Timeless skills and wisdom: The oldest subjects in the world are more than 1,000 years old

oldest subjects in the world Shruti Pathak
Since humans sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts, this arguably makes music one of the oldest subjects in the world. Source: AFP

The oldest subjects in the world are not very old at all — at least, when compared to humans.

The reason for this is that our knowledge of subjects goes back only as far as we have written records for it.

Yet, humans have been learning ever since we existed. As far back as four million years ago, the earliest humans developed skills relevant to their hunter-gatherer lives, such as:

  • Walk on two legs
  • Making and using tools
  • Communicating with each other

Appearing around 2.6 million years ago in the savannahs of Eastern Africa, stone tools are proof of an archaic style of manufacturing, arguably placed at the top of the list of oldest subjects in the world.

The impact of such kills cannot be understated. The above basic skills would later transform into greater, more detailed skills, like teaching and art.

Combined, these skills not only helped protect our feeble, naked ape bodies in a world filled with predators, many several times faster, bigger and more agile than us.

They also made us the most powerful species — who have continued to rule ever since.

Central to this victory is our brains and its capacity to learn.

Later, as we evolved from hunter-gatherers to an agrarian society, we needed to learn a different set of skills to survive.

Around a thousand years ago, we understood we needed to know how to plant rice, weave silk, read classics, write, fight (if you were born male) or do housework (if you were born female).

Then, somewhere around the fourth millennium BC, the oldest subjects in the world as we know them emerged. By “emerged,” this means that this was the earliest records found of them, but humans have probably studied them much earlier with written texts lost or never made at its conception.

It’s been thousands of years since these oldest subjects in the world — but with so many revolutions that are happening this century, especially with the invention of the Internet, this raises a question: how long will they last and what will they be replaced by?

oldest subjects in the world

Today’s in-demand subjects focus on the relationship between man and machine. Source: AFP

Newest vs oldest subjects in the world

In a world where the planet is burning, you can learn anything from YouTube and with scientists curing the blind and the lame, these subjects are hot in demand: 

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning 
  • Cybersecurity 
  • Sustainability 

What’s just as important as these newest subjects is the ability to make sense of massive loads of information in our hands today. What’s important and what’s not and how does one piece of information fit into a coherent and meaningful story of the world?

Knowing how to do this is perhaps more important than learning how to code or how to protect websites from hackers.

Unlike our ancestors, we have no idea how the world and the job market will look in decades to come. Robots are already showing signs that they can code and secure websites better than humans — on top of more creative tasks like translating conversations and writing poetry.

It’s in this context that it’s important to know and understand the oldest subjects in the world. Although some are predicted to die out soon, there are timeless wisdom and skills that have stood the test of time.

By connecting with our ancestors, their thoughts, ideas, and cultural practices, they also help us understand the past, which is crucial to preparing for the future:

oldest subjects in the world

Tourists visit the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) at the Giza Pyramids necropolis on the southwestern outskirts of Cairo, on March 2, 2023. The pyramids are one of the marvels to arise from mathematics, one of the oldest subjects in the world. Source:AFP

10 oldest subjects in the world that are more than 1,000 years old:

1. Mathematics 

Mathematics has been studied for thousands of years, with the earliest written records of it dating back to the third millennium BC.

Studying numbers, patterns, and structures has been a cornerstone of education since then — and it’s easy to understand why.

Ancient civilisations like Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece depended on people who can count and analyse massive troves of information well.

The oldest known mathematical object is the Ishango Bone, discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It dates back to around 20,000 BC and contains tally marks that are believed to represent early attempts at counting.

Concepts like geometry, algebra, and arithmetic have not only contributed to scientific and technological progress. 

For example, the Pythagoras Theorem, or what most of us know as a2 + b2 = c2, had far-reaching impact in architecture, engineering and more.

It’s enabled humans to calculate the dimensions of buildings and other structures, calculate the strength of structures, design safe and efficient buildings, determine the speed of a moving object, and so much more.

oldest subjects in the world

Medicine is one of the oldest subjects in the world. Source: Alain Jocard/AFP

2. Medicine 

The art and science of healing have been practised since ancient times, making medicine one of the oldest subjects in the world. 

Ancient medical systems can be seen from 1500 BCE with Ayurveda, a holistic system of medicine, emerging in ancient India.

Ayurveda and other ancient medical systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Hippocratic medicine, laid the foundation for subsequent medical knowledge. Over the past thousand years, medical advancements have revolutionised our understanding of anatomy, diseases, and treatments.

The first university to offer formal medical education is the University of Bologna in Italy. Founded in 1088, it is one of the oldest universities in the world that is renowned for its contributions to various academic fields, including medicine.

oldest subjects in the world

Singing is ancient, universal and practised by almost all cultures. The study of music, one of the oldest subjects in the world, explores why we do this and more. Source: AFP

3. Music 

Going as far back as 1400 BCE, the Hurrian Hymn is reportedly the oldest song in the world. Or, at least, the oldest that we know of.

