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  • Sambhavi Sinha

Blue: Story Of The Color That Didn't Exist Until Recently

Would you believe if we told you humans didn’t actually see the colour blue until modern times?

This was a phenomenon William Gladstone, former PM of the UK, discovered in 1858 while studying Homer’s ‘Odessey’. He noticed that there were detailed descriptions of everything – clothing, weaponry, facial features, armour – but no mentions of the colour ‘blue’ anywhere. In fact, there were few mentions of colour at all. And in those few places where it was mentioned, it was quite strange; violet sheep and metal, green honey, wine-dark seas...

Curious, Gladstone decided to study other ancient Greek texts to see if this was a ‘Greek’ thing, or just a Homer thing. Homer’s descriptions of ‘wine-dark seas’ and violet metal could just as easily be an attempt to evoke a particular imagery, or emotion, right?

But anyway, Gladstone studied many other ancient Greek texts and eventually came to the same conclusion. Colours, apart from black and white, were mentioned fewer that fifty times total in the Odessey, and the other Greek texts followed the same theme. There were no mentions of ‘blue’ at all.

A man named Lazarus Geiger (1829 – 1870) was curious about these findings too; now that it had been established that it was indeed a ‘Greek’ thing and not just a ‘Homer’ thing, the next question was whether or not this was limited to just the Greeks. So, he studied the texts of various other cultures – Hebrew, Hindu, Icelandic, Korean, Chinese – and found the same thing. No mentions of blue. There were the reds and oranges of sunsets, the green of leaves, but no blue water or blue skies. It was like our ancestors straight up didn’t see ‘blue’ at all. Geiger actually has a theory that links the development of colour vision to the development of langauge, which is worth a read.

The only ancient culture that could see ‘blue’ (on record) were the Egyptians. In fact, ‘Egyptian Blue’ (which you probably know by its European name, ‘Cerulean’) is probably the first synthetically produced pigment ever, having been made back in 2200 BC.

Egyptian Blue (copper-calcium tetrasilicate) bottle with openwork shell adorned with the Hathor-head, flanked by the two uraei; the rim and the base are shaped like a lotus flower, ca. 1070-718 BCE; now in the Brooklyn Museum
Egyptian Blue Bottle, ca. 1070-718 BCE

Now, some of you might say, ‘But wait! There are clearly mentions of ‘neel’ in Hindu mythology, and the very term ‘indigo’ means ‘from India’, so surely we had some blue too?’ An excellent point! If anyone has more knowledge about the Vedas and other assorted Hindu texts, we would love to hear about it from you in the comments. But for the time being, here’s what we do know about that; the Vedas were passed down as oral literature since about 2000 BC (about 200 years after the first records of Egyptian Blue), and they were not written down until 1800 BC. We have blue gods, definitely; but we don’t know if they were always blue, or if that was imagery we picked up after the Egyptians started trading with India and told us words for the colour of the sky. What we do know though, from what written documents we have, is that it’s only after the Egyptians started trading with other civilizations that the others started writing about ‘blue skies’, or flowers, or dyes.

This raised the question; why? Did other civilizations just not have things that were blue? After all, blue isn’t a commonly occurring colour in nature. But what about peacocks, then? The Blue Peafowl is native to India and there is art of them dating back to Mesopotamian times.

Pavo Cristatus - Indian Peafowl, Blue Peafowl; Head and plumage displaying the blue colour and iridescence of its feathers.
Indian Peafowl

Did human sense of colours develop over time, the way aquatic creatures developed legs? Were our ancestors colourblind, as the Met suggests? Did they not see it because they didn’t have a name for it, or did they not have a name for it because they didn’t see it? The only way to know for sure would be to ask them. Obviously, this presents a conundrum we are not equipped to fully decode until we invent time travel.

...But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. British professor Jules Davidoff decided to investigate this with the tools we do have available. In Namibia, in southwest Africa, he met with the people of the Himba tribe, who are the closest thing we have to what we presume ancient blue-blind cultures to be; they have no word for blue. The tribe’s language has several names for various different shades of green though, more than in English, among other colours like red and yellow. Davidoff ran an experiment with them- he gave them a set of 12 squares- eleven green and one quite clearly blue. They had to identify the blue square.

The Himba Tribe Experiment - How do humans see colour?
The Himba Tribe Experiment - Left; 11 green and 1 blue; required blue to be identified, Right - 12 green, 1 with slightly different shade of green to be identified

They could not identify the blue square. And of those who could, they took a while to do it, and made mistakes on the way.

So, Davidoff ran another experiment. This time, the question was, ‘is it only blue that we couldn’t see?’. The Himba tribe had so many words for green; maybe they saw things the rest of the world couldn’t, just as we see blue and they don’t.

A diagram explaining how green and blue can be viewed as similar enough to not warrant a name for them both.
Variations of blue/green

The experiment was for English speaking people to try and identify, in a set of twelve green squares, which one was slightly different. They could not! (how the tables have turned). And sure enough, when he asked the tribes-people to try it as well, they could spot it easily.

Keep all that in mind for what we’ll be discussing next. You know how human eyes have three colour receptors that allow us to see all the colours that we do? 1 million colours, just from those three receptors. Now; what if I told you there is a creature, a real creature on this planet, that had sixteen colour receptors?

Odontodactylus scyllarus - also known as the peacock mantis shrimp, harlequin mantis shrimp, painted mantis shrimp, clown mantis shrimp or rainbow mantis shrimp
Mantis Shrimp

It’s called the Mantis Shrimp and it’s the kind of creature that makes you believe in magic (Unicorns are overrated anyway). Moreover; the way we see colour, which is dependent on the way light reflects and refracts, suggests that there is no such thing as colour at all. If the number of cones we have in our eyes and the angle of light reflection decides what colours we see; the Mantis Shrimp could see a billion different colours that we can’t even imagine in places where we just see one.

We could get philosophical here and say all this is a metaphor for trying to see things from other people’s perspectives. And it absolutely is! But it’s also more than that. It forces us to ask questions like, if something isn’t visible, does that mean it doesn’t exist? What if someone else sees it, but you can’t? What if everyone sees it differently? Is the way we see things actually the way they are?

Does it matter?

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Written by Sambhavi Sinha, Content Writer at Skyshot Media.


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