Hard on the heels of the strange viral dress controversy, the public radio program Radiolab comes out with the sensationalist headline that at a certain time in human history, we could not "see" the color blue.
(UPDATE: For an ancient color specialist's blog post, go here.)
Image: a bit of the Aegean Sea near the island of Spetses, Greece.
This phenomenon includes the ancient Greeks, and in particular, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer, who never called the sea "blue" but often called it "wine-dark."
"But do you really see something if you don't have a name for it?" was the question asked by an article digesting the program.
Apparently Radiolab thinks the go-to expert for insight on color in ancient Greece is William Gladstone, the famous British Prime Minister of the 19th century, who was also a scholar of classics.
Gladstone believed that ancient minds were more primitive than ours, and in fact that they were just beginning to develop because creation had occurred only a few thousand years before.
Radiolab seeks to reinforce this questionable insight through anthropologists' study of non-technological societies, some of which seem not to see the difference between green and blue.
They thus perpetuate the outdated but evergreen idea of an "us" versus "them" attitude towards unfamiliar cultures where "we" are more scientific and by implication better, and "they " are benighted and incapable of "seeing" things.
Gladstone's own phrase was that human beings were "in the childhood of the race."
Instead of concluding that ancient and/or "primitive" peoples were incapable of seeing certain colors, perhaps it would have made sense for Radiolab to do a little research closer to our own day. They might have found Evelyn Irwin's Colour Terms in Greek Poetry, in which it is argued that Homer's color system is not based on hue but on a "basic, pervasive opposition of black and white."
An article on the color of Athena's aegis from 2009, furthermore, states that "Colour in this context is accorded more than a strict chromatic meaning and is assessed as a symbol and signifier in the context of discourses between artists, authors and their audiences." The notes refer to numerous other similar studies.
This theory makes no suppositions about the biological capabilities of ancient peoples, but instead concerns itself with their preferences and emphases.
My students often ask when we are going to learn the colors and the numbers in Latin, as they do in elementary school Spanish. The numbers we learn eventually, but I have to tell them that we are not going to learn the colors, because there is no dominant term for the colors of the prism in ancient Rome.
That doesn't mean that Romans didn't "see" blue or couldn't name it, but that they were not taught from early on (preschoolers are often asked, "Do you know your colors?") that there is one over-arching dominant term for a certain swath of the spectrum of a prism. At some point after the Enlightenment, this became an important thing for students to know, but it is not important for ordinary human life.
I believe the Romans and Greeks saw shades, not ideals. If they didn't use one umbrella term for blue, it is because that umbrella term is arbitrary and learned. (By the way, they and the Greeks had plenty of terms for blue shades. Here is a link to the ones in Latin.)
Ancient peoples and non-technological peoples of today had and have the same faculties as we do. But they do not have the same fetish for scientific categorization.