How Did Astronomy Fundamentally Change Human History?
We often think of astronomy as a type of academic discipline or hobby subject taken up by those interested in the night sky. While this is true, astronomy has fundamentally shaped human history as it allowed the understanding of the seasons and seaborne navigation. Additionally, in order to make wider understanding of the movement of starts and celestial objects in general, a great understanding of mathematics was needed that allowed other developments, where even ideas of mapping and coordinate systems developed. The importance of astronomy to the past is attested by the fact that some ancient languages only went extinct after astronomical observations ceased. On the other hand, for the modern world, astronomy has the potential to also shape our future in guiding future space exploration and possibly new worlds to explore.
Basic observation of the night sky across most of the latitudes that people heavily occupy indicates that stars, the sun, and the night sky undergo changes during the year. This is an important pattern that many ancient societies understood, where cultures in the New and Old Worlds developed astronomical observations. This includes the ancient Maya, Aztecs, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, and others. Astronomy helped to distinguish seasonal changes that are important for agriculturally-based societies. Knowing when the autumn and planting season in northern latitudes, for example, indicate when it is safe to harvest and sow crops.
However, there are many secondary benefits of this type of observation. First, knowing where the starts and sun will be makes it evident there is a recurrent pattern. This pattern often has observable mathematical property that helps ancient societies to develop ways to predict when astronomical events will occur. We see this in ancient Babylonia, where astronomical observations developed mathematical formulations to understand where plants and stars would align as well as when comets may reappear.
Astronomy helped to form both lunar and solar based calendars, where ancient societies even understood that the solar year was slightly more than 365 days. Navigation of ship-borne trade before 1000 BCE was mostly confined to areas along the coast or regions that can more easily observe land. However, astronomy made it possible to navigate in open waters and during the night. Whereas early navigation depended on land features, understanding the position of stars allowed the Phoenicians and Greeks to colonize wide areas of the Mediterranean Sea in the 1st millennium BCE, spreading their cultures in wide areas.