Scientific Observation
Welcome to Study Guides!


flowers with yellow petals and black centers growing in a field
Black-eyed Susans

February 2017 - Before people had any idea why anything happened, or how, they could at least find out what happened. People watched plants grow, they watched animals grow, they saw milk turn into cheese and flour turn into bread, they watched the sun come up and the stars and planets go around, and the seasons change, and they figured out a great many things about what happened. In fact, people of the Stone Age probably knew more about what happens in nature than you do, because that was more important for them than it is for you.

We often think today that people who lived a long time ago did not understand what makes plants grow, or where babies come from. But this is really not true. Anthropologists have never found any people on earth who didn't know both of those things very well. Anybody who looks around her will see that plants grow where seeds or spores fall on the ground, and that babies come from a mother and a father.

Constellation of Orion; thanks to Douglas Cooper

Another form of observation was the development of counting. As far back as the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), about 35,000 years BC, people were carving marks on sticks to help them remember how many bags of fruit were in that basket or how many people were in the band. The Sumerians, about 4000 BC, were probably the first people to develop a way of writing numbers down more efficiently.

The Egyptians and the Babylonians were both very accurate and interested observers of natural phenomena. They identified and named the different constellations of stars. Egyptian doctors observed how cancers grew, and how your pulse and your heartbeat were connected. Mathematicians also observed less obvious things, like the Pythagorean Theorem.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle brought the Greek interest in bringing order to the natural world to scientific observation, in the 300s BC. He tried to organize all of nature into a system that made sense, putting similar things together into categories. Aristotle got his friend Alexander the Great to send him back samples of new plants and animals that he found on his military campaigns, from as far away as India.

Not long after Aristotle came another Greek observer, a doctor named Hippocrates. Hippocrates made many observations about sick people, and he and his students wrote down what they observed, and their ideas about what it meant. In Egypt, doctors like Herophilus identified the optic nerve. In China, doctors wrote the Neijing - their observations that exercise, good food, and clean air keep people healthy. Chinese astronomers drew the world's first star chart, and they learned to predict eclipses too.

In the time of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder around 70 AD collected masses of information into his Natural History, though mostly in order to show how big and powerful the Roman Empire was, that it had all these things in it.

A Roman doctor named Galen also added a great deal to Hippocrates' observations, and Ptolemy drew one of the first world maps. In India, Charaka observed and described smallpox and other diseases, and Arya Bhata observed and recorded the movements of the stars and planets.

After the rise of Christianity, there was not much scientific observation going on in Europe for a while. In the Islamic Empire, from 700 AD on, on the other hand, people were very interested in scientific observation. Some people were interested in plants, and copied the Roman works while adding any new information they could find. Others, like Ibn Riza, Maimonides, and Ibn al-Nafis, were doctors, and added a lot of new observations (and also treatments) to those of Galen. In Central America, Mayan astronomers were also beginning to be able to predict eclipses. In India, in the 1400s AD, Lakshmana Pandita also added new observations about dysentery, miscarriages, fevers, epilepsy, and kidney stones, as well as other diseases.

Logic and the Scientific Method
Practical Engineering
Where does God fit in?

Main science page
Teachers' guides on ancient science
Science-related gifts

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Study Guides
  • Publisher:
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more? is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 24 April, 2017