Sumerian inventions changed the course of history and enabled humankind to build the first true civilization. The Sumerian civilization flourished in southern Mesopotamia from c. 4500 to c. 1900 BCE.
In Greek, the word ‘Mesopotamia’ means the ‘land between the rivers’, referring to the Tigris and the Euphrates.
This land which spans from the Mediterranean coast to the west and the Persian Gulf to the southeast, forming the so-called Fertile Crescent, is considered the cradle of civilization. Let’s take a look at some of the most important inventions the Sumerians left behind and which we still use today.
What Did the Sumerians Invent?
The beginnings of Sumer are shrouded in mystery. Historians believe that the Sumerians were the first people to migrate to Mesopotamia around 5,500 BCE. They settled permanently in southern Mesopotamia, on the banks of the Shat al-Arab river, formed by the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates and flowing into the Persian Gulf.
Unlike the ancient Egyptians, the Sumerians were never unified politically under the authority of a single ruler. They lived in city-states, each ruled by a king, but they spoke a common language and believed in the same gods.
– Writing System: Sumer’s Greatest Invention
Our world today would be unimaginable without a writing system and written language. Indeed, the existence of civilization itself was made possible by the invention of the world’s first writing system in ancient Sumer. The writing system invented by the Sumerians is called cuneiform.
Its invention is generally dated between 3500 and 3000 BCE. The cuneiform script consists of different figures and pictorials. The Sumerians used a stylus (a pointed instrument for writing and marking widely used in the ancient world) to cut shapes in the soft clay. The cuneiform script evolved over time to become more practical, which is evident in the reduction in the number of characters from 1,000 to 600.
The cuneiform script was one of Sumer’s most important legacies. Babylonians, Assyrians, and Akkadians all used the cuneiform script to keep records.
– A Civilization Driven by Technological Innovation: The Most Important Sumerian Inventions
Here’s the list of some of Sumer inventions that changed the world forever.
- Metallurgy – the Sumerians were the first to fabricate copper and use it to produce various items
- The wheel – first used in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE
- The plow – the invention of the plow revolutionized agriculture
- Sailboats – invented to expand trade by establishing links with distant countries
- Geometry and mathematics – Sumerians were the first people to use mathematics in astronomy and engineering
- Irrigation – canals were dug in order to increase the amount of arable land as well as productivity
The Beginning of Craftsmanship and the Birth of Manufacture
Civilizations that predated Sumer had developed a primitive form of metallurgy, but the Sumerians were the first to develop the ability to fabricate non-precious metals. The widespread use of copper as the dominant metalworking technique led to the coining of the term ‘Chalcolithic’ to refer to a later stage of the Neolithic period. Copper would remain the dominant metal for making tools and weapons for several millennia until it was gradually replaced by bronze.
The Sumerians Used Copper To Manufacture Various Items, But Also Weapons
Copper in ancient Sumeria was used to produce various items. The widespread use of copper is thought to have been of great importance for the early development of Sumerian cities. Initially, copper had been used to produce arrowheads, razors, and harpoons.
Later, the Sumerians began crafting various other objects used in everyday life, such as copper jugs, vessels, and chisels. More sophisticated items were manufactured towards the end of the fourth millennium BCE. Copper found its most important application in the production of weapons.
Instruments of War: Sumerian Weapons
Thanks to archeological discoveries and ancient texts, we now know the Sumerians invented and used a wide variety of weapons that would continue to dominate ancient battlefields for thousands of years. The weapons invented in ancient Sumer include spears, swords, maces, slings, and clubs. Evidence exists of the use of chariots for warfare, which was made possible by the invention of the wheel.
– Chariots: The Ancient World’s Ultimate Super-Weapon
The changes brought by the use of chariots in warfare can roughly be compared to the impact of nuclear weapons on modern warfare. We can only imagine the psychological effect of chariots on soldiers who had to face them on the battlefield.
The Sumerians invented two-wheeled chariots, but it remains unclear whether they used them in war. In early Sumer, chariots were pulled by donkeys. According to historians, the simple two-wheeled chariot may have been initially used in royal processions.
– The Wheels of Progress: Transportation in Ancient Sumer
Transportation is vital for building and maintaining civilization. Ancient Sumerians were aware of the need to transport goods and materials between cities for construction, trade, supply, and much more.
The first wheel in Mesopotamia appeared around 3500 BCE. Initially, the Sumerians would use circularly cut logs as wheels to transport heavy objects. The invention of the sled made it easier to combine the two.
Eventually, the Sumerians made the first true wheel by drilling a hole through the frame of the cart and inserted an axle to support its weight and rotate the wheels.
Numbers Don’t Lie: The Birth of Science in Ancient Sumer
Science cannot exist without numbers. Luckily, the Sumerians recognized the numerous advantages of a numbering system and its various applications. The Sumerian numbering system is known as the sexagesimal system, named so because it has the number 60 as its base. The existence of a numbering system made it possible to develop advanced mathematics.
