The purpose of a 3,700-year-old Babylonian clay tablet has finally been revealed. As it turns out, it was an ancient trigonometric table that the Babylonians used, beating the Greeks by more than a thousand years.
The clay Babylonian tablet that's set to change mathematical history is called Plimpton 322. It was discovered in present-day Iraq in the 1900s, and has puzzled mathematicians since. It is theorized to have originated from the ancient Sumerian city of Larsa, and has been estimated to have existed between 1822 and 1762 BC. That dates it back to about a thousand years earlier than the Greeks.
It measures 5 inches (12.7 cm) long and 3.5 inches (8.8 cm) wide, and has four columns and 15 rows of numbers written in cuneiform. It was named after George Arthur Plimpton, the American philanthropist who purchased the ancient artifact in 1922.
For over 70 years, mathematicians were baffled as to the purpose of the tablet ever since they had discovered Pythagorean triples on it. Now, however, the mystery has been unlocked as researchers from the University of North South Wales discovered that the tablet is actually the world's oldest trigonometric table.
"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," said Daniel Mansfield from the School of Mathematics and Statistics at UNSW. "This means it has great relevance for our modern world."
What's exciting mathematicians about Plimpton 322 is the fact that although Babylonian mathematics may be considered outdated at over 3,000 years old, it could teach the modern world a lot about computer graphics, education, modern computation, and surveying.
The Father Of Trigonometry And Indiana Jones
Plimpton 322 was discovered by Edgar Banks, an academic, diplomat, archaeologist, and antiquities dealer believed to be the inspiration for the adventurous character of Indiana Jones. While it isn't exactly Banks who "beat" Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus in founding trigonometry, it is his discovery that may change the way historians view ancient mathematics altogether.
Not that it relieves Hipparchus of his achievements, as he is still well known for his discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. That being said, with this discovery about the tablet, it is not unlikely that more discoveries about how the ancient civilization built their empire so successfully will arise.
The team's research paper is published in the journal Historia Mathematica.