Ever gone on a trip far away from the city where there were no buildings to obstruct your view of the skies? I have to say; it’s unfortunate that many people don’t realise just how overwhelmingly beautiful the night sky can be. In the ancient periods, people had a much better view of the sky – and without much entertainment such as TVs, they were more than motivated to gaze at the glorious heavens and try to uncover its secrets.
But long before astronomers fully understood the difference between planets, stars, and comets, there were already some ancient astronomers way ahead of their time. These geniuses were making observations about changes in the sun and moon as well as particular constellations that appeared in the sky.
That’s right; long before we ever sent a man to the moon, astronomy had already become one of the oldest natural sciences. But why was astronomy important to ancient cultures? What made it so significant that it became an ingrained part of life for simple civilizations? To gain a better understanding, we’d better start the tale from the beginning.
What is Astronomy and How Did it All Begin?
Derived from a Greek word, Astronomy is one of the oldest natural sciences that studies celestial objects and related phenomena. Astronomy makes use of physics, mathematics, and chemistry in an effort to try and make sense of the origin and evolution of the objects and events.
Objects of interest include moon, stars, planets, comets, and galaxies while the phenomena include gamma-ray bursts, radiation and supernova explosion. Basically, anything that originates outside the Earth’s atmosphere is within the purview of astronomy.
Being one of the oldest natural sciences, it’s very difficult to pinpoint where it all began. However, plenty of early civilizations such as the Greeks, Indians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Maya, and many more recorded their observations and predictions. Most of these observations only included phenomena that was visible to the naked eye since tools weren’t developed yet.
Historically, ancient cultures used astronomy for a wide range of purposes such as celestial navigation, astrometry, observational astronomy, making of calendars and other functions. Let’s look at how different cultures used astronomy, why it was invaluable to them and how they contributed to today’s collective knowledge of the heavens.
1. Ancient Babylonian Astronomy
Being among the first civilization to actually begin writing stuff down, Babylonians are also among the first to record their observations of the skies. In fact, ancient Babylonian astronomers were scribes who specialised in this field. The movements of planets and stars were noted and incredibly detailed considering the time – containing daily, monthly and annual position of celestial bodies around them. However, astronomy had a mystical component back then. So the scribes would interpret omens for the king and warn of future events.
2. Ancient Egyptian Astronomy
Very few things were as important as astronomy was to ancient Egyptians. But like their Mesopotamian and Babylonian counterparts, they too viewed astronomy with a significantly mystical element. Observing, charting and predicting celestial movements played a considerable role in many of their religious rituals. In fact, their pyramids were aligned with the stars as they appeared 5000 years ago with the Great Pyramid of Giza aligning with the North Star. There was also a practical side to Egyptian astronomy such as predicting the flooding of the Nile and making the 365-day calendar.
3. Ancient Greek Astronomy
To date, there is no single civilization credited with more contributions to astronomy than that of the Greeks. One of Greek’s greatest scholars known as Eratosthenes who excelled at geography mathematics, poetry, music, and astronomy made quite the impressive achievement. Despite a lack of necessary knowledge and technology, he managed to calculate the circumference of the Earth, accurately calculate the tilt of Earth’s axis, and come up with the idea of leap year.
4. Ancient Mayan Astronomy
Plenty of Mesoamerican cultures really showed a deep interest in astronomy. Most of them even developed their own accurate calendars and almanacs that were used as guides when planning for events such as crop planting, harvesting, and even waging war. The rising and setting of Venus was particularly special to them since it marked their coronation time. To date, we’re all familiar with the infamous Mayan calendar which some claimed it predicted the end of the world back in 2012.
5. Ancient Chinese Astronomy
When it comes to astronomy, Ancient Chinese cultures have a very long history with incredibly detailed observations dating as far back as 4th century BC. This includes massive logs about Jupiter and a small reddish star near its vicinity which astronomers now believe to be Ganymede. Ancient Chinese records of the skies were so long and so detailed, however, that they captured plenty of firsts without even realizing it. The records show a range of unexpected stars that appeared suddenly such as back in 185 AD. It is believed this was the first observation of a supernova.
There you have it; now you know why astronomy was so important to ancient cultures. Not only could it help them create calendars and keep track of the seasons, but it was the first natural global positioning system and a way to accurately (but not always) predict the future. Today, astronomy has grown by leaps and bounds to what it is, and it’s all because certain civilizations took it upon themselves to study the heavens and the vast expanse of space.