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Numerals, Cognition, and History
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The Lost Millennium

The Lost Millennium

History's Timetables Under Siege
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Where Did the Time Go?

Those whose chronology is confused cannot give a true account of history.

Mexicans call Cuernavaca “the city of the eternal spring.” In the Tepozteco Valley, where the city rests, the mornings are clear, the afternoons turn hazy, and the evenings are blessed with a tropical ­rain.

I spent a week in September 1994 a few miles from the city, in the ­hacienda-­style resort of Cocoyoc. The place would have resembled the Garden of Eden were it not for the volcanic mountain Popocatépetl, which – though too far away to pose an imminent threat – loomed in the distance, rings of smoke hanging above its icy cone. A conference had brought together mathematicians from three continents. All week we had listened to lectures, solved problems, discussed ideas, and learned new techniques to help us keep up with developments in our ­field.

On the last day of the conference, I was having lunch with fellow mathematicians Tudor Ratiu and Ernesto ­Pérez-­Chavela. Like me, Tudor had been born and raised in Romania. Nine years my senior, he now taught at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Ernesto, a young professor at the Universidad Autónoma ­Metropolitana-­Iztapalapa in Mexico City, was a ­co-­organizer of the Cocoyoc ­meeting.

During lunch, Ernesto told us the story of Cocoyoc. In the local dialect, cocoyoc means coyote, an animal often seen in the area centuries ago. The resort, endowed with swimming pools, tennis courts, and a golf course, had once been a hacienda and apparently had been founded almost five centuries ago by the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés. Ernesto’s account of Cocoyoc’s origin sounded like a legend. It might have been true, but it made us wonder how much fiction finds its way into the history ­books.

“It’s a fascinating subject,” Tudor said. “It reminds me of a Russian colleague, Anatoli Fomenko, who thinks that a lot of the ‘historical record’ is fiction. So he’s researching history with mathematical tools.”

Ernesto looked surprised, and I must have too, for Tudor asked if we knew about Fomenko. We hadn’t heard of him before, but the idea of applying mathematics to the study of history seemed interesting enough. My knowledge of such applications didn’t go beyond understanding the simple differential equation that explains carbon ­dating.

“He’s from the University of Moscow,” Tudor explained, “and is quite active in several fields of mathematics. Something of a polymath. I met him in Berkeley a few years ago. His work in chronology has convinced him that the Middle Ages never happened. Apparently the authorities who fixed the dates misinterpreted the ancient documents, and their mistakes have been perpetuated ever since. Fomenko believes that the history of humankind is about a thousand years shorter than we think.”

“He can’t be serious,” I ­said.

History has been an interest of mine since I was eleven. In my early teenage years I wanted to become an archaeologist, to discover and explore ancient ruins and unravel the mystery of lost kingdoms. I was fascinated with the idea of digging the earth and finding traces of dead civilizations. The curiosity I felt for antiquity was fuelled by the books I had read about Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Hittites of Asia Minor, the Hebrew and the ­Minoan-­Mycenaean civilizations, early India, China, and Eurasia, the Assyrian Empire, Dacia, Thrace, and the Greek and Roman ­worlds.

But my gift for the exact sciences and success in math­ematics competitions steered me in a different direction. Nevertheless, my interest in antiquity survived, and I kept up my reading in ancient history, watched documentaries, and continued to learn new things about the distant past of humankind. So, not surprisingly, my first reaction to Fomenko’s claim was total ­disbelief.

“He’s very serious,” Tudor said, “but don’t ask me why. If I remember well, it’s not only the Middle Ages. He thinks that several shorter periods, which add up to a thousand years, have been created by mistakes in the dating process.”

“A millennium that lost its way in history?” Ernesto ­asked.

“Something like that.”

“Has he published anything about it?” I ­inquired.

“Plenty. I got a paper from him last week, a day or two before leaving Santa Cruz.”

“What about?” I ­replied.

“It’s an examination of ancient and medieval dynasties. He argues that many of them overlap instead of being successive.”

“That’s hard to believe,” I said. “Real historians must have thought about those things.”

“I’d give him the benefit of the doubt,” Ernesto said. “Think of Einstein or Newton or Darwin. They were unknown in their field once, but they proved everyone wrong. That’s how scientific revolutions happen.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I said. “I have no experience with chronology. Still, this sounds incredible.” Then, turning to Tudor, I asked: “Is Fomenko trustworthy?”

“I don’t know him well, but he’s a brilliant mathemat­ician. He has written a dozen books and more than a hundred articles – excellent, as far as my field is concerned. I’ve also heard that he’s just been elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences. It’s a highly respected institution.”

Tudor and I had spent hours talking together that week in Cocoyoc. He’s a skilled mathematician, and I trusted his judgment. If he didn’t dismiss Fomenko’s claims from the outset, it meant I had to keep an open mind. But I would have liked to see the ­arguments.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Is he right?”

“He’s not bluffing, but I have no idea if he’s right. Other people must agree with him, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to publish this stuff in serious journals.”

“Has he written any books on chronology?” Ernesto ­asked.

“Yes, in Russian. But – if I remember correctly – an English translation is either about to come out or is in print already.”

I made a mental note to track it down once I returned ­home.

“From what I remember of the history I learned in school,” Ernesto said, “the Middle Ages are not well documented.”

“This is definitely true for the history of Romania,” I said. “The Romans conquered Dacia in AD 106, then mixed with the Dacians and imposed their language and culture. But in 271 they withdrew their legions and moved them south of the Danube, which was a good shield against barbarian attacks. From then until the twelfth century we know only about the kings Gelu, Glad, and Menumorut, who reigned over some parts of Transylvania, and whom the Hungarian rulers fought when invading the region. But aside from these details, more than eight hundred years of Romanian history are unaccounted for.”

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