The Sumerians were one of the oldest known civilizations. Inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia (where Iraq and Kuwait are currently located), their civilization prospered between 4100 and 1175 B.C.
Several inventions are attributed to them, including writing, timekeeping, and even schools! In this article, you will learn about some of these inventions that are still part of our daily lives.
1. Sumerians invented writing
The first known writing system is a Sumerian invention. According to the historian Samuel Noah Kramer, in his book History begins at Sumer, the oldest texts that we have access to were written in the Sumerian language.
We are referring to the thousands of clay tablets (many of them fragmented) found on the banks of the Euphrates in the early 20th century.
If the Sumerians were not the inventors of writing, Kramer says, they are certainly responsible, around 3000 B.C., for giving this invention practical use, improving and simplifying the writing system.
The type of writing used in these “first books” of human history is called cuneiform, due to the format of the instruments used to carve signs on clay tablets.
These wedge-shaped tools were much like a stylus, a metal or wooden tool with a sharp end. If these clay tablets are the “first books”, the stylus is the “first pencil”.
2. Sumerians created the first system of laws
The oldest set of laws in the world is The Code of Ur-Nammu, named after the Sumerian king responsible for enacting them in 2040 B.C., about 300 years before the Code of Hammurabi, which dates to 1754 B.C.
This code of law imposes cash fines for some types of offenses, such as personal injury. More serious crimes, such as homicide, were punishable by death.
But, according to historian Samuel Kramer, responsible for translating the oldest code of laws in history, King Ur-Nammu may have his days numbered as the world’s first lawmaker.
There are indications of the existence of even older codes in Sumer. For now, this is just a hypothesis. We will have to wait for some lucky archaeologist to find the evidence.
3. Sumerians created the first system to keep track of time
Do you know why we divide the day into two 12-hour periods? This is yet another thing invented by the Sumerians.
The division of the hour into 60 minutes and the minute into 60 seconds were also invented by them. We are talking about the time counting system that we use today to organize our lives: the so-called sexagesimal system.
4. The first schools date back to 3000 B.C.
Now, if the Sumerians invented writing, which is perhaps their most important contribution to humanity, we can deduce that they have thought of ways to teach people to write. Hence the emergence of the first formal educational system.
Much of the clay tablets found in the ancient Sumerian region were administrative reports and memos. But, according to Samuel Kramer, tablets dedicated to teaching writing were also found.
These “textbooks” were located in various regions of Mesopotamia, and this indicates that in 3000 B.C. they were already teaching how to read and write.
5. Sumerians invented the legislative assembly
We tend to think that the institution of Parliament is a Western invention. However, archaeologists have found evidence that this was also invented by the Sumerians.
Archaeological records obtained in excavations prove that around 3000 B.C., in the Middle East, a political assembly took place.
This first assembly, a precursor to our current legislative houses, was composed only of men and its function was to decide between war and peace.
6. Sumerians wrote the first manual of medicine
At the end of the third millennium B.C., a Sumerian doctor decided to record prescriptions for his colleagues and students. He used the “paper” of the time – a 90 cm by 90 cm clay tablet – and the “pen” of the time – the wedge-tipped stylus.
In general, the manual contains prescriptions for ointments and remedies. According to Samuel Kramer, one of those responsible for translating this manual, the remedies are composed of substances from animals (such as milk), vegetables (plants, seeds, and roots), and minerals (salt and saltpeter).
7. Sumerians invented irrigation
An important technological innovation of the Sumerians was a hydraulic engineering system capable of collecting the waters of the Tigris–Euphrates river system for use in agriculture.
The Sumerian irrigation techniques involved the construction of dams and canals. Without this type of technological advance, it would not have been possible to occupy drier regions of Lower Mesopotamia.
8. The first wheeled vehicles were invented by the Sumerians
Historian Samuel Kramer says it is very likely that the first wheeled vehicle was made by the Sumerians. Of course, we are not talking about cars or motorcycles, but animal-powered chariots. That was more than 5,000 years ago!
Now, if the first vehicle originated in Mesopotamia, it is very likely that the wheel was invented there as well. However, there is no consensus among historians on this topic.
Some think that the wheel was invented by the Trichterbecker people, who lived 6,000 years ago in modern-day Poland. Others argue that it was actually invented in Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians lived, in 3500 B.C.
9. Long before the Bible, Sumerians had a flood myth
The Genesis flood myth, one of the most popular in the world’s most widely read book – the Bible – was first told by the Sumerians and not by the Hebrew writers of the Bible.
In the Sumerian flood, an assembly of gods decides to send a flood to destroy the seed of humanity. Due to the poor condition of the clay piece in which the story is written, it is not clear why the gods made this decision.
However, it is known that some gods are against the flood. The Sumerian Noah is King Ziusudra, instructed to build a huge vessel and save humanity.
10. The world’s first city was also built by the Sumerians
This is a somewhat controversial topic, but according to Joshua Mark, editor of Ancient History Encyclopedia, the title of “world’s oldest city” belongs to Uruk (or Erech), a city-state established in Mesopotamia in 4500 B.C.
This finding is based not only on physical evidence, found in archaeological excavations in the region, but also on cuneiform texts that describe life in the city of Uruk more than 6,000 years ago.
In the year 3700 B.C., the city’s population was about 14 thousand people. In 2800 B.C., it was 80 thousand people. Uruk was a city surrounded by walls, distinguished by large buildings made of stones and famous for being the birthplace of writing.
The zenith of Uruk’s prosperity took place between 4100 and 3000 B.C., a period in which the city was the largest administrative, political and commercial center in the region.
Uruk’s decline began with the invasion of the Elamites in the second millennium B.C.
- KRAMER, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer Thirty – Nine Firsts in Recorded History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
- KRAMER, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians – Their History, Culture and Character. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.
- Acient History Enciclopedia. “The Ancient City”. <ancient.eu>.