs as many times as they needed. It was pretty straight forward and Romans as well followed the same in their own numerals with some modifications. For example, to express 386959, they wrote the signs for 100000 thrice, 10000 eight times, 1000 six times, 100 nine times, 10 five times, and 1 nine times, which is a pretty long representation at the end. In my previous blog entries Part I and Part II you can find detailed discussions about Egyptian’s mathematics. However, they also discerned certain relationships among numbers such as, they realized that squares of 3 and 4 add up to the square of 5 and this particular ratio creates a right triangle. Almost everywhere, in ancient Egyptian large-scale engineering projects, this ratio can be found with amazing precision. The sides of the base of the Great Pyramid, built by Pharaoh Khufu are each 756 feet long and enclose an area of thirteen acres. Surprisingly this immense construction, built with whatever ancient technology they had at that time, is less than eight inches short of forming a perfect square; and though the pyramid originally towered to a height of 481 feet, a vertical line passing through its apex would miss being perfectly perpendicular to its base by a mere half inch.

Writing and record keeping system: Invention of writing system was probably the most significant contribution to the modern science by Egyptians. Literary reproductions were too long to be chiseled on stone or metal and inconvenient and expensive as well. A cheaper means of medium was needed for their oral preservation. Ancient Egyptians marveled in this arena by the invention of Papyrus. Made of the pith of the stem of a tall sedge (Cyperous Papyrus), the Papyrus was a good and cheap writing material. The pith was cut into longitudinal strips, and then arranged crosswise in two or three layers, soaked, pressed and burnished until smooth. The Egyptians also invented various kinds of pigments for the ink and fine brush made of a thin rush to write with.

Astronomy: Egyptians had their own ways of understanding about the astronomy, although not very scientific, but more practically suited for their social needs. For practical purposes they devised both lunar and solar calendars. The lunar version was formulated first and was a twelve month based on the cycles of the moon’s phases, each cycle lasting about 29.5 days. However, when in lunar calendar, twelve months of 29.5 days adds up to a total of 354 days, gradually they sometimes lost a true year. Eventually  they switched to solar calendar based on the movements of the stars. They observed that the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (they called it Sothis), appeared to move through the heavens (night sky) in cycles lasting 365 days each. Because this figure corresponded nearly exactly to the combined length of the seasons, they built their calendar around the rising of Sirius at a specific fixed point on the horizon once in every year.

The Egyptian view of the heavens, as painted on a mummy case.
The Egyptian view of the heavens, as painted on a mummy case

However, for the most part Egyptians view of the sky was very simple and straightforward, leading to religious beliefs and superstitions. Scholar and historian Colin Ronan writes,

… to them the heavens were the body of the goddess Nut standing on all fours, the earth the reclining god Qeb, with the air god Shu helping to support Nut in her uncomfortable and inelegant position. The sun and the moon floated over Nut’s body back in boats. Of the planets, no definite scheme appears to have emerged, and there was no mathematical description or analysis of their motions.

Egyptians also believed that each of these celestial objects of light (stars and planets in the night sky) was a manifestation of the ba, the part of a dead person’s soul that left the grave and ascended into the sky. This is why, the ceilings of the corridors and chambers of many tombs and pyramids, feature paintings of stars and text placed inside some tombs, contained pleas for Nut to ensure that the souls of those buried within made safe eternal journeys into the sky.


Medicine: Egyptian medical practice was pretty much matured as early as 2000 B.C. Medical papyri from that period contained information from texts hundreds of year older. Imhotep, the physician and adviser of Pharaoh Djoser (ca. 2667-2648 B.C.) was credited for founding their medical tradition and later worshiped as the patron deity of the healing arts. Like their astronomical understanding, Egyptians had a very simple and primitive framework of medical concepts driven by the divine and other mystical intervention. For example, they believed that a sick person was possessed by an evil spirit or demon that a physician hold be able to drive out of the body using herbs and drugs. Another incorrect medical assumptions they had was that the heart, instead of the brain, influenced thinking and personality; which we still attribute to this date in our formal conversations. They also believed that bodily fluids such as urine and semen constantly circulates like blood throughout the body.

Despite their limited knowledge, the Egyptians developed an impressive medical establishment highlighted by skilled doctors (called sinw), including both general practitioners and specialists with detailed diagnosis of illness and surgical techniques. The so called Edwin Smith Papyrus (ca 1600 B.C.) describes forty eight case histories dealing with broken bones, dislocations and other conditions. In each case, the symptoms were carefully listed, and viable treatments were prescribed. Although the author of the text had little knowledge of anatomy, he simply understood that the pulse was tied into blood circulation and the working of the heart. According to the papyrus, a doctor can use his fingers…

…to recognize the way the heart goes. There are vessels in it leading to every part of the body…When a Sekhmet priest [a surgeon], [or] any sinw doctor…puts his fingers to the head…to the two hands, to the place of the heart…it speaks…in every vessel, in every part of the body….

The author’s astute observation of the symptoms of a brain injury goes like,

If you examine someone having a gaping wound in the head, penetrating to the bone… and rending open the brain of the skull, you should palpate [touch] the wound. You should find…something in there throbbing and fluttering under your fingers, like the weak place of an infant’s crown before it becomes whole…and that the patient will discharge blood from both nostrils, and suffer with stiffness in the neck.

Archaeologists and historians had found and translated quite a lot of other medical texts as well: among which one useful surviving medical texts was the Kahun Papyrus (ca 1825 B.C.) which deals with women’s ailments and discusses effective methods of contraception. The Berlin papyrus (ca 1550 B.C.) contains the earliest known pregnancy test and the famous Ebers Papyrus (ca 1350 B.C) lists hundreds of prescriptions and remedies for complaints ranging from open wounds to stomach pains, diabetes to asthma, and birth control to small skin irritations. Even our cancer research dates back to the Ebers papyrus: recounting a “tumor against the god Xenus”, it recommends “do thou nothing there against”.


I finish with a quote from the Ebers Papyrus,

When his heart is afflicted and has tasted sadness, behold his Heart is closed in and darkness is in his body because of anger which is eating up his Heart.

Here is an interesting piece of interlinear transliteration and English translation of portions of the Ebers Papyrus for interested readers.

Source: Greek and Roman Science (World History Series) by Don Nardo


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