Login or Register

Sign in with Facebook

We tend to picture people of the past as a bunch of bumbling cavemen to whom modern technology would seem frightening and confusing. And yet, some of their ancient technologies have turned out to be at least as good as, if not better than, the stuff our fancy-pants scientists today have developed. No, we're not talking about "fire" and "the wheel" -- we're talking about ...

6
Medieval Glass Techniques Going to Mars

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Humans have the technology to send machines to explore Mars, but apparently we have no idea what it looks like after we get there. Due to having almost no ozone layer, the Martian surface is constantly bathed in UV radiation, which on top of driving up the price of sunscreen also alters the photographs taken by the Mars rovers so that the colors are faded like we used some shitty cosmic Instagram filter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ
We wanted a red planet. This is feces vindaloo.

To solve this problem, scientists needed to come up with a new form of glass that would stand up to the harsh ultraviolet bombardment of the Martian atmosphere. And by "new," we mean "new to us" -- but in reality, it's several centuries old. They've retrofitted the rovers' cameras with the type of stained glass found in medieval cathedral windows. Glass frescoes from medieval artists have been bombarded by the sun's rays over the ages, yet show little to no evidence of fading. That's because the glass made by artisans back in the day was mixed with gold and silver in such a way as to inadvertently block UV radiation, effectively forming what we would call "nanotechnology" now, but they probably called a "miracle" or "the devil's tinting."

Vassil/Wikimedia
Fact: No real vampires have ever survived medieval stained glass.

Now, instead of being used to create pictures of holy dudes getting stabbed by goat horns and such, medieval glass technology is helping us explore the red planet. So it's only a little inaccurate to say that we're sending Jesus to Mars.

5
Ancient Chinese Medicine Teaching Western Doctors a Trick or Two

marilyna/iStock/Getty Images

If you went to the doctor to cure your debilitating pain and he handed you a type of fungus found in the forests of China, you would probably stop visiting doctors who run their practice out of a cardboard box in the alley by Sears. But that's what's happening: doctors with all sorts of scientific credentials are looking to ancient Chinese medicine to succeed where modern equivalents have fallen on their asses.

EvrenKalinbacak/iStock/Getty Images
At last! You have an excuse for all that tiger penis you've been chowing on.

For example, a new drug called fingolimod, which sounds like a hobbit that nobody likes, is the first oral medicine available for multiple sclerosis. It offers new treatment options for hundreds of thousands of sufferers, and yep, it's derived from a fungus used in Chinese medicine.

The corydalis yanhusuo plant has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, and has recently given us a new painkiller that combats inflammatory and neuropathic pain. Not only that, it's the only thing that works -- no other modern drug has been found to alleviate neuron pain as well. It doesn't stop there, either: artemisinin is an anti-malaria drug that can trace its origins back to traditional sweet wormwood. The awesomely named thunder god vine is being developed as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, as well as to treat deficiencies in vitamin kickass. Even black bear bile, which is just about as close to a witch doctor cure as you can get without grinding up newts, has been shown to be effective against Type 2 diabetes. The only problem is getting it out of the bear when you're already so weakened by diabetes.

Dan Bennett
Why eat factory meds when you can puncture a live bear?

In fact, new research reckons that about 60 percent of the herbs used in Chinese medicine may be useful in developing new modern medicines. Also, fortune cookies are totally accurate and people can really run across lakes like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Feng shui is probably still bullshit, though.

Continue Reading Below

4
Architects Using Millennia-Old Techniques to Build Better Houses

Morphogenesis

One of the best modern conveniences is air conditioning, which allows us to cool our homes while warming the planet. As a species, we are not known for our foresight. But it turns out that the ancients had our cooling technology beat by several millennia. And what's more, they did it efficiently and cleanly, using only normal untreated water instead of the chemicals and witchcraft that make our modern air conditioners function.

Sinisa Botas/iStock/Getty Images
And demons dwell there; we hear them growl.

In Jaipur, India, summer temperatures soar to levels that scientists have finally deemed "hot enough for ya." To combat this problem, modern-day architects took inspiration from ancient home-cooling methods: in the Pearl Academy of Fashion building, architects installed structures inspired by baoli, which were nothing more complicated than stairwells filled with water. As the water evaporates in the heat, it cools the air around it, creating an oasis 20 degrees cooler than the flaming wreckage of the outside world.

javarman3/iStock/Getty Images
These baoli were designed by Maharaja Chhatrapati Escher.

