Originally published in Saturday Night Magazine
You might think it's the year 2000, but a group of prominent Russian mathematicians is arguing that history is all wrong, and it's actually 936AD. They've set off a battle that's now come to Canada, and it's getting nasty
The man in the tweed jacket sitting ahead of me is growing visibly agitated. We're at a mathematics conference at the University of Alberta just before the end of the school year, and things have been predictably calm so far. But twice in the past minute what's coming from the front of the room has made my tweedy neighbour twist angrily in his seat.
Our speaker is Gleb Nosovskii, a mathematics professor from Moscow State University, a man with a long black beard and dark eyes who is deeply serious about the matter at hand. This is only appropriate, because his presentation is nothing short of a mathematical case against history as we know it.
Nosovskii and his Russian colleagues, led by the famous Moscow State geometrician Anatoly Fomen-ko, believe that our "global chronology" is profoundly flawed. They argue that the conventional sequencing of historical events in the Mediterranean and in Europe from 3000 BC to 1600 AD - a chronology they say was formalized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the scientists Josephus Scaliger and Dionysius Petavius, and has never been fundamentally challenged since - is shot through with inexplicable duplications. These duplications, Nosovskii maintains, are revealed through mathematical-pattern analysis.
In essence, it works like this: if you take the number of years ruled by each king in a succession of fifteen kings, you get a series of fifteen numbers that's called a "dynastic function." Now, if you compare one dynastic function from the biblical kingdom of Judea to a dynastic function derived from a series of fifth-century popes, you might be surprised to find these functions looking exactly the same. Your surprise would be justified, because there is an infinitesimally small statistical chance that two different series of fifteen rulers from completely different parts of the global chronology will randomly be born, crowned, and die in precisely the same pattern.
According to Nosovskii, however, there are several dozen examples of such duplication through the ages, right up until reliable historical documentation begins, some time around the sixteenth century. At that point the duplications abruptly stop.
This is so statistically improbable, Nosovskii argues, that one must conclude there are serious errors in Scaliger and Petavius's chronology. Specifically, Nosovskii says their version of history, drawn from accounts in different languages and from different oral traditions, is greatly elongated. To explain the incredible statistical anomalies, the Russian mathematicians are suggesting that early Renaissance historians made mistakes. Some errors might have been honest (such as treating two accounts of the same event as two distinct events) and others could have been intentional (whereby historians, at the behest of their benefactors, might have altered history in their favour). The effect of all this, Nosovskii, Fomenko, et al. believe, is that phantom epochs were added to the global chronology. If they're right, the sweep of human history is overstated by thousands of years and a great number of ancient events happened much more recently than previously thought.
Here at the U of A conference, Nosovskii has spent the past hour using astronomical data to bolster this case. He has redated half a dozen ancient eclipses centuries later than conventionally understood; he has shown us depictions of planets and constellations taken from Egyptian tombs and temples, and has resolved their dates into the medieval era; now, he is approaching the summit of his argument with a reworking of the astronomical data surrounding the first Noël. "And what new date for the birth of Christ will we obtain if we use modern astronomy as our tool?" asks Nosovskii as he prepares his final slide.
The overhead projector hums. The students, professors, and a few curious members of the public wait as the next transparency slides into place. The man who has invited Nosovskii here today, Professor Wieslaw Krawcewicz of the University of Alberta's Department of Mathematical Sciences, is in the front row, craning his neck around, gauging the reaction of the audience. Nosovskii's new date for the birth of Christ fills the screen. The man in tweed in front of me squints and reads. A math student eating an extraordinarily large sandwich stops chewing, his mouth full, and stares.
The man in tweed erupts. He comes an inch out of his chair, makes a noise, falls back. "But that would mean . . . . " he stammers, incredulous. "That would mean that the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea preceded the birth of Christ! That's absurd!"
Krawcewicz registers this reaction without surprise. He knows that campus opinion on Fomenko is already starkly divided, and that a number of professors, most of them historians, think the whole thing is nonsense. Archaeologist Steven Hijmans thinks Krawcewicz shouldn't even have asked Nosovskii here today. "Bluntly put," Hijmans will later say, "can research be so bad that the U of A should not be associated with it?"
