The tablet contains four columns and 15 rows of cuneiform numbers, which conform to the Pythagorean theorem — the relationship between three sides of a right triangle. Over the years, researchers have theorized that the tablet was evidence of the use of trigonometry, while others have suggested that the tablet might have been mathematical exercises used by a teacher. This new study claims that the tablet could be evidence “of a completely unfamiliar kind and was ahead of its time by thousands of years.”
Mansfield and Wildberger say that if their interpretation is correct, Plimpton 322 would not only be the oldest known trigonometric table, but it would also be the “world’s only completely accurate trigonometric table.” The study’s authors note that this form of trigonometry is different from what’s used today: it wouldn’t use angles or approximations, because that base-60 system would allow mathematicians to use whole numbers, leading to exact calculations, which in turn would be useful for constructing fields, canals, or buildings.
The theory is not without some criticism, according to Science. Historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin notes that there’s no proof that the Babylonians used this tablet for construction, while mathematical historian Christine Proust of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris says that while the idea makes sense, it’s “highly speculative.”