The oldest known musical instrument is a bone flute discovered in Germany, dating back approximately 43,000 years.

Today, the study of music, known as musicology, explores the origins of both. This is in addition to the history, composition, performance, cultural context, and the social and psychological effects of music.

While there may not have been state-of-the-art recording studios, this is a field that’s been studied for thousands of years, especially in the evolution of musical traditions, instruments, and composition techniques.

oldest subjects in the world

Astronomy is one of the oldest subjects in the world that explores space, planets and galaxies. Source: Jason Connolly/AFP

4. Astronomy 

Astronomy is a scientific discipline that focuses on the observation, understanding, and exploration of celestial objects and phenomena in the universe. It is the study of stars, planets, galaxies, comets, asteroids, and other astronomical objects.

Ancient civilisations like the Babylonians, Greeks, and Mayans made remarkable astronomical observations and developed systems to understand the cosmos. 

However, while we have made significant strides in exploring and studying space, we have only scratched the surface of what lies beyond our planet.

As of now, experts have explored about 4% of the apparent space. The rest remains a mystery. 

This is probably because of how vast space is. To put it into perspective, our planet is about 3.5 million times larger than a human, and the solar system is about 36 billion times larger than Earth.

5. Literature 

The study of written works, including poetry, drama, and prose, has been practised for thousands of years. From ancient epics like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata to classical literary masterpieces like Shakespeare’s plays and Dante’s Divine Comedy, literature provides a window into the human experience, moral dilemmas, and the power of storytelling.

Most will know of William Shakespeare, who is often regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in history. But did you know that he had a vocabulary of over 20,000 words? 

His vast knowledge has contributed significantly to the English language, introducing new words and phrases that are still in use today.

oldest subjects in the world

Having been around for over a thousand years, law is one of the oldest subjects in the world. Source: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

6. Law 

Legal systems and the study of law have played a vital role in human society for centuries. Ancient legal codes, such as Hammurabi’s Code and Roman Law, established legal principles and regulations that have had a huge effect on the development of legal systems worldwide. 

Over the past millennium, legal institutions and practices have evolved to address the complexities of modern society, ensuring justice and order.

The first university to offer a dedicated law degree was the University of Bologna in Italy, which introduced the Doctor of Law (LL.D.) degree in the 12th century.

Many famous people have studied law in university, including Barack Obama, Amal Clooney, Hillary Clinton, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. 

7. Philosophy 

One of the oldest subjects that have persisted for over 1,000 years is philosophy. The study of philosophy delves into fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, ethics, and the nature of reality. 

Philosophy has its origins in ancient Greece, with famous philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. They laid the foundation for philosophical inquiry and explored various topics such as ethics, metaphysics, and logic.

In fact, the famous Socratic Method used in philosophy was named after Socrates himself. 

Stanford University is on the list of top 20 universities to study philosophy.

That is where tech billionaire Peter Thiel gained his education. Thiel obtained his undergraduate education at Stanford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy in 1989.

oldest subjects in the world

A vsitors looks at a section of the life size Lascaux cave replica after a special immersive torch light visit on June 16, 2022 in Montignac. Source: AFP

8. Art 

The oldest known artwork is believed to be cave paintings created by early humans, dating back tens of thousands of years. The famous cave paintings at Lascaux in France are estimated to be around 17,000 years old.

Subjects like art history or art theory explore this by analysing and interpreting artistic works and their cultural and historical contexts.

It involves looking into various forms of visual art, including painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and other artistic expressions.

This was what the Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, studied at university and now she’ll find no shortage of material to test her knowledge on in the various royal properties she now counts as home.

9. Theology 

Studying religious beliefs, practices, and theological concepts has been central to human culture for over a millennium. Religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and others have been studied and practised for over a thousand years.

The study of theology has ancient roots, dating back to civilisations such as ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and India. These early cultures had their own theological systems and beliefs.

Theology often involves the study and interpretation of religious texts. For example, in Christianity, the Bible is a central text for theological exploration, while in Islam, the Qur’an plays a similar role.

10. Linguistics 

The scientific study of language, including its structure, origins, and usage, has been around for thousands of years. Its roots can be found in ancient Indian, Greek, and Chinese texts. 

Scholars such as Pāṇini in India and Aristotle in Greece made significant contributions to understanding language structure and grammar.

There are approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Linguists study the structure, sounds, meaning, and usage of different languages to understand the complexity of human communication.

The earliest recognised programme in linguistics was established at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1947, the university founded the Linguistic Research Centre, which later became the Department of Linguistics.