In fact, Fomenko's research is built on, and supported by, leading Russian mathematicians, as well as the legendary Russian world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Krawcewicz is one of the few academics in North America familiar with the Russian theories and is also the man instrumental in bringing the battle across the Atlantic. Late last year, Krawcewicz co-authored a paper that no doubt raised the ire of the archaeological community by characterizing their dating methods as "highly subjective and based on presumptive evidence."
Krawcewicz takes particular issue with carbon-14 dating. Since carbon-14 is absorbed by living organisms and decays at a steady rate following death, carbon-14 levels are measured in objects recovered at archaeological sites to determine their age. Krawcewicz notes that the method must be calibrated using carbon-bearing samples of a known age. He argues that since this "known age" is established according to the conventional chronological tables, the dating power of carbon-14 relies on a circular argument. Hijmans disagrees, saying that carbon-14 dating can be calibrated using (among other things) long master sequences of tree rings, a process known as dendochronology. One sees the positions being staked.
In person, Krawcewicz betrays no acrimony towards historians or archaeologists. Neither does he show much concern about the interdepartmental ice storm that his conference and his paper risk unleashing. Instead, he's direct and good-humoured, a jeans-and-sneakers type of professor prone to laugh spontaneously at evidence of human absurdity. We talk in the dining room of his house, the table stacked with math texts.
"Many people don't like the involvement of mathematicians in this particular area," Krawcewicz says. "But the work of Fomenko and his collaborators leads to a very strong statement that there are serious problems with the traditional chronology."
"Complete and utter rubbish," answers Professor Christopher Mac-kay from the Department of History and Classics. It has taken a week of e-mail juggling to get an interview with anyone from the department. Professor Mackay breaks the silence after several others decline. When I arrive at his book-lined, Persian-carpeted office, Mackay turns out to be my man in the tweed coat from Nosovskii's lecture. A specialist in Roman history, Mackay is courteous but deeply impatient with the matter at hand.
"I don't go around coming up with dumb theories about math," he tells me. "I certainly don't have the effrontery to say that I can show them the way they've been doing math is all wrong and that two and two makes five."
"The people who did this research are serious people," says University of Alberta mathematician Jacques Carrière. While he does not agree with Fomenko's conclusions, he's prepared to give the underlying math its due. "Russian mathematicians, it is well known, are among the top mathematicians in the world. They wouldn't write something like this just for the fun of it."
Anatoly Fomenko, a prolific mathematician as well as an artist who publishes tomes of drawings illustrating advanced concepts in such areas as multi-dimensional geometry, has been a chronology critic since the late 1970s, when he caught the bug from a famous fellow Moscow State mathematician, M. M. Postnikov. And even Postnikov is far from the beginning of it all.
Indeed, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) published a book titled The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms - Amended. In it, Newton disagreed with Scaliger and Petavius, concluding that the ancient kingdom of Egypt lasted not two or three thousand years but something closer to four hundred. With the book, Newton launched the dispute over global chronology that is now bubbling over in Edmonton but has been percolating in Russia for almost a century.
The movement in Russia began with Nicolai Morozov (1854-1946), the rebel son of a nobleman. At the time of his epiphany about global chronology, Morozov was in prison for his role in the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Morozov spent his hard time poring over chronology texts and, in this process, invented the dynastic function. In one case - cited in Krawcewicz's paper - Morozov drew up functions showing that the pattern of the Old Testament Judaic kings from Rehoboam to Zedekiah matched almost precisely the pattern of Roman Emperors from Alcinius to Justinian II, over 1,000 years later.
Fomenko took this analysis much further. Using geometric tools, he expressed the similarity or dissimilarity of two dynastic functions in terms of mathematical distance. The mathematical distance between two dynastic functions is expressed as a "proximity coefficient." A large proximity coefficient means the functions are very different, and a small coefficient, statistically speaking, means the functions are so close that they are probably the same.
To illustrate, imagine you have two brothers who separately research and compile your family tree. Both make minor mistakes. As a result, the two trees have different birth and death dates for some people, they leave some people out (different people), and they differ as to exactly how many times your Aunt Bessie was married. Even so, analyzed by Fomenko's methods, the two trees would still be similar and their mathematical proximity would reveal them to be describing the same thing. If you were comparing a series of fifteen medieval popes with the last fifteen mayors of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, on the other hand, the dynastic functions would be very different and the mathematical proximity would reveal them to be describing different events.
