I found this nugget on the Straight Dope.
Lazarus Geiger, a naturalist, …. Based on his examination of Greek literature, the Vedic hymns, and other ancient writings, he claimed that man's color sense had developed only gradually, in fairly recent times. He thought that man had become aware of colors in the order that they appear in the spectrum, starting with the longest wavelengths. First, he said, people dimly realized that something was "colored," then they could distinguish black and red, then black and red plus yellow, then white, then green, and finally blue. (I realize white is not a "color" of the spectrum, but this is Geiger's theory, not mine.) He pointed out that "Democritus and the Pythagoreans assumed four fundamental colours, black, white, red, and yellow. … Nay, ancient writers (Cicero, Pliny, and Quintilian) state it as a positive fact that the Greek painters, down to the time of Alexander, employed only these four colours."
This is very reminiscent of a favorite Calvin and Hobbes Sunday cartoon.
CALVIN: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they have color film back then?
CALVIN'S DAD: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It's just the world was black and white then.
CALVIN'S DAD: Yep. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.
CALVIN: That's really weird.
CALVIN'S DAD: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.
CALVIN: But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?
CALVIN'S DAD: Not necessarily, a lot of great artists were insane.
CALVIN: But ... but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn't their paints have been shades of gray back then?
CALVIN'S DAD: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else in the '30s.
CALVIN: So why didn't old black and white photos turn color too?
CALVIN'S DAD: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?
(CUT TO: EXT. Tree limb, Calvin talking with Hobbes)
CALVIN: The world is a complicated place, Hobbes.
HOBBES: Whenever it seems that way, I take a nap in a tree and wait for dinner.
Text from http://www.everything2.com/title/The+world+was+black+and+white Written by Bill Watterson, © Universal Press Syndicate.
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