A small clay tablet that was discovered in the early 1900s by Edgar Banks — the archaeologist, academic, diplomat and antiquities dealer who was the inspiration behind the character of Indiana Jones — has finally been properly deciphered, reports Phys.org.
The tablet, known as Plimpton 322 in the archaeological community, is believed to date back to ancient Babylon, nearly 4,000 years ago. Its cuneiform script uses a base 60, or sexagesimal, system, which is similar to our time clock, and appears to contain a special pattern of numbers called Pythagorean triples. What's incredible about that is, the man for whom Pythagorean triples were named for —the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras — wasn't born until over 1,000 years after the tablet was created.
"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," said Norman Wildberger, co-author on the new research that was published in the journal Historia Mathematica.
The mathematics enscribed on the tablet isn't just incredible because it appears to contain the world's oldest trigonometric table (by a long shot), but the table is more accurate than any invented by the Greeks, or any table invented since then, including those we use today.
"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," explained Daniel Mansfield, the study's other co-author. "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."
Wildberger added: "With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own."
Researchers believe that the tablet was used to aid builders in making architectural calculations. It would have been an invaluable tool in the construction of palaces, temples and step pyramids, for instance.
All in all, Plimpton 322 offers cause for us to rewrite the history books. The ancient Greeks were not the ones to invent the first trigonometric table; the ancient Babylonians were. It goes to show the ingenuity of ancient cultures, and proves that history is packed with lost wisdom that is worth investigating.