Fomenko used this model to compare historical dynasties across a staggering range of data. He began by compiling a complete list of fifteen-ruler successions from 4000 BC to 1800 AD, drawing from all the nations and empires of Western and Eastern Europe, and stretching back into antiquity through Roman, Greek, biblical, and Egyptian history. Comparing one to another in every possible way, including differing accounts of the same dynasties, Fomenko found mathematically what Morozov had sketched - that several dozen pairs of dynasties previously thought to be utterly different had proximity coefficients that were very small. In other words, they were as close as your two brothers' different versions of your family tree.
And Fomenko was just getting warmed up. Working with hundreds of primary-source documents (ancient chronicles, annals, and other records), he set out to confirm the similarity between dynastic functions through the comparison of the documents themselves. In its simplest form, this exercise involves converting the density and volume of words on a page into a mathematical expression. In other words, just as a series of kings may be expressed as a mathematical function for the purpose of comparison, so too may a series of words. He found that wherever two dynastic functions had close proximity, so did the written accounts of their history. This was so statistically improbable that Fomenko concluded that the existing dates were wrong.
In this two-part process, Fomen-ko claims to have found and confirmed repeating patterns between ancient and medieval Rome, and several instances where periods of the Old Testament appear statistically identical to stretches of medieval Roman-German history from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries.
But his most startling assertion emerges from efforts to map dozens of these "discovered" duplications. Plotted across the full breadth of the conventional global chronology, Fomenko's duplications combine to form a macro-duplication. Specifically, there is a stretch from about 1600 BC to 1600 AD that may be mathematically deconstructed to reveal a single large pattern that repeats four times. Fomenko believes this is evidence that early historians spun out a single historical pattern into a chronology that is much too long.
Mathematical dna evidence of chronological error? Or the product of pure chance and thus irrelevant?
Garry kasparov doesn't think it's irrelevant. Before the world's dominant chess player came across Fomenko's research a few years ago, he had his own suspicions about the global chronology. Chess players, of course, are particularly gifted at noticing patterns. And Kasparov, being a history buff, sensed problems intuitively.
"I know a lot of history," Kasparov tells me. "I read a lot and I have a good memory. But I also like to analyze, to figure out various opportunities and compare scenarios. Little by little, I got the feeling that something is wrong with the dates in ancient history."
Kasparov focused on what he feels are illogical fluctuations in the tempo of human development, taking these as evidence of error in the official timeline. In each case, he interpreted these anomalies as errors of elongation, whereby the historians of Scaliger and Petavius's day placed events and accomplishments too far in the past.
The relatively blank period of the Dark Ages is a favourite example. "Conventional wisdom is that with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, science died and took one thousand years to recover," he says. But it is illogical to Kasparov that with the decline of Rome, and the movement of many Roman citizens to the newly flourishing Byzantine capital of Constantinople, they managed to leave all the scientific knowledge of Rome behind them.
Arguments that the Byzantine Church suppressed scientific knowledge don't convince him either. "I don't believe that such important things like the principles of mapping or ballistics could disappear because the Church didn't like them. A science that has military importance will continue in any generation, under any emperor, king, or president."
And what about the strange pace of mathematical development, he says, where the fundamental findings are attributed to the Greeks, who apparently lived centuries before the development of Arabic numerals?
"Then we have a strange gap," Kasparov says. After the Greeks, the Romans did complicated calculations in the areas of architecture, engineering, and ballistics. But they apparently used clunky Roman numerals. "Just try to divide big numbers or figure out the volume of a complicated geometrical figure with Roman numerals," Kasparov points out.
Fomenko's research provided a mathematical underpinning to the discrepancies Kasparov already felt he had discovered. Yet taken independently, how reliable is this math?
"I have no problems with the math," says Professor Carrière. "People might be intimidated by it, but they should just accept the mathematical conclusions for what they are and not really argue about that, but argue about the other issues, the interpretation, the reasons why."
