A History of Ancient South Asian, Near Eastern, and Pre-Socratic
Theories of Matter, the Elements, and the Atom.

Essay by Johnes Ruta. 11.03.2001 - 10.31.3023


*The Indo-Europeans: "The Age of Minerals"

In the ancient Indus Valley, a constellation of city complexes was found, each one built on a high, fortified mud-brick platform, the largest one of 240 acres at Mohenjo-Daro in the Sind province of southern Pakistan, possibly existing since 6500 BCE. Later cities were constructed in Baluchistan and Central Asia, adjacent to the ancient Silk Road. In each, a precise system of city engineering is evident in an even layout of streets, with roomy compartmental dwelling spaces, similar for all classes of society, stratified by trade. The agricultural base staples were sesame, wheat, and cotton. Still undeciphered tablets are found at each city complex. This civilization is probably the one referred to by the Sumerians as "Meluhha," as Indus insignias, the most common of which was the Unicorn, are found on seals at Ur in Sumeria, dated to the 3rd millennium BCE.

The sophisticated use of minerals is evident in the archaeological remnants: A standardized system of weights & measures consisting of mineral cubes and barrel-shaped carved weights of chert, agate, sandstone, porphery, and limestone are evident in all settlements. Drinking glasses of green feldspar, carnelian necklaces and belts. One thousand years before the construction of cities, motifs emerge in artifacts which became pervasive in the mature civilization: Copper-alloy figurines, low-fired white steatite, sandstone and terra cotta medallions and sculptures of well-defined the Humped Bull, pipal tree, the sacrificial goat, the horned tiger, and the 3-headed beast (unicorn, bull, and antelope.) Silver, copper, and semi-precious stones were imported and worked into jewelry, vessels, and figurines for export incorporating lapis, gold, carnelian, agate, and steatite. Less-affluent women in wore jewelry which imitated that of the wealthy women.


*Mesopotamia: "The Age of the Elements"

In the western world, the basic consciousness of matter begins with the pre-historic concept of the four states of matter: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. In the Enuma Elish, the Sumerian creation epic, "Khubur" is the ocean (Water) encircling the known world, upon which the Earth floats, and beyond which the Sun-God (Fire) pastures his cattle. Heaven (Air) is a solid vault which also rests upon the ocean -- "Ti'amat" (chaos) -- which surrounds and supports it.

Metallurgy : from previous to 6000 BCE copper is smelted from malachite which is found in surface deposits and later mined; copper is molded into many types of household items, cooking vessels and utensils, and tools, but is too soft to hold an edge, and therefore of limited use in the production of weapons. Around 3500 BCE however, a method of strengthening copper is finally discovered: by mixing the molten metal with around 15% molten tin, the alloy called bronze is produced.

"The Bronze Age" begins, which produces not only new household articles and tools, but also the reliable sword blade, so that the technology is founded upon which emergence of a new aristocratic class of landholders (of land taken by force), military politics, and the State are based.

  * Neo-Babylonia

In the later kingdom in the cities of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the sky is studied nightly by the schools of Magabazae, or Magi, priests. Perceived patterns of stars in the black sky are named as the constellations, identified with animals and the pantheon of gods, such as Perseus, Cassieopia, Orion. The "dial of the animals" or the zodiac, which is the circle of constellations extending around the plane of the ecliptic, or evident narrow table of the planetary orbits of the solar system. The positions of the zodiac mark twelve segments in the sidereal year beginning with the vernal equinox, when the sun was positioned in the constellation of Taurus, invisible in the day sky. The movement of the stars and planets are charted into elaborate, precise tables of observed movements in the night sky over long periods of time, so that reliable forecasts can be made regarding the expected positions, intervals of observation, and regular phenomena such as eclipses of the sun and moon. The patterns of the movement of planets are distinguished.

* Greece

Thales, the early 6th century BCE astronomer, who had studied in his youth in the temples of Memphis, Egypt, seeks a conceptual method "to reduce the manifold of observed phenomena to a unity." He assumes a "Primary Matter" from which all things were composed.

