No one could see the color blue in ancient times

Anyone who has entered into the discussion about the color of an object will understand when I say that we do not all see things in the same way. The way we appreciate colors is influenced by several factors, including language and culture. For example, science suggests that humans may not notice things as fundamental as a color, unless they have a way to describe it.

Blue Bird
Blue Bird

One proof may be that, until relatively recently in human history, “blue” did not exist. Ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue – not in Greek, not in Mandarin, not in Japanese, not in Hebrew. And without a word for color, there’s not even evidence that those ancient peoples could have “seen” blue.

Faded references.

In his famous work “Odyssey,” Homer describes the sea as “dark wine-colored.” But why “dark wine” and not blue or dark green, for example?

In the year 1858, a scholar by the name of William Gladstone, who later became Prime Minister of Great Britain, realized that this was not the only bizarre description of color in that book. He noticed that iron and sheep were described as violet-like, and honey as green.

So, Gladstone decided to count the color references in the famous text. While black is mentioned almost 200 times and white 100, other colors are very strange. Red is mentioned less than 15 times, yellow and green less than 10. Gladstone began flipping through other ancient Greek texts, and noticed the same pattern – there was nothing described as “blue” in color. The word didn’t even exist.

Gladstone thought that this might be unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger continued his work and realized that it applied to all cultures. He studied the Icelandic sagas, the Qur’an, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient version of the Hebrew Bible.

Of the Vedic Hindu hymns, he notes: “These hymns, more than ten thousand lines long, are replete with descriptions of the heavens.” The texts mentioned the sun and the redness of an aurora, day and night, clouds and lightning, air and ether… “But there’s one thing no one would ever learn from these old songs, that the sky is blue.”

Geiger decided to look up when blue appeared in languages, and found a very consistent pattern.

The invention of colors.

Each language initially had a word for black and white, or darkness and light. The next word for a color – in all the languages studied around the world – was red, the color of blood and wine.

After red, historically, yellow appears, and then green (although in a few languages green appeared first). The last of the colors to appear in all languages is blue.

And it seems that the only ancient culture that designated a word for blue was the Egyptian culture. And they also had a way of producing a blue dye.

The relationship between seeing and naming.

The Egyptians may have been the first to invent a name for that color because they could produce it. If you think about it, blue doesn’t appear much in nature – there are almost no blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations.

You must think that all that doesn’t even matter, given that the sky is obviously blue, and for that simple reason we should all know the color since the beginning of time. Now, what if I told you that the sky isn’t basically blue?

Researcher Guy Deutscher conducted a rather serendipitous experiment with the subject. In theory, one of the first questions children ask is “why is the sky blue?” So, this man raised his daughter being careful never to describe to her the color of the sky. One beautiful day, he asked her what color she saw when she looked up. The girl had no idea. The sky, for her, had no color. Eventually, she deduced that it was white, and later, blue. But blue definitely wasn’t his first choice.

Couldn’t ancient people see blue?

There is no certainty of that. Although we have no idea what Homer saw when he described the sea as a wine-colored, we do know that the ancient Greeks had the same biology as we do, and for this reason, we can assume that they had the same ability to see colors as we do. But what if you see something without having a word for it?

A researcher named Jules Davidoff traveled to Namibia to run an experiment on the Himba tribe, who speak a language that does not have the word blue, or rather, the distinction between blue and green.

Blue Davidoff Experiment (1)

When the tribesmen had to choose the different square in a circle made up of 11 green and blue squares, they didn’t know which one it was. The few that managed to notice the difference took much longer and had more errors than could make any sense to us, who can clearly see the blue square.

But the Himba have more words for types of greens than other languages, such as English. Looking at a circle of green squares with only a slight variation from the rest, they immediately detected the difference. Can you do it? Try:

Blue Davidoff Experiment (2)

For most of us, that’s very difficult. This is the square with a different green whole.

Blue Davidoff Experiment (3)

Davidoff says that without a word for a color, without a way to identify it as different, it’s much harder for us to perceive that it’s something unique — even if our eyes are physically seeing all the shades.

So, before blue became a common concept, perhaps humans could see it, but they didn’t notice anything special about it. BusinessInsider