Who were the Sumerians? Mesopotamia – West Asian history

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Head of a woman from Warka, about 3000 BC - Sumerians

Sumerians – Head of a woman from Warka, about 3000 BC

About the same time as the first Pharaohs were coming to power in Egypt, around 3100 BC, a group of people we call the Sumerians were living in Mesopotamia. That’s the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in West Asia (modern Iraq). The Sumerians themselves believed that they had come to the Euphrates from somewhere else, probably in boats from the Persian Gulf. And the first Sumerian cities were near the Persian Gulf, though they later spread out northward. But most archaeologists today think the Sumerians, or at least most Sumerians, were actually native to Iraq.

Sumerians and their neighbors

To their east, in modern Iran, the Sumerians had the people of Elam (the Elamites), who they both traded with and fought with, at different times. To their west, the Sumerians had the Amorites, who spoke a Semitic language (related to modern Hebrew and Arabic).

Sumerians, writing, and bronze

Sumerian scribes seems to have begun to use writing by around 3000 BC, which allows us to know more about them, though we still can’t really read their earliest writing. Sumerian people also used bronze. Sumer may be the first place where metal-workers added tin to copper to make bronze, maybe because there is so little stone there for tools.

Sumerian ziggurats and irrigation

Sumerians - clay figures from Tell Asmar of little people with their arms folded in prayer

Sumerians: Clay figures from Tell Asmar  (compare to Indian figures)

The Sumerians built big temples, called ziggurats, and mud-brick walls around their cities. They began big irrigation projects, digging canals and ditches to bring water from the Tigris and the Euphrates to the land between them so people could grow food there. With irrigation and farming, more people could live in the same amount of land.

Make your own Sumerian figurines and cuneiform tablets with this clay!

Make your own Sumerian figurines and cuneiform tablets with this clay!

The Sumerian flood story

The Sumerians told a story that all this happened “before the flood”. In the Sumerian version there were seven kings before the flood, who had seven wise men (or half-gods) who helped them. The first of these wise men was Uanna-Adapa, whose name is Adam in the Bible. Then, the Sumerian texts and the Bible agree, the gods were angry with men and sent a great flood which destroyed everything, and only a few men survived to rebuild. The Sumerian texts place this event around 2900 BC.

Archaeologists have looked for evidence of this flood in Sumer, and although it does not appear everywhere, it does seem that there was a serious flood in one area about this time. But probably the reason the Bible tells the same story is just that the people who wrote the Bible had Sumerian histories in front of them that they used as sources.
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Learn by doing: cuneiform
Go on to the Early Dynastic Period

Bibliography and further reading about the Sumerians:

The Sumerians, by Elaine Landau (1997). Despite the bad Amazon rating, this is a good solid introduction to the Sumerians, with an explanation of prehistory at the beginning for context. Pictures of ancient stuff, and good maps.

Sumer and the Sumerians, by Harriet Crawford (1991). A college-level introduction, with a lot of archaeological material and daily life information.

Find Out About Mesopotamia: What Life Was Like in Ancient Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, by Lorna Oakes (2004).

Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture, by William H. Stiebing (2002). Expensive, and hard to read, but it’s a good up to date account.

Early Dynastic Period
Ancient West Asia
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By |2018-05-01T10:04:42+00:00September 14th, 2017|History, West Asia|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Who were the Sumerians? Mesopotamia – West Asian history. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 14, 2017. Web. January 23, 2019.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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