The Indian government was so impressed with the results, not to mention the price (basically free) and economic impact (basically none), that it passed a series of new regulations for all its government buildings. India isn't the only country going technologically retro. In North Tyneside, England, 100 million pounds have been forked over to create green housing for the future. But, ironically, the designs of their "homes for the future" are taking most of their inspiration from the distant past. Developers are looking to incorporate a type of Persian wind power perfected 1,500 years ago, as well as traditional methods of insulation used by igloos. Prepare yourself for woolly mammoth dishwashers and pelican garbage cans, because our houses are going full Flintstones.

3
Modern-Day China Training an Army of Carrier Pigeons

leisuretime70/iStock/Getty Images

They may seem like useless pests now, but long-distance communication used to depend on sky-rats. Carrier pigeons were the fastest way of delivering mail as far back as Roman times. But, inevitably, things like radio, telephone, and Facebook drove the pigeons out of business, as these things don't need feeding and have had most diseases bred out of them.

dolphfyn/iStockEditorial/Getty Images
Though pigeons are less likely to leave shit all over your wall.

But now, after a century of unemployment, carrier pigeons are being returned to service in China, where a 10,000-strong army of them are being trained as special operatives. The birds are now valuable again for the very reasons they went out of business in the first place -- they're so ludicrously low-tech that they are totally immune to all modern forms of electronic warfare.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Unless Snowden has some surprising info about EPA surveillance.

The birds will run special missions if electromagnetic interference brings down communication, or if signals fail. The Chinese have entrusted the pigeons with some pretty heavy-duty responsibilities, including top secret operations between troops stationed on China's borders. We would tell you more, but it's classified, and pigeons are known to be resistant to most conventional forms of torture.

Continue Reading Below

2
Ancient Egyptian Ink Being Used to See Through Skin

ACS.org

About 5,000 years ago, the Egyptians invented the first man-made pigment, a blue powder creatively called Egyptian blue. They were so proud of it that they slapped it on everything from frescoes and statues to tombs to give them that fresh, just-blue-myself feel.

Walters Art Museum:
"We blue just about everything in sight."

While the Egyptians figured the stuff just looked pretty, we've discovered that the substance, scientifically known as calcium copper silicate, emits infrared rays when lit with visible light. You may remember those rays from such things as the movie Predator or your remote control.

Even more impressively, the pigment might soon be used to let doctors peer inside you. Like Ron Jeremy, near-infrared radiation is especially skilled in the ways of penetration, and it makes its way through human tissue very efficiently. It's dirt cheap, being mostly composed of copper and calcium. And utilizing it can be as simple as slapping a cartridge into an Inkjet printer.

Piotr Adamowicz/iStock/Getty Images
It will quadruple the cost of healthcare.

So, long story short: the very first pigment we ever figured out -- 5,000-year-old Egyptian ink -- could soon be used in advanced biomedical engineering.

Predator mummies cannot be far behind.

1
Dark Soil Helps Cure Famine and Fights Global Warming

Holger Casselmann

Back before modern fertilizer, people in the Amazon region tended their gardens with what's known as "dark soil." What made it dark? Human poop, mostly. Researchers in the Amazon have discovered traces of the ancient fertilizer that was made from charcoal, ground-up pottery, and human excrement, which still covers around 10 percent of the Amazon basin. And the amazing thing is that, if you'll excuse the pun, it shits all over the soil technology that modern science has produced.

StockSolutions/iStock/Getty Images
"We keep sowing wheat in our laptop desert, but nothing grows, dammit!"

Dark soil is so fertile that it could triple crop yields, allowing us to grow food in areas previously thought to be completely infertile. If you're a fan of eating food so that you don't die, this is a good thing. On the global-warming front, the use of dark soil eliminates around 50 percent of the carbon usually given off by decaying plant matter, as the burning process associated with the production of the soil sequesters carbon, rather than releases it.

gpointstudio/iStock/Getty Images
Basically, Mother Earth dutch-ovening its emissions.

It even emits less methane than other soils, so you don't have to worry about those soil farts anymore. And because producing dark soil requires the burning of plant and other waste materials, that heat could be used as a clean, green source of energy. Hell, it probably slices, dices, and juliennes fries. There's nothing you can't do with the magic of poop!

And you've just been flushing that stuff away like a sucker.

For more ways our ancestors did it better, check out 11 Modern Technologies That Are Way Older Than You Think. And then check out 20 Websites From Before the Internet was Invented.

To turn on reply notifications, click here

527 Comments

Load Comments