9 julio, 2024

Chemistry in prehistory and antiquity

The story of chemistry begins in prehistory, when the human being manipulated the elements for the first time for his benefit. It is considered that the first chemical reaction that was used in a conscious and controlled way was fire.

Chemistry is the science of the transformation of matter, this means that it is in charge of studying the properties and chemical reactions of everything that surrounds us, as well as its composition. Chemistry is considered to be a stable science from the law of conservation of mass, raised by Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794).

The history of chemistry is usually divided into four stages: black magic, which goes from prehistory to the beginning of the Christian era; alchemy, which spans from the beginning of the Christian era to the 17th century; traditional chemistry, which runs from the 17th to the 19th century, and modern chemistry, which began in the mid-19th century and continues to this day.

Chemistry and the prehistoric human being

The discovery of fire allowed other chemical reactions to be carried out that helped improve the way of life of prehistoric humans. In this sense, fire was used for cooking, to create more resistant clay vessels and to transform metals.

In this period the first steps towards metallurgy were taken, since rudimentary smelting furnaces were produced to mold metals in order to make weapons and tools.

According to studies on prehistory, the first metal that was used was gold. This was followed by silver, copper and tin.

At first, pure metals were used. However, between 3,500 BC and 2,500 BC, prehistoric civilizations discovered that the union of copper and tin gave rise to a new metal: bronze. This means that the first alloys were made. They also used iron, which was extracted from meteorites.

However, during this period, metallurgy was not considered to be a chemical process.

On the contrary, fire itself was considered a mystical force capable of transforming elements and, in many civilizations, metals were associated with the gods. For example, in Babylon, gold was associated with the god Marduk.

Chemistry in Antiquity

During ancient times, the cultures of Babylonia, Egypt, and Greece flourished. In this period, very little was known about the elements that influence natural processes.

It was considered that the «spirits» were responsible for these changes and, in order to control these processes, certain practices were used that would have allowed them to persuade these spirits: black magic.

However, some ancient scholars made certain contributions that laid the foundations for the development of chemistry as the science we know today.

Chemistry in Babylon

In Babylon, around 1700 BC, King Hammurabi began to classify metals, such as gold, iron, and copper. In the same way, he gave an economic value to each one, taking into account the properties and potential of the material.

Likewise, it is possible that lapis lazuli, the cubic, blue and light gem, may have been developed in Babylonia.

Chemistry and the Greeks

theory of atoms

Approximately 2,500 years ago, the Greeks considered that «everything was one», this meant that the universe and all the elements that made it up were a single enormous entity.

However, around the year 430 BC, Democritus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, exposed that all matter was composed of solid, small and indivisible objects, which he called “atoms”.

This philosopher also stated that changes in matter occurred when atoms rearranged and reconnected. He also suggested that there was a great variety of atoms, with different shapes, sizes, and masses.

It should be noted that Democritus considered that shape, size and mass were the only properties that differentiated atoms. For him, characteristics such as flavor and color were the result of combinations between these indivisible particles.

A simple experiment would have proven that Democritus’s theory was largely correct. However, the Greeks did not believe in experimentation, since they considered that they could not trust their senses but logic and reason, in order to understand the world.

It is for this reason that Democritus’s theory of atoms, similar in many ways to current theory of atoms, was rejected.

Aristotle and the composition of matter

Other contributions from the Greeks came from Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), philosopher of Stagira, and Thales of Miletus.

Like Democritus, these two philosophers speculated on the composition of matter, noting that air, water, earth, and fire were the basic elements that made up matter. Other Greek scholars spoke of a fifth element, which they called the «quintessence.»

Likewise, Aristotle indicated that these basic elements were mixed in different proportions to give rise to different materials: cold, hot, dry and humid.

end of black magic

Towards the end of Antiquity, the study of the properties of bronze, an alloy between tin and copper, led many to think that gold could be obtained through the combination of a yellow element and another strong element.

This belief that gold could be formed through the transmutation of matter marked the end of chemistry as black magic and gave rise to alchemy and its famous alchemists of the Middle Ages.


A Brief History of Chemistry – Black Magic. Retrieved from 3rd1000.com.
The early history of chemistry. Recovered from angelfire.com.

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