Medicine, mathematics, and astronomy in Ancient Mesopotamia
Natural sciences started developing in Ancient Mesopotamia at around the middle of the fourth millennium BC (Speiser, 1942, p.160). The explorations that were done in the area of biblical Erech, around the area surrounded by Euphrates river as well as metropolis of Ur (Speiser, 1942, p.160). Most of the knowledge that humanity has about the scientific achievements of Mesopotamia came from cuneiform texts, both in Akkadian and Babylonian, that were translated (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 288). Mathematics, medicine, and astronomy developed in Ancient Mesopotamia and with that affected the development of natural sciences in other states like Egypt of that time.
Though it is excellent that medicine started developing in Mesopotamia, however, it was much different from the one that we have now. There were primarily two medical traditions practiced. One was the scientific school, and the other was the practical school (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 290). There was a big difference between these two medical approaches. For example, in the “practical school,” there was no expectation that the “doctor” shall first in an objective manner examine the patient and only then prescribe any medication. There was a list of symptoms that the “doctor” had, and depending on which one of these that patient has, the “doctor” would decide how to treat the patient. In the “scientific schools,” symptoms are not necessarily considered to be a reason for a particular treatment to be prescribed. They considered symptoms as signs that tell the “doctor” what kind of a disease the patient has. The “doctor” needed this info to understand what kind of magic to apply (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 294).
In terms of magical-medical texts from the “scientific tradition” treatment in the Ancient Mesopotamia, the ‘rubbing’ ritual is known from the tablet called Muššuu (Böck 2003, p.1). Magical formulas are included in the treatment process. These are done to treat a person from “Evil Utukku demons.” This treatment/ritual was also done in case of a headache, which was characterized as “Grave disease.” Certain parts of these treatment rituals were performed for prophylactic reasons, as well. For example, one of the instructions included in the ritual was to read out loud “Fierce fire,” and they rub knee and foot from the left side. This was rubbing therapy ((Böck 2003, p.8).
The translations of cuneiform text regarding medicine in Ancient Mesopotamia, provide information about the herbs, medical instruments, and treatment methods. In the cuneiforms texts, the word šammū, meaning herbs, comes as equivalent to the word medicine (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 292). This is important to understand the usage of natural resources in medical procedures. Herbs (e.g., roots, stems, leaves, fruits), parts of animals were used in different forms (e.g., dry, fresh, sifted, soaked, boiled) to perform various functions depending on the case of the illness that the patient has (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 292). There are not many medical instruments mentioned in the cuneiform tablets. This might mean that surgeries were not performed as treatment are they were not a common practice. Sources for all of the information mentioned about are translations of three cuneiform tablets that are called Uruanna (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 292).
Achievements in mathematics in Ancient Mesopotamia played a significant role in the development of their economy. It is claimed that it was developed primarily to stimulate the economy (Speiser, 1942, p.159). This mainly referred to as the political system practiced in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In this case, Mesopotamia was more welcoming for scientific progress. Though, for the sake of objectivity in the, if we look back to more than five thousand years ago, it becomes evident that Egypt also had a significant role in the development of mathematics.
Assurbanipal, in his inscriptions, writes about his achievements in understanding mathematics and being able to read and understand old texts (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 306). In praising himself, he mentions that he can do complicated calculations (e.g., multiplication, factors, coefficient, administrative accounting, property division). The information about the mathematical achievements of Ancient Mesopotamia come to be known from transacted versions cuneiform texts. These texts are divided into two parts. One refers to problem texts, and the other one refers to the tables used for multiplication. These tables are both for counting squares and cubes as well as roots and exponential functions (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 306).
The development of the Mesopotamian astronomy happened after certain mathematical achievements are made. More than a millennium later astronomy becomes prominent (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 292). Scholars become interested in how the stars are places, the movements of planets, how long the day is, how the changes in the length of the day depending on the season happen, and how to calculate all of that via observation. This was how mathematics was introducing in the world of astronomy. These developments affected not only Mesopotamia but also its neighbors. Considering this new trend, in the early Old Babylonian period, prayers that refer to stars appear (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 308).
One of the mentions about the universe and astrology as a science Is in the Creation Epic. There are only a few lines that present predominant ideas of that time about the cosmos, the Sun, moon, stars, and the calendar (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 308). This is a ground to claim that a certain amount of knowledge was present and that time. In the library of Assurbanipal three tablet, that includes information about the arrangements of the planets and the methodology of the formation of calendars, are preserved that are called MUL.APIN. These series of the tablet even explain why the planet Venus appears behind the Sun and why it disappears (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 308).
Though now the meaning of Zodiac is entirely different, it is essential to mention that it was initially performing the function of determining the progress of the Sun and planets. These calculations are a part of “procedure texts.” These “procedure texts are for” are for determining rules to calculate certain events (Oppenheim, 1977, p. 308). The went further and were able to observe the eclipse of the moon, which in an astrological sense is very significant. This is known because certain rituals were performed during the eclipse. The records about his are from Neo-Assyrian, Achaemenid, and Hellenistic periods (Steele, 2000, p. 421). At the first half of the 7th century BC, records about eclipse observation in Mesopotamia were already present (Steele, 2000, p. 421).
Thus, taking into consideration the evidence presented in the above paragraph, it can be assumed that Ancient Mesopotamia was “the oldest known center for scientific observation permanently recorded” (Speiser, 1942, p.159). The scientific development that happened in Mesopotamia affected its neighbors both in the east and west. After all, the development of natural sciences in Mesopotamia played a significant role in the achievements that we have now.
Böck, B. (2003). “When You Perform the Ritual of ‘Rubbing’”: On Medicine and Magic in Ancient Mesopotamia. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 62(1), 1–16. doi:10.1086/375913
Steele, J. (2000). Eclipse Prediction in Mesopotamia. Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 54(5), 421–454. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41134091
Speiser, E. (1942). Ancient Mesopotamia and the Beginnings of Science. The Scientific Monthly, 55(2), 159–165. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/17767
Oppenheim, Leo A., (1977). Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 288–310
*This is an essay written on October 27, 2019 for professor Gregory Areshian’s Ancient Near East class.