The Real Reason Ancient People Didn't See The Color Blue

One of the most soothing colors is the color blue. Interior designers say if you want a more relaxing space, you should paint it blue. But, if you lived during ancient times, you might not have the chance even to choose that color. Scientists have found that the color blue didn't exist for ancient peoples, particularly the Greeks. In ancient Greek texts like those attributed to Homer, there was no mention of the word blue at all, explained Radiolab. There are several references to the color red, but no blue, not even when talking about the sea or the sky.

It turns out, blue is a relatively recent phenomenon. Business Insider reported researchers learned of this when one scholar, William Gladstone (who also later became a prime minister of the UK), realized Homer used strange colors to describe certain things. For example, iron and sheep are described as violet, while honey is green. Black and white appeared hundreds of times, but other colors — red, yellow, and green — were rare. And blue? None at all. Gladstone decided to look at other Greek texts to test out a theory. The same result.

Gladstone theorized the Greeks were colorblind. He believed that they only saw black and white, and maybe a tiny bit of red. He thought the Greeks had trouble seeing colors they didn't know, so the next generation tried harder to see it. Other people disagreed with Gladstone; as Radiolab said, he was mocked by colleagues.

Others didn't have the word blue, either

Another researcher, Lazarus Geiger, wanted to know if other cultures failed to mention blue. Looking through Hindu, Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew texts, Geiger found blue didn't figure in any of these writings, either. It's not as if these other cultures did not write about color; they just never used blue to describe anything. But one ancient civilization did. ScienceAlert wrote the ancient Egyptians knew about blue. The Egyptians, after all, were the only people who successfully created a blue dye. They also used the color in their makeup.

Geiger learned that there was a pattern to how cultures start naming colors. First, they will identify black and white, or darkness and light. They move on to name colors for blood and wine, said Ancient Origins. This is followed by yellow, and then green. The last color-related word to enter most ancient vocabularies was blue. These days, of course, we think of blue as an extremely essential color. It's one of the primary colors and is one of the many colors in the rainbow.

But many cultures have a hard time distinguishing blue from other colors, and if they can't point it out, they will not have a name for it. Scientists agree: It's not that ancient cultures couldn't see blue; they just couldn't identify it as different from other colors, and therefore did not give it a name. Proof was sought for the theory.

Blue is green and green is blue

The Himba tribe of Namibia didn't have a word for green and did not distinguish blue from green. In 2006, researcher Jules Davidoff launched a project to test if they could see blue. Members of the tribe were shown a circle made of different squares. Each square showed a shade of green, with one being a blue square. They were asked to pick out the color that was not like the rest. To others, it wouldn't hard to point to the blue square but, for the tribe, it took far longer. It appeared that they even considered the blue square as green, because some people chose a different square as the odd one out.

The test showed that not only did the Himba tribe have a name for all shades of green, but that they considered blue as green because they had no name for it. It's the same way some shades of colors don't get names until we decide identify them individually. For many people, tan was just brown until we started calling it something else. Or that violet and purple are the same (as Jakub Marian writes, they are not). Oddly enough, a later study found that some native Russian speakers identified many different shades of blue.

So no, ancient people weren't colorblind; they just didn't have a name for blue. It does make you wonder what they'll make of the infamous blue and black dress (via Wired).