I don’t know the origin of that saying. When I first heard it, it was presented as ancient Chinese wisdom. In the West we often attribute pearls of wisdom to some named or unnamed ancient Chinese philosopher. I suspect many of the attributions are not historically accurate. In any case, the saying suggests — correctly, I think — that by examining the past we can make some predictions about the future…within limits, of course.
One of the hot topics of discussion in software development circles these days is the question of how we can make useful predictions about the future for purposes of planning software delivery activities. The subject turns out to be trickier than I had, um, predicted.