"I am persuaded that there is a case to be answered, at least," says Professor Jack Macki, a specialist in differential equations. "It's sound mathematics and statistics, and it can be used to indicate. It can't be used to prove, but it can indicate."
What is more persuasive, Macki and Carrière agree, is the astronomical data that Fomenko uses to buttress his argument that history is too long and that many historical events happened more recently than we thought. His work with Egyptian horoscopes provides a colourful example. Adorning the temple walls and sarcophagi of some Egyptian ruins are depictions of the sun, moon, and planets as observed in the different zodiacal constellations. Assuming a given depiction is accurate - that the celestial bodies were observed and placed correctly in the constellations - a horoscope can be used for dating. Fomenko has interpreted over a dozen Egyptian horoscopes. All of them, he claims, work out for dates that are hundreds of years later than conventionally thought. Most well-documented ancient eclipses, Fomenko likewise believes, actually took place in the medieval period.
I ran two of Fomenko's new eclipse solutions by Roger Sinnott, who studied astronomy at Harvard and is an editor at the respected Sky & Telescope Magazine. The first is the famous trio of eclipses from Thucydides's account of the Pelopponesian War. The three eclipses date conventionally to 431, 424, and 413 BC. Fomenko finds what he feels are better solutions in 1133, 1140, and 1151 AD. The second example is the eclipse of 190 BC described in Livy's history of Rome. Fomenko redates this event to 967 AD.
More important to Fomenko is the fact that his dates accommodate details from ancient descriptions that the conventional dates do not. For example, Thucydides wrote that the first of his three eclipses was solar and that the stars were visible, from which an astronomer might deduce that the eclipse was total. The accepted solution of August 3, 431 BC involves an eclipse that was probably only partial in Greece. Similarly, the Livy eclipse is supposed to have happened five days before the ides of July, which by our conventional reckoning would date it July 10. Fomenko's 967 AD solution nails that date, while the conventional 190 BC eclipse actually occurred on March 14. (An alternative eclipse in 188 BC was on July 17, which is close.)
Sinnott confirmed that eclipses did take place on the dates Fomenko has chosen. These details aside, Sinnott does not buy the theory. Given that these events predate Julius Caesar, there was no standard calendar in place. This results in all kinds of dating confusion when we try to back-calculate using ancient chronicles. Sinnott concludes, "Even though Fomenko has found valid eclipse dates that seem to fit the descriptions, I think it is far-fetched in the extreme to conclude that the chronology of the ancient world is 'off' by more than one thousand years."
Far-Fetched would be putting it mildly for historian Christopher Mackay. For starters, he's not impressed by the credentials of Nicolai Morozov. "Morozov was a rich kid and a thug," he says. "And apparently he must have been some kind of real Bolshevik because he lasted under Stalin until 1946."
More fundamentally, Mackay thinks Morozov's data are suspect. He agrees with archaeologist Stephen Hijmans on this point, who has identified a raft of what he considers to be data irregularities from the Morozov chart that appears in Krawcewicz's paper, now posted on a university web site. Two Holy Roman German emperors are combined. Others are missing. Some dates of rule do not coincide with the accepted record. The mathematicians respond by saying this arises when comparing all available accounts of the dynasties in question, not just the conventional ones.
As for the credibility of Newton's work, Mackay just rolls his eyes. Scientists of Newton's era didn't have the languages. No Egyptian, no Babylonian, no Summerian. "Basically Newton was in no position to talk about this kind of thing," he says. "It would be like talking about Euclid's interpretation of the theory of relativity."
Professor Mackay is even more dismissive of the new date for the birth of Christ. In his lecture, Nosovskii used certain "facts" in his calculation. Christ was thirty-one years old when he died. The resurrection took place on March 25, a Sunday. Passover fell on March 24. And finally, the resurrection must occur on one of the designated Easter dates, as defined in an old church text called the Easter Book. All these dates were used by Nosovskii in his recalculation of Christ's birth date to 1064 AD (which, by the way, means we are really living not in a new millennium, but in the year 936 AD).
"Which is simply absurd," says Mackay. He points out that the dates and the Easter Book were medieval additions and so can't be taken as reliable. "None of that stuff was in the Bible. It's not justified out of the New Testament. It has no evidentiary value. It's irrelevant."