Nevertheless, the primary motivation behind the development of mathematics seems to have been of practical nature. Advanced trade and taxation policies would not have been possible without the application of mathematical principles. Civil engineering and astronomy must also have benefited greatly from the development of a numbering system and mathematics.
Inventions That Made Advanced Agriculture Possible
The birth of civilization was a direct result of advances made in agriculture during the Neolithic period. Agriculture had been practiced as early as 9000 BCE, but the first significant agricultural advancements were made in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians are credited with the invention of the plow and its widespread use in farming.
Wooden plows replaced animal horns and sticks, greatly increasing agricultural efficiency and productivity. As a result, the Sumerians were able to secure a stable food supply for their cities and store excess food in granaries. The plow is one of the most important Sumerian innovations because it made it possible to produce more food that could be used to support a growing population.
A Well-Devised Irrigation System
Like the other early civilizations, Sumer owed its wealth to the rivers that provided fertile soil for agriculture. Rivers of Mesopotamia were also used for transportation and trade between Sumerian city-states. Irrigation was invented in ancient Sumer to provide water for fields that had to feed an ever-growing population.
During dry periods, Sumerians had to rely on irrigation to provide water for cultivated land. A relatively simple drainage system was devised to bring water to the fields using buckets hoisted over levee dikes. To ensure the proper irrigation of crops at all times, the Sumerians made holes in the hardened levee walls through which water could flow freely between fields.
The Land of the Black Headed People
The land we call ‘Sumer’ today was known under a different name in ancient times. Sumerians used the name ‘The Land of Black-Headed People’ to refer to their land. Even though they spoke a common language and worshipped the same gods, ancient Sumerians lived in many independent city-states, each governed by a king.
Each city had a central building, called the ziggurat at its center, a large pyramidal structure usually built of mud-brick for religious and administrative purposes. Even though there were many city-states throughout Sumerian history, only seven could boast of a large population and substantial wealth.
Monarchy as a Sumerian Invention
Sumerian city-states were governed by kings who had a divine right to rule. A government system centered in the hands of the monarch arose as the most effective method of ruling a mass of people living in a wide area.
Kings also served as high priests of the state religion and performed rituals at the temples, the aim of which was to maintain harmony between people and the gods. Archeologists have unearthed many portrait sculptures belonging to Sumerian kings, most notably that of Ur-Ningirsu (c. 2100 BCE), now on display in the Louvre Museum. Sumerian artifacts are incredibly rich in detail and bear testimony to the skill of their creators. Sumerian art seems to have been more advanced than was initially assumed.
The Sumerians Invented the Lunar Calendar
Babylonians are considered the most skilled astronomers of the ancient world because of their advanced calendar and knowledge of mathematics. Nevertheless, much of this knowledge had been inherited from their predecessors, the Sumerians.
Pioneers of astronomy, the Sumerians were the first people to group the stars into different constellations to make the task of mapping the heavens easier. They were also the first to identify the five planets visible to the naked eye and observe their movements.
The Moon as a Guide: The World’s First Calendar
The Sumerian day had 12 hours counted from sunset to sunset. Likewise, a year in Sumer had 12 months and consisted of 360 days. Phases of the moon were used as points of reference. Hence the Sumerians are considered to have created the first lunar calendar. Something akin to a leap year existed in Sumer as well. Every four years, an extra month was added to the calendar.
The Law May Be Harsh, But It Is the Law
No society can function without law, and ancient Sumer was no exception. The code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known law code that was discovered in Nippur. It predates the more famous Code of Hammurabi by three centuries. The punishments prescribed in the code of Ur-Nammu usually match the crime, making it a typical example of retributive justice. Some of the most common punishments include:
- Death for murderers and robbers
- Imprisonment and a fine of 15 shekels of silver for kidnapping
- A fine of 1 mina of silver for men who divorce their first wife
- Death for men who sleep the virgin wife of another man
The code has been preserved in fragments, owing to the fact it was written on clay tablets.
Time for Leisure: How Sumerians Invented the First Board Game
We complete an impressive list of inventions of Sumerians with the world’s first board game: the Royal Game of Ur. The game was invented sometime between 2600 and 2400 BCE. While we know it involved the use of dice, the rules are not known, but it is believed that it was a racing game similar to the modern game of backgammon.
Sumer technology shaped the history of the world in many ways. Many of the things we take for granted today were invented by the ancient Sumerians thousands of years ago. The knowledge that the ancient Sumerians passed down to other civilizations is vast and still continues to influence our world today. Here’s how:
- The invention of writing, plow, and the wheel made it possible to sustain a large population and accumulate wealth
- Sumer’s introduction of a monarchy as a form of government was an important step towards creating a complex government mechanism
- The code of Ur-Nammu had inspired latter legal codes
- The widespread use of copper in metallurgy enabled the Sumerians to create complex items and weapons
Sumerian civilization had, in many ways, pioneered the development of complex technology and gave us inventions that forever changed the world. Without the Sumerians, we would not be able to enjoy the fruits of modern civilization.