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Ancient Humanity Never “Got” the Blues

Ancient Humanity Never “Got” the Blues

humanity and bright blue

As we considered back in February, blue is everywhere on the Internet, and due to that fact has a strong case for being its official colour. I bet we can, therefore, consider it to be the most modern colour, then!

Design arguments aside, Science Alert has more scientific evidence that bolsters blue’s avant-garde status. There is linguistic evidence that blue has been recognized as its own colour — and therefore “seen” by human eyes — in the modern era.

Writer Fiona MacDonald parses studies that are up to 200 years old, and of a variety of cultures, that show that most of ancient humanity (with written histories) lacked a distinct word for the colour blue, while faring well with black, white, red, and yellow. The first human culture to have a recorded word for blue was actually the ancient Egyptians, who had invented mass producible blue dye. The colour blue was important to the Egyptians, who lived along the Nile, and revered the river for its religious and agricultural significance.

But does the lack of blue in a natural environment necessarily mean it went literally unseen? More recent research shows that it’s more a matter of the definition of “blue,” rather than, say, certain cones being absent from the eye.

The Himba community of Namibia was tested by a team out of Goldsmith’s University of London in 2006. The Himba do not have a word for blue in their language — but many words for “green”. In visual tests that showed one blue square in a circle of green squares, the Himba subjects were unable to identify which of the squares was blue; they saw them all as the same colour. (In contrast, the researchers attempted the test again with a one square a slightly different shade of green than the others. The Himba subjects spotted the square immediately, while English speakers could not!)

“Another study by MIT scientists in 2007 showed that native Russian speakers, who don’t have one single word for blue, but instead have a word for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), can discriminate between light and dark shades of blue much faster than English speakers.
This all suggests that, until they had a word from it, it’s likely that our ancestors didn’t actually see blue.

Or, more accurately, they probably saw it as we do now, but they never really noticed it.”

There’s something lyrical about the idea of a colour coming into being for us only if we know we’re looking at it. It makes me wonder how much else we are missing out on, simply because we don’t have words for it. Perhaps our language will evolve to show us, as it has before. Then we — and our Internet — will never be the same.