Cuneiform tablet c. 2400 B.C., from the Kirkor Minassian collection, Library of Congress.
At the eastern Asian end of the fertile crescent, Sumer was located in what is now southern Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers — Mesopotamia. Of uncertain origin, the Sumerians may have arrived on the scene in about 4000 B.C. They joined the (pre-)Akkadians, who took their name from the not yet located city of Akkad. Making the most of their abundant natural resource, clay, the Sumerians invented the system of writing known as cuneiform.
The Sumerian city-states and the neighboring Semitic Akkadians reached from the Persian Gulf to modern Baghdad. They fought frequently, but also advanced culture. They developed metallurgy so they could offer skilled products for trade with areas richer in natural resources. They made ziggurat temples, developed cities and the practice of kingship, which you probably already know if you play Civilization. They even made a list of their kings with dates and some biographical detail. By about 1900 B.C., they were eclipsed in power by people from the east, like the Amorites, another Semitic group, and by the 18th century B.C., the area was Babylonian.
Were the Earliest Civilizations in Sumer?
In about 7200 B.C., a settlement, Catal Hoyuk (Çatal Hüyük), developed in Anatolia, south central Turkey. About 6000 Neolithic people lived there, in fortifications of linked, rectangular, mud-brick buildings. The inhabitants mainly hunted or gathered their food, but they also raised animals and stored surplus grains. Until recently, however, it was thought the earliest civilizations began somewhat further south, in Sumer. Sumer was the site of what is sometimes called an urban revolution affecting the entire Near East, lasting about a millennium, and leading to changes in government, technology, the economy, and culture, as well as urbanization, according to Van de Mieroop A History of the Ancient Neareast.
Sumer’s Natural Resources
For civilization to develop, the land must be fertile enough to support an expanding population. Not only did early populations need a soil rich in nutrients, but also water. Egypt and Mesopotamia (literally, “the land between rivers”), blessed with just such life-sustaining rivers, are sometimes referred to together as the Fertile Crescent.
The Land Between the Tigris and Euphrates
Population Growth in Sumer
When the Sumerians arrived in the 4th millennium B.C. they found two groups of people, the one referred to by archaeologists as Ubaidians and the other, an unidentified Semitic people — possibly. This is a point of contention Samuel Noah Kramer discusses in “New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East, American Journal of Archaeology, (1948), pp. 156-164. Van de Mieroop says the rapid growth of population in southern Mesopotamia may have been the result of semi-nomadic people in the area settling down. In the next couple of centuries the Sumerians developed technology and trade, while they increased in population. By perhaps 3800 they were the dominant group in the area. At least a dozen city-states developed, including Ur (with a population of maybe 24,000 — like most population figures from the ancient world, this is a guess), Uruk, Kish, and Lagash.
Sumer’s Self-Sufficiency Gave Way to Specialization
The expanding urban area was made up of a variety of ecological niches, out of which came fishermen, farmers, garderners, hunters, and herdsmen [Van de Mieroop]. This put an end to self-sufficiency and instead prompted specialization and trade, which was facilitated by authorities within a city. The authority was based on shared religious beliefs and centered on the temple complexes.
How Sumer’s Trade Led to Writing
With an increase in trade, the Sumerians needed to keep records. The Sumerians may have learned the rudiments of writing from their predecessors, but they enhanced it. Their counting marks, made on clay tablets, were wedge-shaped indentations known as cuneiform (from cuneus, meaning wedge). The Sumerians also developed monarchy, the wooden wheel to help draw their carts, the plough for agriculture, and the oar for their ships.
In time, another Semitic group, the Akkadians, migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to the area of the Sumerian city-states. The Sumerians gradually came under the political control of the Akkadians, while simultaneously the Akkadians adopted elements of Sumerian law, government, religion, literature, and writing.
References: Most of this introductory article was written in 2000. It has been updated with material from Van de Mieroop, but still depends mainly on the old sources, some of which are no longer available online:
- (http://loki.stockton.edu/~gilmorew/consorti/1anear.htm) The Middle East & Inner Asia: A World Wide Web Research InstituteMaps, references, and photos, in addition to history of the area make this site a goldmine. Topics include: Part 1. A. Pre-Sumerian Cultures [Case Study of Catal Hayuk] Part 1. B. Pre-Sumerian Cultures [Natufian and Ubaid] Part 2. Early Sumeria [3500 B.C.E.] through the Collapse of Old Babylonia [1025 B.C.E.] Part 3. Assyrian Resurgence [935 B.C.E.] through the Sassanid Empire [651 C.E]. Part 4. A. Ancient Canaan/Israel/Palestine through 70 C.E. Part 4. B. Palestine/Israel: Roman through World War I [70-1918 C.E.]
- (http://www.art-arena.com/iran1.html) Map Black and white map shows the Near East from 6000-4000 B.C.
- (http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/MESO/SUMER.HTM) The Sumerians Clear, well-written history of the Sumerians, from Richard Hookers’ World Cultures Site.
- (http://www.eurekanet.com/~fesmitha/h1/ch01.htm) Genesis in Sumer Frank Smitha’s chapter on the Sumerians includes information on education, religion, slavery, role of women, and more. [Now at Sumer]