General Question

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Just exactly who thought the Earth was flat?

Asked by MyNewtBoobs (19026points) September 30th, 2010

We have tons of records of people saying “oh, people in the olden days used to think the world was flat, but now we know better”. But do we have any records of people saying “I think the world is flat”? Is there any reason besides “because we’ve all been told it since a very young age” to believe that people didn’t always know the Earth was round?

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31 Answers

laureth's avatar

This may help.

This too.

I hate linking to Wiki as any kind of reliable source, but it pretty much answers the question here.

Qingu's avatar

How would you know the earth was round? Seriously. Especially if you didn’t live in a place where you could see the horizon’s curvature.

Qingu's avatar

As far as sources, the earth is portrayed as flat in Mesopotamian myths, including the Bible. The sky is a dome that holds up an ocean above it. The earth is like a dinner plate below this dome. And below the earth is another ocean. (In the Enuma Elish, the sky is physically the corpse of the ocean goddess, stretched out above the earth).

A similar shape is found in ancient Greek (not philosophical) texts; in the Iliad, Achiles’ shield (iirc) portrays Oceanus, the ocean that encircles the flat earth. Hindu mythology contains sort of similar imagery, and I’m pretty sure there’s an Egyptian myth with a sky goddess shaped like a dome.

Considering all these texts that describe the earth as flat, and the complete lack of any texts from the same period that describe it as round—and the intellectual difficulty of figuring out that it’s round in the first place—I think it seems pretty obvious and warranted to conclude.

talljasperman's avatar

actually the earth is oval shaped… a distorted sphere due to gravity and spin

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@talljasperman Yes, but the difference between round and oval is more of a technical one. The difference between flat and spherical of any kind is much larger, and has much larger implications.

Chickidee's avatar

Practically everyone in the 1400s besides Christopher columbus. they thought this because nobody had ever traveled the way columbus did so they thought that was it, no more land. They also didn’t have the knowledge and technology that proved it impossible. though they didn’t exactly prove it possible, they didn’t really have reason for doubt. hope that helps.
-luv Chickidee

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Chickidee It doesn’t unless you have a first-person source.

Chickidee's avatar

okayy… i tried

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Chickidee It’s cool, just check this out and you might understand why I need the sources:

Qingu's avatar

@Chickidee, people knew the earth was round in the 1400’s. Maybe not serfs, but there are lots of scholarly texts from the time that mention it. It’s a myth that only Columbus knew.

The ancient Greeks knew the earth was round, and they were a long time before Columbus.

Also what papayalily said. :)

citizenearth's avatar

Many ignorant people thought so, for convenience’s sake.

Rarebear's avatar

The Earth was not only known to be spherical to the ancient Greeks, but Eratosthenes calculated the circumference in an ingenious experiment to within 1% of the true circumference.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Rarebear So then no first-person sources saying “I think the world is flat”?

roundsquare's avatar

@papayalily I think you are asking a lot for a question people generally are answering form what they remember as a kid.

What I remember being taught is that even the ancient greeks knew the world was round becuase
a) They saw ships going way and slowly decending.
b) They could see the shadow of the earth during a lunar eclipse.

I’d imagine that most people thought the earth was flat in the sense that it was for all practical purposes flat and they never bothered to think about it.

The whole Columbus thing is, as far as I can remember from grade school, not true.

funkdaddy's avatar

It may be worth mentioning before more “no first person sources” responses that you’d be looking for a first person account from someone who

- was uneducated (we’ve established that scholars knew the world was round 2500 years ago)
– probably couldn’t write
– lived when history and accounts were primarily passed along verbally

The closest you’re probably going to get is artwork, which can come with a certain amount of interpretation.

If you’re looking for the daily diary of a 12th century common man where he laments the flatness of the Earth, I don’t know that you’re going to find it. He couldn’t write, he didn’t have paper laying around, and I would guess his focus was on more pragmatic subjects.

Maybe a first person account isn’t really what you’re looking for?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@roundsquare It may be a tall demand, but it’s for a history class, so I’m not looking for the layman’s answer.

@funkdaddy Nope, I’m definitely looking for a first person source. A diary or other personal works would be awesome. I know they’re rare, but I still want to find them. It’s ok if no one on Fluther has a first-person source they can point me to, but that’s definitely what I’m looking for.

Qingu's avatar

What exactly is the assignment for the class?

I agree with @funkdaddy that asking for a bronze-age person’s diary account of a flat earth is probably an unreasonable demand. There are a lot of myths you could cite, including the Enuma Elish, Genesis, and the Iliad. There’s also a lot of surviving Babylonian astronomy tablets that might be helpful.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Qingu It’s not… There’s no larger question or issue that you can help me with. And it’s not an unreasonable demand, since I’m not demanding anything. If it’s out there, that’s great, and if it’s not, that’s great also. But it does have to be a first-person account.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Qingu That link doesn’t work.

funkdaddy's avatar

First Person Accounts of Belief in a Flat Earth

The wiki may be especially helpful to find historical accounts.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

@talljasperman the correct term is ‘oblate spheroid’.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – How would you know the earth was round especially if you didn’t live in a place where you could see the horizon’s curvature?

The ancient Greek knew and the explanation was relatively simple. There were stars they couldn’t see in Alexandria. All year round. They traveled south following the river Nile. Near the horizon they noticed stars they hadn’t seen before. New stars. How was that possible? This wouldn’t happen while traveling south on a flat Earth.

So the only people who thought the Earth was flat were those who didn’t travel in a north-southbound direction or who didn’t bother about the details of the night sky.

Rarebear's avatar

@mattbrowne Or the position of the sun. That’s how the circumference was originally calculated by the Greek I noted above. Basically he stuck a stick in the ground and measured the angle of the sun at noon by measuring the shadow. Then he went a specified distance north and did the same thing exactly the same time the next year. He then used geometry to figure out the circumference.

Qingu's avatar

I also heard the Greeks figured it out because they lived in a mountainous region and there are places high enough where you could see the curvature of the horizon clearly. not sure if that’s true.

Obviously, you could figure it out, because people did… perhaps more people than the ancient Greeks. But I think it would have been pretty damn difficult, and you’d have to be both smart and willing to drastically question your assumptions. Like, new stars wouldn’t automatically imply the earth was round, you’d need to follow that clue a lot farther to come to that conclusion.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

@Qingu as seafarers, the Greeks noticed that as a vessel vanished beyond the horizon, the last thing to be seen was its masts, which suggested to them that the Earth’s surface was curved.

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, there are multiple ways to figure it out without having to build space shuttles. Some months ago I read an interesting book about

who was probably the first to document the heliocentric model, long before Copernicus.

@Qingu – I wasn’t talking about novae or supernovae. I meant stars not visible in Athens or Alexandria. And always visible at the Nile headwaters.

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