And Fomenko's other astronomical solutions are equally irrelevant, says Mackay. "I mean, which are you going to believe? That all the Egyptologists are complete idiots and don't know what they're talking about? And that this one horoscope is somehow so accurate that you can get an absolute chronological date that is manifestly insane?"
He warms to this topic, reddening as the wind whips trees in the courtyard outside. The real issue here, he says, is the fact that the conclusions of Fomenko and his supporters are much more problematic than the duplications they set out to explain.
Nothing highlights this more efficiently for Mackay than the chaos created by redating the eclipses of Thucydides and Livy. This is because Fomenko's new dates not only bring the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides) and the rise of Rome (Livy) up over 1,000 years in absolute terms, but they reorder them. This, Mackay stresses, simply cannot be.
"In the time of the Peloponnesian War," Mackay explains patiently, "mainland Greece and western Asia Minor were the heartland of the Greek world. Eighty years after the war's end, Alexander the Great conquers the Persian Empire, Greeks spread throughout the Near East, and three big monarchies are set up: the Seleucid, the Antigonid, and the Ptolemaic. The Antigonid dynasty is brought to an end when the Romans defeat them at the Battle of Pydna. That presupposes the existence of Alexander the Great. No Alexander the Great, no Antigonid dynasty."
And no Battle of Pydna. So in other words, putting the celestial events of Livy in front of those of Thucydides flips the historical effect in front of its cause.
"It's just completely insane," Mackay concludes. "We have a historical tradition that covers entirely, in great and vast and interlocking detail, the past two thousand years."
In effect Mackay is saying that duplications and historical anomalies are irrelevant given this veritable river of human record-keeping dropping sediment grain by grain, year by year, epoch by epoch, silting out slowly into the delta of global chronology. That delta accumulating beneath our feet is history. To misunderstand its origin, to capriciously seek its revision is nothing less than an attempt to move the earth on which we stand.
The wind has died down and the sun is dappling the courtyard again. Just before I leave, there's a knock at the door. It's the associate professor of history Andrew Gow, a full-bearded, thin-framed man with an immediate assessment of his own once he finds out that Fomenko is on the table.
"This is all perfectly analogous," says Gow, "to us telling the math department that it is a fraud for its use of zero, pointing out that there was no zero in antiquity, that zero did not exist, that you invented it yourself to make things easier. And thus, the entire understanding of mathematics, as you would have it, reposes on a fallacy."
It's difficult to imagine how this debate will play out on the University of Alberta campus in the fall when archaeologist Steven Hijmans publishes a rebuttal paper in the campus newspaper. On the one hand, many academics think the discussion is itself dangerous, not fit for academic consumption. "Nosovskii's visit raises questions, not about world chronology, but about minimum levels of academic quality," says Hijmans.
On the other hand, there are the mathematicians. Krawcewicz and Nosovskii both express a great interest in and willingness to begin cross-disciplinary discussions, to open up the matter to historians and archaeologists alike, to jointly consider the issues. And even those who don't endorse Fomenko's conclusions agree that valid mathematical questions have been raised. "It would be a massive irresponsibility not to deal with it and either prove that it's wrong or, if there's something here, find out what in the world is going on," says math professor Jack Macki. Jacques Carrière concludes, "To have a definitive answer to the thing, the problem has to be looked at by other research groups."
But an atmosphere of suspicion and challenge notwithstanding, there is some hope for dialogue. History professor Mackay says he would like to see the mathematicians answer some of the questions he has raised - issues surrounding Morozov's data or the chaos created by redating eclipses. "Oh, they absolutely must reply," says Mackay, "because it won't work."
Krawcewicz certainly seems hap-py to comply. "This is a monumental task," he says of the multidisciplinary project that he imagines would be required to correct what he sees as a chronological mess. "Nevertheless such reversals happened before in astronomy, mechanics, chemistry, physics, and even in mathematics. There were also reversals in economics and psychology as well. This is history's turn."
Just before I leave, Krawcewicz takes a textbook from one of the stacks. He asks me, with a mischievous smile, "Do you know this St. Augustine quote about mathematicians?"
I don't, so he reads it to me.
"The good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of hell."
It provokes another delighted laugh from the professor.
Posted: Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010 9:50am