Sumerian Civilization in Brief

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Left: Sculpture of the head of Sumerian ruler Gudea, c. 2150 BC. Right: cuneiform characters for Saĝ-gíg (𒊕 𒈪), "Black Headed Ones", the native designation for the Sumerians. The first is the pictographic character for "head" (, later ), the second the character for "night", and for "black" when pronounced gíg

Sumer is the earliest known civilization in the ancient region of southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages, and one of the first civilizations in the world, along with Ancient Egypt, Norte Chico, Ancient Greece, Ancient China, Saraswati Civilisation and the Indus Valley. Living along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, Sumerian farmers grew an abundance of grain and other crops, the surplus from which enabled them to form urban settlements. Prehistoric proto-writing dates back before 3000 BC. The earliest texts come from the towns of Uruk and Jemdet Nasr, and date to between roughly c. 3500 and c. 3000 BC.

The History

About 6000 years ago, a culture owning a technology so superior at the time that it appeared alien suddenly sprouted in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, part of the so-called “Fertile Crescent.”

The ancient Greeks were the first to call this area Mesopotamia, which means “land between rivers.” The Akkadians, however, referred to these people as Shumer (which may actually refer to the language); the Bible refers to this region as Shinar. The area is today found in southeastern Iraq.

The incidents that took place there are considered as among the most significant events in human history. The Sumerians, in just a short time after settling in Mesopotamia, uncovered a very sophisticated system of irrigation and agriculture, possibly learning from Ancient India. The irrigation system took full advantage of the waters of the two rivers, which resulted in a significant increase of their agricultural yields. The Sumerians then built magnificent cities, advanced governing laws, and invented a written language. 

Unfortunately, historians are unsure about the Sumerians’ origin. Some archaeologists maintain that the Sumerians’ origin is from lands northeast of Mesopotamia, while others say they are really from Anatolia. Indeed, no one is really quite sure where these people originally came from. When the Sumerians appeared in Mesopotamia, there were already people living there (the Ubaidians), but they were quickly replaced by the newcomers.

Ancient Sumerians learned how to use the wheel, probably while spinning clay to make potteries on a simple wheel. Ultimately, the wheel was used for transportation, on carts pulled by donkeys. Later on, it was used for war chariots. They also acquired a system of mathematics based on the number 60. We still divide the hour by 60 minutes, and the minutes by 60 seconds. The idea of dividing the circle by 360 degrees was also adapted by them, as well as the division of the day into 24 hours, and of the year into twelve months. They probably learned this again from the ancient Indian civilization. Excavators found proof that Sumerians developed writing as early as 3500-3000 BC. The Sumerians’ early form of writing was made up of pictures. The images were later on uncomplicated, with symbols being used to imitate sounds. This style of writing is known today as cuneiform, which is from the Latin word cuneus (wedge).

The Sumerians also seem to have developed monarchial systems of government. The ancient Sumerian states were ruled by a type of priest-king. Their government was actually a combination of monarchy and democracy. Elected officials in the Assembly also ruled the people: kings had to consult the Assembly in matters of state. Laws that were written down during Babylonian times were really laws created by ancient Sumerians.

Other Sumerian discoveries are the sailboat, frying pans, razors, cosmetic sets, pottery, and the plow. They also adapted the lunar calendar based on the lunar month from Ancient India who had even mapped the stars into constellations, which later became the zodiac. Ancient Indians established the first formal schools which were later followed by the Sumerians.

The modern world discovered the presence of Sumer through references in the literature of ancient civilizations; this literature speaks of an even older civilization, which turned out to be that of the Sumerians’.

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