Prosperity of a civilization is usually estimated according to its possession and wide application of advanced technologies. Human history is seen as a linear progression where the future always brings something new and better. But modernities are actually multiple and many ancient civilizations used technologies as sophisticated as that of today.
Long before the invention of impeccable satellite GPS navigation, the ancient Polynesian tribes had developed an advanced system of positioning. Taking into account that the Pacific is rather ‘a sea of islands’ than a conglomerate of individual islands in the sea, it was not such an easy task to position each and every piece of landmass. First official evidence about the advanced knowledge of maritime navigation comes from the famous explorer, James Cook, and his diary while aboard the ship Endeavour. Exploring the Pacific, and on his quest for Terra Australis, Cook stopped at Tahiti in 1769. There he met a high priest under the name of Tupaia who was asked to join the crew and help them with the navigation. What Cook and his ship crew did not know was that Tupaia would be a lot more useful than a simple native speaker translator. Tupaia would name, position and draw on a map almost 130 islands in the Pacific, and even leave side commentaries on some of the islands.
James Cook’s European way of nautical positioning was laborious work. Latitude was calculated with the use of backstaff and sextant. Backstaff relied on the position of the sun and moon, while sextant was used to measure specific angles. It was an even more demanding task to specify longitude. This was done with complicated instruments of log-line and traverse board. Needless to say, it was painstakingly difficult to reach exact calculations. On the other hand, Tupaia and his ancestors relied on memory, the night sky, the direction of bird migration and the patterns of wind and sea-swells. Moreover, the larger islands were used as ‘island compasses’ around which the smaller ones were positioned. Ancient Polynesians drew highly intricate polycentric maps with nothing but the use of stick charts.
A list of the most advanced ancient civilization as regards technology would not be complete without China. Historians often relate some of the most important human inventions to the ancient Chinese. Those commonly ascribed to the Chinese include gunpowder, print, compass, paper money. Moreover, complex machines that could produce goods on an industrial scale, precision seismographic instruments to predict earthquakes, drilling machines that were used to find natural gas hundreds of meters beneath the ground, the cosmic engine that could not only tell the right time but also predict the passage of the planets and the stars, blast furnaces that could melt metal like in modern metallurgical facilities today – these are just some of the advanced technologies that the ancient Chinese presented to the rest of the world.
What made China such a fertile ground for numerous and quality scientific discoveries was the unity of its people. Nevertheless, it was also always home to great minds and inventors, like for example Zhang Heng. He was a celebrated astronomer and a scientist who in 132 AD created the seismograph, the first instrument of its kind to forecast and report an earthquake. His version of a seismograph was decorated with animals such as tortoises, birds, toads. On top there were eight dragons representing eight directions. Depending on how the copper ball moved around, direction and force of an earthquake could be gauged.
Long before Romans, the ancient civilization of Incas had devised a system of aqueducts that supplied distant settlements with fresh water. Aside from that, the stone-carving technology that they possessed enabled them to build high structures without the use of mortar or mud. They built bridges over rivers and carved a system of roads up to 12, 000 miles long.
Some especially remarkable technologies that the Incas had included the so-called quipu and yupana. Quipu(s) was a complex recording system made of strings of thread that were further tied into knots, colored or spun. This way, the Incas collected and recorded information about their military, calendars, even tax obligations. Yupana, on the other hand, deserves the name of the world’s first calculator. A kind of an abacus, it consists of a number of different-sized trays into which pebbles or seeds were placed. Such device would enable them to perform complex arithmetic tasks.
The Mayas are considered one of the most advanced ancient societies in Americas. Being a warrior tribe, they developed superior weaponry early even without the use of metals. One of the common misconceptions is that the ancients carved their writings in stone. Mayas, however, also used books and painted vases. They actually had paper or else known as tapa cloth. A sheet of such paper was made by beating a piece of fig tree bark.
What the Mayans are renowned for today are their calendars which were highly accurate and followed the positioning of celestial bodies. The numerical system that they used was based on numerical 20, in contrast to ours which is based on numerical 10. Moreover, they independently discovered zero and the positional value and were very advanced in mathematics. The writing system was composed of 1000 hieroglyphs.
Mayans also excelled in architecture, especially in building an intricate network of waterways and roads. Their waterway technology could successfully supply water kilometers away. Likewise, the elevated road that they pioneered, the ‘sacbeob’, is very similar to what we today call a highway road. It was up to 10 meters in width and was covered in white concrete. Traffic intersections, drainage system and rest stops were all included.
Atlantis, it is believed or at least retold in myths, was an ancient land with great cultural and technological advancement. This island-city swept away by a natural disaster was once described by philosopher Plato. Plato had heard the story from another sage who had visited Egypt. The Atlantis, it was told, was situated just outside the Mediterranean Sea and the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), somewhere in the Atlantic ocean. It was rectangular in shape with a plain in the middle and surrounded by mountains. The capital city was situated on the edge of the great plain. It was constructed as circles in succession, each bigger surrounding the previous one. It was connected to the sea by an immense canal. It was also suspected that Cristopher Columbus partly envisioned his journey to try and find the land of Anthilia, which was the equivalent name in Middle Ages. This land held innumerable riches, it was supposed, and even its beaches were sprinkled with gold.
What cannot be separated as fact or fiction are the alleged Atlantian advanced technologies. The detailed mention of these gives a novel by W. Scott-Eliott, The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria. There, he describes how the ancient Atlantis possessed the scientific discoveries of submarines, motorized ships, ‘flying boats’ or aircrafts, as well as something resembling electricity.
We have ancient Indians to thank for many modern technologies. What is more, it is believed that the ancient Rama Empire was one of the oldest civilizations known. In texts like Ramayana and Mahabharata mentions of this empire are given so it can be concluded that it existed between 2,500 and 4,500 B.C. Some Sanskrit scholars even go so far as to say that this civilization was at the peak of its power 10-15,000 B.C. It was not until 1920 that one of the great cities of this empire, Mohenjo-Daro, was excavated. Clearly they possessed the advanced technology of civil engineering and architecture long before any other ancient civilization.
More evidence taken from Vedic literature recounts how ancient Indians had perfect knowledge of mathematics, including the concept of zero, decimal system, algebra and algorithms, square root and cube root. There are clear references to astronomy. In physics, the concepts of an atom and theory of relativity appear as early as around 600 BC.
The ancient Greeks gave the world perhaps the most advanced technology regarding political systems, democracy. But apart from that, it is less known that ancient Greece was the place of invention of many tools and instruments which are widely used in modern times. To start with the most mundane of them all – an alarm clock, was said to be invented by Ctesibus. He also wrote first papers on compressed air and its uses in pumps, as well as doing considerable work on pneumatics. His alarm clock was a combination of a water clock and pebbles that fell onto a gong during a specific time interval.
One more important advanced technology that the ancient Greeks put to use was the central heating system. The temple of Ephesus was kept warm through a system of pipes planted under the floor. The heat obtained from fire was further circulated through the pipes, and the hall remained comfortably warm.