The History Before History II: Vestiges of a Lost Technology

November 21, 2008 Updated: September 29, 2015
A reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism— an ancient, yet sophisticated astronomical calendar that was found to be nearly as accurate as modern models. The device troubles scientists because it conflicts with historical notions of technological dev (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)
A reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism— an ancient, yet sophisticated astronomical calendar that was found to be nearly as accurate as modern models. The device troubles scientists because it conflicts with historical notions of technological dev (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)

Just how old is the human race? While figures vary slightly, modern anthropological and genetic studies confirm a similar length of time. Yet the existence of hundreds of apparently isolated artifacts do not fit into this standard narrative. Some of these findings even question the true origin of modern human technology, while offering valuable clues into the profound mystery of the origin of our species and our science.

One example of these technological curiosities that stubbornly refuses to fit into the conventional timeline of history is an ancient electric battery found in Baghdad. The 2000 year-old artifact was sitting in a museum when an Australian archeologist discovered its true purpose. This ancient battery consisted of a yellow ceramic container with copper cylinder, twelve by four centimeters, found inside. The cylinder featured a soldered seam composed of a 60/40 mix (the same tin/lead ratio used to solder today) and a copper cover, and it was sealed with a material similar to asphalt. Another asphalt-like layer sealed the inner section, with an iron rod suspended in the center. The rod revealed evidence of corrosion from an acidic substance. A reconstruction of this battery demonstrated that it could produce comparable voltage to that of a modern battery. But what would such a device be used to power 2000 years ago? At that time, this area was part of the Parthian Empire. Evidence suggests that this technology did not originate in this area, but more likely in Egypt, where many finely-coated silver objects have been unearthed.

If the use of electricity 2000 years ago time seems amazing, the use of gears before the Christian era is a subject that proves just as baffling. The extremely complex “Antikythera Mechanism” is an astronomical clock found at the beginning of 20th century, in a Greek ship that seems to have been shipwrecked around 80 A.D. A year into the process of identifying and cataloging the diverse objects found on the ship the ship, one of the investigators noticed a strange device of amazing complexity which seemed incorporate a series of gears.

Later analysis revealed that the device contained the names of several celestial bodies and zodiac signs. X-rays determined that this apparatus contained a modest sum of 32 gears, perfectly fitted and still functional. The news shocked the scientific community, which concluded that that mechanism was a sophisticated astronomical calendar that was nearly as accurate as modern models. Yet, the Antikythera Mechanism troubled scientists because it conflicted with historical notions of the technological development of that era. Some even tried to explain it away, arguing that a contemporary navigator must have thrown it overboard, where it coincidentally landed right next to the sunken vessel. Later, the famous marine investigator Jacques Cousteau found more remains of bronze gears in the same area. Where did the Greeks obtain this advanced knowledge to create such a device?

A temple in New Delhi, India, holds another of these ancient curiosities: a pillar made of an iron alloy that has withstood 1,600 years outdoors without sign of oxidation. An ultrasound analysis determined that the pillar is constructed of many welded iron discs. How can a 1600-year-old feat of metallurgical capacity be explained? In Europe the technical ability to construct something of a similar size not available until the end of the 19th century.

In the same vein, scientists remain unable to adequately explain several 40,000 year old human and animal skulls featuring holes that many agree were made with projectiles. Ballistics experts are astonished when confronted with the specimens. Did the cavemen carry firearms?

But it isn’t just strange artifacts that speak of an advanced human history, our ancestors may even have written of a distant age of civilization. Consider the following passage from the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu text:

“A single projectile charged with all the power in the Universe…An incandescent column of smoke and flame as bright as 10,000 suns, rose in all its splendor…it was an unknown weapon, an iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death which reduced to ashes an entire race. (…) The corpses were so burned as to be unrecognizable. Their hair and nails fell out, pottery broke without any apparent cause, and the birds turned white.”

To propose that the text describes a nuclear blast might be hard for many to take seriously. Yet when we realize that at the Hindu city of Rajasthan, an area of about five square miles is covered by a giant layer of radioactive ash. The intensity of the radiation still causes the area to be uninhabitable. It isn’t merely the Mahabharata that details this prehistory; several other Hindu texts narrate the existence of weapons that swept whole armies away like leaves.

There also exist hundreds of ancient artifacts and images that, if carefully examined, provoke us to reconsider the supposed newness of modern technology. Five years before the Wright brothers made their first flight, a 2200 year-old wooden plane was uncovered in Egypt. Since airplanes were not a not device that anyone at the time were even remotely familiar, archaeologists believed the artifact was some kind of stylized bird sculpture. Similar metallic objects were found in different areas of pre-Colombian America. Even more astonishing, cave paintings found in remote parts of the world portray what looks to be a prolific era for spacecraft.

True science is obliged to doubt, reconsider and constantly redefine its own foundations as new discoveries are made, and this process may sometimes sweep aside years of research and investigation. We’ve come to know a version of history which speaks of a linearly increasing technological evolution, but findings like those listed above tell a much different story, inspiring a serious reflection on our present hypotheses. When faced with a significant amount of evidence that calls into question contemporary notions of our history and the technological sophistication of our ancestors, it is both unconscionable and unscientific to brush such artifacts aside in order to preserve an unsubstantiated belief.