We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. That there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a full circle, are all echoes of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60. An affinity for base 12 (inches in a foot, pence in an old British shilling) is also an offshoot, 12 being a factor of 60.

All this suggests that the Babylonians had a mathematics worth copying, which was why the Greeks did copy it and thereby rooted these number systems in Western tradition. The latest indication of Babylonian mathematical sophistication is the discovery that their astronomers knew that, in effect, the distance traveled by a moving object is equal to the area under the graph of velocity plotted against time. Previously it had been thought that this relationship wasn’t recognized until the fourteenth century in Europe. But since historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of the Humboldt University in Berlin found the calculation described in a series of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing in Babylonia during the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E., where it was used to figure out the distance traveled across the sky by the planet Jupiter.

It’s a startling find. But media accounts of the work have exaggerated its significance for understanding what the Babylonians were up to when they did astronomy. Some have implied that the tablet shows the Babylonians “invented geometry,” or even that they invented calculus. The reports betray an urge to turn the Babylonians into the equivalent of modern-day astronomers in sandals and loin-cloths, diligently mapping the heavens in order to understand the cosmos.