We know a lot more than the ancient Greeks, Romans, Peruvians, etc. thanks to scientific and technological developments and modern medicine. Right?
Well, maybe not.
Students are always flummoxed when I note that everything (everything) in our classroom — the desks they are sitting at, the clothes they’re wearing, the coffee they’re sipping, the paint on the walls — would not have existed in the times of the ancient Greeks or Romans. It’s both an obvious point yet jarring to realize that so many things we take for granted simply did not once exist.
We might scoff at ancient maps and science for not being accurate. But today’s scientists are learning that, in some cases, ancient peoples made things in more eco-friendly ways, struggled with health problems familiar to us and, even though they used maps drawn without the aid of satellite photography, went forth to learn about the world.
1. The Romans Made Greener, Longer-lasting Concrete
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley have found that structures erected some 2,000 years ago by the Romans are made from concrete that offers clues to making a more durable and earth-friendly building material.
The most common type of cement in use today is Portland cement, which originates from limestone. As Paulo Monteiro, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, points out, making Portland cement “accounts for seven percent of the carbon dioxide that industry puts into the air,” due to the very high temperatures (1,450˚Celsius or 2,642˚Fahrenheit) required in manufacturing it. In contrast, manufacturing Roman cement calls for temperatures of 900˚C (1,652˚ F).
Roman concrete is also (as evidenced by the fact that buildings like the Colosseum and the Pantheon are still standing) incredibly long-lasting. Structures made from modern concrete built in the mid-20th century were only made to last about 50 years and many are now “on borrowed time,” says Monteiro.
While buildings are now made to last two or three times longer, that’s still just a fraction of how long an ancient breakwater made some 2,000 years ago from pozzolan, the mix of lime and volcanic ash used in Roman concrete, has existed. Structures made from modern concrete become degraded from saltwater but got around this problem by making it an “integral part” of a concrete structure. Sea water was mixed with pozzolan and rock chunks in wooden molds to make wharves, docks and other structures.
Monteiro and other researchers are now investigating whether volcanic ash could be used instead of fly ash (an industrial waste product made from burning coal) to produce a greener concrete.
2. Heart Disease Isn’t Just a Modern Illness
Photo of Peruvian mummy from 5,000 – 2,000 B.C.E. via Wikimedia Commons
Clogged arteries and heart disease: 4,000 years ago, people suffered from these, too, even without our contemporary diet of processed foods overloaded with sodium, sugar and the like and our sedentary, modern lifestyle.
In studying 137 mummies up to four millennia old, scientists found that one-third had heart disease (pdf). These findings, reported earlier this year in the British medical journal The Lancet (pdf), suggest that heart disease could be rooted in a “more basic human predisposition” — all the more reason to draw on what we’ve learned about eating healthfully.
The researchers used whole-body CT scans to examine mummies from around the world, from Egypt, Peru, southwest America and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. 47 or 34 percent had signs of definite or probable atherosclerosis, with those who were older more likely to have heart disease.
3. A Cure For Tuberculosis, Via a Mummy’s Remains
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Study of some mummies from Peru could lead to a new treatment for tuberculosis. From analyzing CT scans and DNA, Haagen Klaus, a biological anthropologist at George Mason University, thinks that Peruvians living in the 10th century and earlier, before European explorers arrived in Central America, might have been infected with “a more benign strain of the TB bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or a different species altogether, Mycobacterium kansasii.”
According to Klaus, the kind of TB bacteria in the ancient Peruvians “thrives in the presence of iron, and these people ate a low-iron diet with little meat.” A new drug that inhibits M. tuberculosis from taking up iron could be developed from Klaus’ findings.
4. Ancient Maps Are Inaccurate But Still Highly Useful
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
At a time when computer and satellite technologies have made it possible to map every corner of the earth and with amazing accuracy, an ancient map that shows the entire “known world” but leaves out whole continents, or that depicts the world as flat, seems like nothing more than a quaint artifact.
Ancient maps do present a limited, inaccurate view of the works. But this may have emboldened explorers, ancient historians suggest.
Back in the third century B.C.E., Eratosthenes, a librarian at Alexandria, was able to measure the world’s size by noting “simultaneous angles of the sun’s shadow taken at widely distant sites in Egypt.” These measurements gave him a highly accurate measure of Earth’s circumference so that it was clear that the only three continents he knew about (Asia, Europe and Africa) were only part of the land mass on the Earth.
But in the second century A.D., Ptolemy, the leading scholar at the library of Alexandria in his time, seriously underestimated the size of the world. His error “apparently emboldened Columbus to think he could sail west to reach China or Japan.” The West Indies where Columbus landed was indeed just “about the distance from Europe that Ptolemy had led him to expect, but with no ‘Grand Khan’ in sight.”
Concrete ruins and other findings from ancient teims offer a view into a world before European conquests and before the Industrial Revolution and show us that much can be accomplished without many of the “necessities” we rely on today.
Photo via Thinkstock