The Rise of Sumerian Culture

There are those that might argue that no other single culture had such a lasting impact on humanity as that of the Sumerian. This is a bold position, but one that I hope to support at least well enough to give you a new perspective on Mesopotamian and Near Eastern civilizations and, perhaps, modernity.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss the invention of writing and the culture, people and economy of Sumeria, and then ponder the origin of the Sumerians.

One of the most remarkable advancements of civilization is writing. In Mesopotamia, writing has been generally assigned as a Sumerian innovation that occurred in three main stages.

Stage one: clay tokens and hollow clay balls called bulla. The tokens themselves represented commodities like animals or grain and the hollow ball, the bulla, was used as a security device. The advantage of this sort of representation is that a trader could trade a herd of goats through a middle man without worry that the middle man might short the sale, keeping a few goats for himself. The middle man knows that the clay ball contains the representative number of goats in the form of clay tokens..

Stage two: bullae with clay tokens, but the outside incised or impressed with numerals. The information on the inside (the tokens) was duplicated on the outside (the impressions). Recording it on the outside probably reassured the middleman that the traders aren’t shorting him, since the number inside and out should both match. Any discrepancy would reveal the guilty party

Stage three: tablets
3a: numeral tablets. The earliest tablets are referred to as proto-cuneiform since they include symbols that refer to numbers. In economic transactions like trade, the most important things to keep track of are numbers. Documents like this are essentially methods of keeping track of numbers: numbers of cattle; numbers of goats; volume of grains like barley; numbers of slaves; etc.
3b: tablets with signs. In Mesopotamia, the earliest script, of course, was cuneiform. Produced by a wedge-shaped stylus, the scribe wrote on clay tablets that stored the text, particularly after firing the clay, for centuries. Once signs get introduced, they begin an evolution to script. A symbol for “head” is a very obvious pictograph that resembles a head in 3100 BCE during the Uruk period. A hundred years later, the relationship can still be made out. By 2500 BCE, however, the Sumerian symbol for head is more abstract and less obvious, though the relationship can be seen when put into context. By adding the symbol for “bread,” the Sumerian word Gu7 is produced, which means “to eat.”

Putting the advent of writing into perspective with regard to the Sumerian culture is important because of the many “firsts” this allowed the Sumerians to accomplish: the first novel, the first prescription, the first cosmogony, the first farmer’s almanac, the first law codes, and so on. Each of these found in clay tablets uncovered in excavations at sites like Ur, Eridu, and Uruk. It probably isn’t that other cultures didn’t think of these things or have stories, but until writing was invented, they hadn’t any way beyond oral tradition to effectively record them.

Sumerian writing had a profound effect on the rest of Mesopotamia as they engaged in trade to and from regions as far away as Egypt and Anatolia and perhaps even Afghanistan. Copper from Anatolia and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan found its way to Mesopotamia then on to Egypt where lapis was prized. But the Sumerians made good use of it as well.

The impact of Sumerian literature and writing on the ancient Near East is a lasting and profound one. Gilgamesh, clearly a Sumerian story, survived and was passed on to the Akkadians and the Babylonians, where most of the story as it is known today has survived. The story even resonates in Genesis where parts of the Noachian flood myth are nearly line-for-line correlates with Gilgamesh. Cuneiform script itself was adopted and used by cultures across Mesopotamia and Southern Anatolia as well as Egypt. Cuneiform was written in most languages of the day: Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, and Elamite included. And, even after Sumerian ceased being a spoken language, it continued to be an academic language for years much like Latin in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Sumerian People Culture and Economy.
Sumeria had two main centers, Eridu in the south and Nippur in the north, but it had 15 or so main and independent city-states including Eridu, Nippur, Mari, Agad, Ur, and Uruk. Each city-state had its own god or goddess. Eridu’s god was Enki and Uruk’s deity was the goddess Inanna (Ishtar).

The Sumerians adopted the agricultural practices of the region and many if not most of the words they used for agriculture, primitive industry, and local flora and fauna were Semitic or at least non-Sumerian. Words that related to law, politics, sophisticated metalworking and the like were all Sumerian. These distinctions give some clue as to what they brought with them and what was adopted upon arrival to the region. The Sumerians raised goats, pigs, sheep and cattle and grew typical Mesopotamian crops including wheat, barley, lentils, dates, etc., and they used donkeys as beasts of burden. Their agriculture depended heavily on irrigation and they made good use of the shaduf, a tool that allowed water to be lifted from one body and moved to another using a lever balanced on an upright frame. Such technology can lift 2,500 liters of water/day.

Because the region lacked minerals and trees, their architecture was primarily of mudbrick. Sumerians built intricate cities with streets, alleys, temples, and palaces as well as harbors and canals. Extravagant temples and palaces demonstrated that they had the ability to conscript intensive labor for public architecture as well as the wealth to make it happen. Immense ziggurats like that at Ur were constructed in dedication to their gods and aren’t generally believed to be actual places of worship or ceremony, at least not for the public. Indeed, many of the earliest cult centers were exclusive to elites and the public was kept away. The ziggurat may be a representation of mountains and the shrine at the top, if we are to believe Herodotus, was the place “on high” where the god resided. The ziggurat may even have influenced early Egyptian mastabas and the Genesis myth of the Tower of Babel may have been inspired by the ziggurats of Mesopotamia.

The origin of the Sumerian people.
The origin of the Sumerians is simply unknown. What is known is that they were non-Semitic. They didn’t originate from the region for which they are known. This presents some problems for archaeologists such as what were the pre-Sumerian cultures present in the region if the Sumerians are immigrants. And from where did the Sumerians originate. Linguistically speaking, Sumerian is an isolate. It has no known language family, making it even more difficult to pin down the origin of the culture.

One hypothesis is that the Sumerians were invaders at around the Ubaid or Uruk period, but this doesn’t follow since the archaeological record shows continuity from the early Ubaid through the Dynastic periods. Excavations at temple sites show occupation that is clearly Sumerian through lower levels where characteristically Sumerian features aren’t found. Identifiably Sumerian artifacts are found no earlier than
the Jemdet Nasr period, but temples like the one at Eridu have levels that go back much further. The best evidence points to a type of acculturation occurring where a cultural exchange happened rather than an invasion.

But that still leaves the question of from where did the Sumerians come? One hypothesis that has fallen in and out of favor (mostly out as near as I can tell) is that the Sumerians arrived from the east via the Persian Gulf. Another is that they arrived from the north from mountainous regions. The latter might explain their affinity for “mountain-like” ziggurats as they attempted to recreate the conditions by which they worshipped in their homelands where shrines may have been constructed atop mountains. Their unique skills in metalworking might also offer a similar clue since ores for such trades would be more readily available in a mountainous homeland. Perhaps they are expatriates or refugees who fled the inundation of the Black Sea around 7150 years ago. This might even have provided an originating source of the flood myth prominent in the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh!

About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.


  1. Couldn’t the “typically Sumerian” cultural traits have been invented by people living in Mesopotamia? Just because there’s cultural change it doesn’t men that a new population has arrived. To accept migration, I’d like to see those hypothetical mountaintop shrines and some proto-Sumerian settlement sites in the hills.

  2. Interesting point. The “mountain origin” is but one hypothesis and the nature of the language leaves us high and dry with regard to their true origin. Being an isolate language, there are no obvious parent tongues that it could have originated from -I’m sure a lot has to do with the fact that there simply aren’t any written records from which to trace the linguistic evolution.

    But the Sumerian language is distinct from Mesopotamian contemporaries and this is the best evidence, I think, that the Sumerians are immigrants. That they were always there, however, is one of the hypotheses.

    Anyway, this post comes from a collection of notes I’m using for a presentation on the Sumerian culture that I’m giving next Tuesday. I thought I should share them here and possibly get some feedback.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  3. I know this is several months old, but still, i agree with Martin in that difusionism can’t be the defacto answer; ultimately, all it does is kick around time and space the same question: how did those cultural changes develop?.

    However, Hans Nissen wrote an interesting analysis based on pottery;

    Nissen, H. J. (1982) in Cuyler Young and others (eds.) The Hilly Flanks and Beyond, Chicago.

  4. I’m curious about Sumerian artifacts being found under temples being from earlier times than this found in other places. I assume that the artifacts found under temples have to do with religion. Is it possible that they were hired as priests and clerks from someplace else? Maybe they would travel regularly back and forth before a disaster necessitated a mass move. Maybe they got a business offer. This follows Andrés’ idea of a cultural exchange and cfeagans’ immigration idea.

  5. How might the trails discovered by Dr Spencer Wells,* using the genetic
    markers/DNA approach be useful in trying to solve the “pre-Sumerian”
    history of peoples who either “emmigrated” to . . or who were native-to.
    that region? In viewing the pathways traveled by that recurring “marker,”
    there seem to be several possibles, and the one most intriguing to me,
    is that of the central branch moving from the northern steppes east of
    Central Asia, BACK toward its ultimate European landing spot. . (.the route which was, as he admitted, the most surprising to Dr. Wells, hailing as he does from No. Europe! * ( “Journey of Man,” Dr.Spencer Wells)

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