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Sumer (or Shumer, Sumeria, Shinar) was the southern part of Mesopotamia from the time of settlement by the Sumerians until the time of Babylonia. Sumerian cuneiform script was perhaps the earliest form of writing and is dated to 3500 BC.

Table of contents

Early History

The Sumerians may have migrated from the East (India or ancient Persia), being unrelated (on the basis of their language) to the various groups speaking Semitic languages in Mesopotamia and the Levant. Although their exact arrival date is unknown, they seemed to exist in the area as a minor agricultural and organized civilization as early as the 5th millennium BC.


The Sumerians inhabited various city-states, each centered around a temple called a ziggurat. They believed that a god owned each city. Some of their major cities were Eridu, Kish, Uruk and Ur. Kings who controlled the army and commerce ruled the cities.

See also Sumerian king list.

Agriculture and Hunting

The Sumerians grew barley, chickpeas, cows, lentils, millet, wheat, turnips, dates, onions, garlic, lettuce, leeks, mustard, sheep, goats, and pigs. They used oxen as their primary "beast of burden[?]" and donkeys as their primary transport animal. Sumerians hunted fish and fowl.

Sumerian agriculture was heavily dependent upon irrigation. The irrigation was accomplished by the use of shadufs, canals, channels, dikes, weirs[?], and reservoirs. The canals required frequent repair and silt had to be removed continually. The government required individuals to work on the canals, although the rich were able to exempt themselves.

Using the canals, farmers would flood their fields and then drain the water. Next, they let oxen stomp the ground and kill weeds. The fields were then dragged with pickaxes[?]. After drying, the fields were plowed[?], harrowed, thrice raked[?], and pulverized with a mattock[?].

Sumerians harvested during the dry fall season in three-person teams of a reaper[?], binder[?], and sheaf arranger[?]. The farmers would use threshing wagons[?] to separate the cereal heads from the stalks[?] and then use threshing sleds[?] to disengage the grain. The grain-chaff mixture was then winnowed.


Sumerians made use of buttresses[?], recesses[?], half columns[?], and clay nails[?].

Arts and Crafts

Sumerian potters decorated pots with cedar oil paints. The potters used a bow drill to produce the fire needed for baking the pottery.

The masons and jewelers made use of ivory, gold, silver, and galena.


Though the female could achieve a higher status in Sumer than in other civilizations, the culture was still predominantly male-dominated.

Historian Alan Marcus says, "Sumerians held a rather dour perspective on life."

A Sumerian writes, "Tears, lament, anguish, and depression are within me. Suffering overwhelms me. Evil fate holds me and carries off my life. Malignant sickness bathes me."

Another Sumerian writes, "Why am I counted among the ignorant? Food is all about, yet my food is hunger. On the day shares were alloted, my allotted share was suffering."


The Sumerians used slaves. Slave women worked as weavers, pressers, millers, and porters.

Stone, silver, copper, and wood came from India and Africa. Camel caravans brought the goods to Sumer along with ox-drawn wagons[?] and sledges[?]. Boats were also used.


The majority of Sumerian medicines were laxatives, purgatives[?], or diuretics.

Sumerians manufactured saltpeter from urine, lime, ash, and salt. They would combine this with milk, snakeskin, turtle shell, cassia[?], myrtle[?], thyme, willow, fig, pear, fir, and/or date. These agents would be mixed with wine and spread as a salve[?] or mixed with beer and consumed orally.

Sumerians thought that disease was the consequence of a demon trapped within the body and trying to eat its way out. The medicines were intended to persuade the demon that continued residence within the body would be distasteful. They often placed a lamb next to a diseased person and hoped to entice the demon into the lamb, which would then be butchered. When lambs were not available they would try using a statue which, should the demon enter the statue, would be covered in bitumen.


City walls defended Sumerian cities. The Sumerians engaged in siege warfare between their cities and the mudbrick walls were not effective against foes that had the time to pry out the bricks.

Sumerian armies consisted mostly of infantry. Light infantrymen were equipped with battle-axes[?], daggers, and spear. The regulary infantry also used copper helmets, felt cloaks[?], and leather kilts.

The Sumerians invented the chariot. Onagers pulled it. These were less effective in combat than later designs, and some have suggested that these served primarily as transports, though the crew was equipped with battle-axes, and lances. The Sumerian chariot was a four-wheeled device manned by a crew of two and harnessed to four onagers. The carriage was composed of a woven-basket[?] and the wheels were of a solid three-piece design.

They used simple bowmen and slingers. The composite bow[?] had not yet been invented.


Sumerian temples consisted of a central nave with aisles along either side. Flanking the aisles would be rooms for the priests. At one end would be the podium[?] and a mudbrick table for animal and vegetable sacrifices. Granaries and storehouses[?] were usually located near the temples. After a time they began to place the temples atop artificial, terraced, and multi-layered hills. This is the Sumerian ziggurat.

The Sumerian religion is thought to be the basis or source of inspiration for a number of modern religions. The Sumerians worshipped Nammu the Mother Goddess, Inanna the goddess of Love, Enlil the god of the Wind, and The god of Thunder.

The Sumerian dingirs[?] (gods) were each associated with different cities and their religious importance was often affected by the political power of the associated cities. The dingirs were credited with creating humans from clay for the purpose of serving them. The dingirs often expressed their anger and frustration through earthquakes and the gist of Sumerian religion was that all of humanity was at the mercy of the gods.

Sumerians believed that the universe was a flat disk enclosed by a tin dome. The Sumerian afterlife was characterized by a descent into a vile nether-world[?] where eternity was spent in a wretched existence.

See also: Sumerian mythology


Examples of Sumerian technology include: saws, leather, chisels, hammers, braces[?], bits, nails, pins[?], rings, hoes[?], axes, knives, leather, lancepoints, arrowheads, swords, glue, daggers, waterskins[?], bags[?], harnesses[?], boats, armor, quivers, scabbards, boots, sandals, and harpoons[?].

The Tigris-Euphrates plain[?] lacked minerals and trees. Sumerian structures were built of plano-convex mudbrick and not fixed with mortar nor cement. As plano-convex bricks (being rounded) are somewhat unstable, the Sumerians, every few rows, would lay a row of bricks perpendicular to the rest. They would fill the gaps with bitumen, grain stalks, marsh reeds[?], and weeds.

The Sumerians had three main types of boats; Skin boats were made of reed and animal skin; sailboats waterproofed with bitumen, and wooden oared ships which were sometimes pulled upstream by people and animals along the nearby banks.


As the local states grew in strength, the Sumerians began to lose their political hegemony over most parts of Mesopotamia. The Amorites conquered Sumer and created Babylon. The Hurrians of Armenia established the empire of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia around 2000 BC, while the Babylonians controlled the south. Both groups were on the defensive against the Egyptians and Hittites. The Hittites defeated Mitanni but were repulsed by the Babylonians, who were defeated in 1460 BC by the Kassites. The Kassites were defeated by the Elamites around 1150 BC.


The Sumerians are remembered for many of their inventions. They are sometimes credited with inventing the wheel and the potter's wheel. The Sumerians are also credited with inventing the cuneiform writing system. They were among the first astronomers. They also invented the chariot and (possibly) military formations.

The Magyars who settled Hungary in the 9th century AD are thought by some scholars to be ethnic descendants of the Sumerians. The Magyar and Sumerian languages show vastly more similarities to each other than to any other known languages.

See also: Gilgamesh epic

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