"Pythagoras, referred in his youth by Thales to study at the same temples in Egypt, also spent 20 years as an indentured student of the Magi priests in the city of Babylon, before returning to Greece to open his own academy for the study of geometric principles, such as the understanding of horizon perspective and vertical gravity and the cardinal compass points, as well as the intrinsic structure of the triangle. His thoughts on the harmonic principles of evenly divisible ratios, such as 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, 1:5, and 1:7, are the basis of the structure of all of Western musical form.

  Heraclitus, a later 6th century BCE metaphysician, speculates: "to be is to change, therefore the primary matter must exhibit this principle." For Heraclitus, Fire fulfills this requirement, as it exists it is continually composed of different burning matter -- it is different from one moment to the next.
" Parmenides, a contemporary of Heraclitus, takes the contrary position, specifying: "Permanency only is real -- change is an illusion."
  Leucippus establishes the concept of the atom as the tiniest indivisible particle of physical matter. The theories of his pupil Democritus were unquestionably derived from Leucippus' teachings, but separation of their personal concepts has not been achieved by scholars of the period.  
  Democritus of Abdera (c.470-366 BCE) : tutored by magi priests who remained at the estate of his father, following a visit by the Persian king Xerxes, Democritus learned the arts of theology and astrology. He later traveled to Egypt to learn geometry, then also to Persia, India, and Ethiopia. Aristotle relates the origin of Democritus' theory of matter to the Eleatic school, who argued that what is truly real is one and motionless, and that empty space is not a real existent, since motion is impossible without empty space, and plurality is impossible without something to separate the units one from another.
Possibly lived to the age of 104, date of birth imprecise.
  According to Aristotle, Leucippus first proposed to rescue the sensible world of plurality argued against this system by asserting that empty space, the 'non-existent,' may nevertheless serve to separate parts of what does exist from each other. Therefore the world has two ingredients: being, which satisfies the Eleatic criteria by being 'full,' unchanging and homogeneous, and non-being or empty space. By contrast, the pieces of real being are by characteristic indivisible units, are called 'atoms,' solid, invisibly small, and undifferentiated in material. They differ from one another in shape and size
only, perhaps also in weight. The only change they undergo is in their relative and absolute position, through movement in this non-being empty 'space.'

By their changes of position these atoms produce the compounds of all seen matter in the visible world, which differ in quality according to their shape and arrangement, their congruence and their tendency to latch together because of their shape, and the amount of space between them.
  Plato (c.427-347 BCE) according to Aristotle (384-322 BCE) in his Metaphysics states that there is a class of entities between 'forms' and 'things,' immutable like forms but plural like things; and that these are the subject of mathematical studies. The 'forms' are numbers, composed of "inassociable units." The number-forms are not ultimate, but result from the action of 'the One' upon 'the indefinite Dyad of the Great and Small..' Thus produced, they act upon this Dyad to produce the world changing things.  
  Aristarchus of Samos (flourished 300-250 BCE), author of the heliocentric hypothesis of astronomy in which 'the fixed stars and sun remain unmoved, and the earth revolves around the sun on the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit.' In addition, he combined this theory with that of 'a rotation of the earth about it's own axis,' and calculated heavenly dimensions in a treatise called "On the sizes and distances of sun and moon."  
Hipparchus (190-126 BCE), astronomer of Rhodes, constructed a geocentric theory of sizes distances of the sun and moon based purely on observational data. Utilizing observational parallax of the stars at different times of the year, and the design of epicycles devised by Apollonius, he arrived at an estimate of the length of the topical year as 365 ¼ -1/300 days. Using records of Babylonian eclipses from the 8th century BCE, and a 160 year old observation of the autumnal equinox, he also discovered the principle of the Precession of the Equinoxes, that is, the conical motion of the earth's axis around the pole of the ecliptic plane every 26,000 years, shifting the position of pole stars in a projected circular motion. Hipparchus' geocentric view became the model of Claudius Ptolomy's astronomic theories in the 2nd century CE and the accepted model of the heavens until the time of Copernicus, Gallileo, Tyco Brahe, and Johannes Kepler.  
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