X

6 Things We Picture Wrong About the Ancient World

Egyptian hieroglyphs in Mortuary Temple of Seti I, Luxor City, Egypt
EvrenKalinbacak/Shutterstock

It often seems like we all have a collective fascination with ancient history. We flock to the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of Greece on vacation. We adore documentaries that enlighten us on what life might have been like millennia ago. We wonder what secrets the Great Library of Alexandria held, and what events might have sparked the myth of Atlantis.

A lot of our thinking about the ancient world relies on speculation. After all, we have limited information with which to build our conceptions of these long-gone cultures. However, some popular misconceptions continue to prevail today, even after researchers have proven them wrong.

What have we been picturing wrong all this time? Here are a few of the most surprising false ideas about ancient history.

Dinosaurs Looked Reptilian

First, let’s go back to the super-ancient days, before that meteor came along and changed everything.

When you picture a dinosaur, you probably picture the popular image of a scaly, reptile-like beast. For a more accurate image, however, try picturing something like a big, scary chicken instead.

While many people know that birds descended from dinosaurs, and that some dinosaurs had wings, we still mostly imagine the dinosaurs on the ground as giant lizards. Yet, the latest research suggests that most dinosaurs looked more like birds than anything else.

New discoveries of more-detailed fossils have helped us better understand what dinosaurs really looked like. Because we had to put together the idea of dinosaurs using very limited fossil evidence, you can forgive paleontologists for getting it wrong at first. However, the consensus today is pretty clear: most dinosaurs were basically big, weird-looking, flightless birds.

Paleolithic Humans Ate Paleo Diets

The Paleo diet is one of the biggest modern food trends. This diet attempts to replicate what humans ate in the Paleolithic era, and focuses on foods you could get as a hunter-gatherer. On the Paleo diet, you can eat unprocessed meats and fish, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Processed foods, grains, dairy, and other “modern” foods are all off-limits.

While the Paleo diet is fairly healthy as diets go, it’s a far cry from what Paleolithic humans really ate. For one thing, the species of plants and animals we eat now are far different from the species Paleo humans ate. Natural selection and human interference have almost completely changed our food sources. And, of course, real Paleo diets also varied greatly, depending on which part of the world Paleolithic humans were located.

Paleolithic humans also didn’t have the ready access to meat that we have today. They likely relied more heavily on plants than on meat—so the real Paleo diet would involve being vegetarian most of the time, with just a little bit of meat on occasion.

Ancient Greeks Wore Togas

Heroes of ancient Greek myths Dionysus and Ariadne with jugs of wine
Hoika Mikhail/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever pictured Socrates holding his famously weird debates in a toga, you’re not alone. However, the toga wasn’t a Greek invention at all. It was actually popularized by the Romans, who first adopted the idea from the Etruscans (who ultimately ended up assimilating into Roman culture).

The Etruscans called their version of togas “trebennas.” Unlike modern conceptions suggest, their togas weren’t always plain white. Instead, they often decorated them with lush colors and decorative borders. Later, the Romans took the idea of the toga and made it a status symbol for the aristocratic class.

So, what did the Greeks really wear? Although they didn’t have togas, they did have something similar: the himation. The himation was a piece of fabric worn on top of their clothes for warmth, but it likely helped inspire the Roman toga, as well.

Ancient Egyptians Wrote in Hieroglyphs

Imagine ancient Egyptian writing, and you’ll surely picture the cryptic-looking hieroglyphs that took modern people ages to decipher. However, hieroglyphs actually weren’t the sole or even primary form of writing for ancient Egyptians.

Hieroglyphs did play an important role: after all, they were used in Egypt for nearly 4,000 years. The beautiful characters took a long time to write, however, so they weren’t ideal for everyday use. Egyptians often wrote in hieratic, a sort of cursive version of hieroglyphs, to make it easier. Over time, they also developed newer, easier forms of writing, like demotic script. Hieroglyphs were in use for a long time, but they were primarily used for temples and monuments, not everyday purposes.

Egyptian Pyramids Were Always Sand-Colored

Young woman standing in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza with the Pyramids in the background
Andrea De la Parra/Shutterstock

Ancient Egypt’s advanced culture left us all kinds of amazing relics to study. Who can blame modern popular culture for so often featuring ancient Egypt in movies, shows, and stories? However, we still get a lot of the imagery wrong, such as what the pyramids really looked like.

Of course, we all know what the pyramids look like today: impressive geometric structures of sand-colored stone. But when you picture ancient Egypt, you need to update your picture of the pyramids, too.

Originally, the pyramids were clad in shimmering white limestone. The polished surface was so reflective, it may have actually been hard to look at in direct sunlight. What we see today is just the base layer, since the bright limestone surface has worn away over time. If you think the Great Pyramid looks impressive now, just imagine it glowing in the sun.

Everyone Was Shorter in the Past

When you visit a museum, all the garments that show you what people used to wear tend to be tiny. This helps foster the popular misconception that history was made up of short people.

However, we haven’t been getting consistently taller as a species over time. Our modern, gradual height increase seems to have started around the mid-1800s. Fossil evidence actually suggests that people in the Stone Age really weren’t any shorter than people in the early 1800s.

And, during some periods in history, people were almost as tall as they are today. For example, men in Northern Europe during the early Middle Ages weren’t much shorter than men are now. The fluctuations in height throughout history likely have to do with nutrition and health. So, when standards of living increase, overall height does too—we aren’t simply getting taller as time goes on.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »