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Were the Timekeepers of the Ancient World Autistic?

Archaeologists ask where ancients got the math for complex calendars.

When we read of ancient civilizations, there are many mysteries. One perennial question is how societies with (supposedly) no technology, no system of writing, and no known system of calculation managed to develop the mathematical ability to calculate movements of stars and planets. There is overwhelming evidence that many early civilizations did this with great precision; we did not surpass them until quite recently.

One question I’ve never seen asked in that context is this: Is there reason to think those early mathematicians and engineers were autistic?

During the past few years I have been studying the role of autistic people in history; particularly in the church. There’s a good body of evidence to suggest that churches have been home to autistics for thousands of years, and indeed we neurodivergents may have had a hidden hand in shaping many of the world’s religions.

For example, Isaac Newton is widely believed to have been autistic, based on accounts of his behavior and his own written words. Today we know Newton for setting down a description of calculus. Some say he invented calculus, but there are many autistics (me included) who can manipulate waveforms in our heads, and the written calculus may just be a way to share that ability with others. If that's true in Newton's case as well, then what he did was lay out for others an ability he was born with. In that sense, he didn't invent anything. Instead, he described his different way of thinking.

But that’s “Newton now.” In his time, Newton wrote considerably more on theology and religion than he did on science. In his day he was more known as a theologian than a mathematician. When we go back in time, we find most scientists and deep thinkers were supported by churches. Prior to 1800, churches were the world’s centers of logic, reason, and abstract and scientific thought.

With that in mind, we can find many descriptions of autistic behaviors alongside the achievements of early churchmen. We even find evidence of accommodation. For that, look no farther than the silent orders of monks, or the reflective orders that spent their days in cool shade. Today we’d call that sensory-friendly. What did that call it then? It’s reasonable to ask how far back that connection may reach. York University archaeologist Penny Spikins posits that sustainable autistic traits made their appearance in the human genome some 100,000 years ago.

When we reach back a few thousand years, the written record gets mighty thin. There are few descriptions detailed enough to retrospectively consider whether any particular person of that day was on what we now call the autism spectrum. Yet there is a very strong sign that autism was there in the background. We see it in the calendar. And remember – the calendars were traditionally kept by the priests.

Ancient civilizations had very sophisticated calendars that were tied to long and short term celestial events. They forecast the years and the seasons with extraordinary accuracy. They also noted much slower changes in the sky – the cycles of precession that unfold over thousands of years.

It’s interesting to consider how calendars have changed over the ages. Today we use calendars to plan our days and weeks. We schedule what we will do at 10, and where we will go at 3. We note the day of a birthday or an anniversary. The events we record seem trivial, except to ourselves.

The ancient calendars recorded dates of more moment. Calendars counted the days since the beginning of the world, or they counted the hours till the end. They forecast the changing of constellations and the arrival of comets. Calendars told our ancestors when to plant, and even how to navigate. If you've never done so I encourage you to explore Mayan, Egyptian, or Indian calendars – you'll find them incredibly fascinating.

Early calendars tended to be far more complex than the calendars we use today. They were also harder to maintain and calibrate, in the absence of electronics and standards such as we rely on in the modern era. At the most basic level, ancient calendars were tied to the sky, and built upon knowledge that must have been gathered and passed down for many generations.

Archaeologists ask why early societies needed such complex and far-reaching calendar systems. While that is a good question, a more interesting question (to me at least) might be, what kind of person could build and run such a calendar?

To find that answer, we need only turn to the autism community. Psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald has studied calendar calculating abilities and other savant skills. He’s found that calendar skills are almost exclusively the province of certain autistic people. In his experience the people with the greatest calendar skills were often quite disabled in present society, but they could tell you the moon phase or day of the week for any date 500 years in the past or present with complete accuracy.

Archaeologists and historians have puzzled about where ancient people got the mathematical skills to construct and run their calendars. After all, they were not even known to have written language. So how could they have higher math? The answer is simple. The math was in the autistics. It was inborn, in their minds. Practice makes better, but formal teaching was not needed. That's evident in today's calendar calculators.

Need evidence of that? Ask an autistic with calendar calculating abilities to show his work. He (she) can’t. It’s like asking me to show my work when I added musical waves in my head. It’s a thing we can do, but we can’t necessarily set down a written path for someone else to do it. Newton did for calculus, and changed the world. I’ve yet to see something similar for calendar calculation.

In the absence of that, it’s reasonable to turn the traditional archaeologist’s question around and ask: Who but an autistic person could have run the calendars of ancient times in his (her) head? The historians say, "there was no evidence they had math" and they may well be right. They didn't need math. They had autistics.

And yes ... science does suggest that. We may not have found evidence of computers in prehistory, but for some of us, the autism is in our genes, and for genetic evolution, prehistory was just the blink of an eye away.

So look where it's brought us ...

Dr. Fitzgerald noted that most of the autistic calendar calculators he found were living in group homes or institutions. They were said to be totally disabled, with average IQs below 70. Yet a Mayan or Egyptian calendar would be play for them. Indeed, play is probably a very apt term.

2,000 years ago, would that person be disabled or venerated, for the same ability?

It’s an interesting cultural commentary. We talk about all our challenges. Seizures, depression, language. But if you could keep a calendar in the time of the Pharaoh, there might well be some honor and accommodation beyond what we see today.

Not that it makes life easy – the lives of early shamans and priests are often described as tortured and painful. Honored didn't necessarily mean comfortable. But it means we had a place in the world; something many of us feel we've largely lost today.

What do you think?

John Elder Robison


John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The opinions expressed here are his own. There is no warranty expressed or implied. While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.