Sumer and Sumerians

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An inscribed stand's head

The Sumerians reigned over Mesopotamia from 3500 to 2300 B.C. They arrived in southern Mesopotamia sometime around 4000 B.C. They were a mysterious people. It is not known where they came from or exactly when they first appeared. Their language was like no other in the region. The Sumerians developed their system of writing sometime before 3000 B.C. and their city-state civilization lasted from 3000 to 2340 B.C.

The Sumerians were pioneers in the development of city life, civic organization, law and monumental architecture. There were few trees or even big rocks in the region settled by the Sumerians.The most readily available materials were sand and clay and reeds from marshes. Their buildings were constructed of mud brick and wood, not stone, so very little of the ancient cities remain excepts for some foundations.

Sumer (sometimes called Sumeria) is the name of an area, which embraced city-states like Ur, Nippur and Uruk. The Sumerians are the name of the people. In the Bible Sumer is called Shinar. Most of what is known about the Sumerians is based on sculptures, cuneiform tablets and other artifacts unearthed in ancient Sumerian cities. Sumerian King List, principal source of knowledge about Sumerian culture.

The Babylonians and Assyrians and other Mesopotamians and Near Eastern cultures that followed the Sumerians adapted Sumerian writing to their own languages and used Sumerian religion and literature. Sumerian scientific and cultural knowledge was also passed on to the Babylonians and Assyrians.

In their own language, the Sumerians called themselves sag giga, or "black-headed ones." The word “Sumer” is derived from Akkadian word “Shumeru.”John Alan Halloran of wrote: “It is not known why the Akkadians called the southern land Shumeru. The Sumerians called it ki-en-gir15 (literally, 'place of the civilized lords'). The etymology of the Akkadian term is unknown. It could possibly be a dialectal pronunciation of the Sumerian word kiengir. This possibility is suggested by the Emesal dialect form 'dimmer' for the word 'dingir'.” [Source: John Alan Halloran,]

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site; British Museum ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago ; Iraq Museum Database ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons: online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

History of the Sumerians

20120207-350px-Map_of_Ur_III s.png
Map of Sumer in the Ur III period
The origin of the Sumerians is unknown. Their language is unrelated to any other language thus far discovered but has some things in common with Finnish and Turkish. Before recorded history the Sumerians moved into Babylonia from the South. The Sumerians drove out the earlier residents (or, as is more likely, they kept the peasants in their previous status, and made collaborators of of some of the "city folk."). The peoples driven from the Valley by the Sumerians may have been the Subartu. Whoever they were, they may have been the first of the Valley's residents to become literate. [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT, ]

The Sumerians were neither Aryans nor Semites. The Semites had thick hair and long beards; the Sumerians had shaved heads and faces. These Sumerians overran southern Babylonia as far north as Nippur and became the ruling race. They added the worship of their gods on top of the worship of the deities of the conquered sities, but the earlier elements of these local deities persisted even in Sumerian thought. As a result the shaved Sumerians picture their gods with hair and beards.

The Pre-Babylonian (Sumerian) Period begins about 3100 B.C. and continued to the rise of the city of Babylon, about 2050 B.C. This period was a time of succesive city kingdoms. After settling in Babylonia, the Sumerians developed a system of writing. It was at first hieroglyphic, like the Egytian system. Afterwards the Semites, who still controlled Kish and Agade in the north, and had been reinforced by people (Semites) from Arabia, adapted this writing to their own language. These pictures degenerated into symbols which we know as "cuneiform" characters — all letters are made with wedge-shape characters.

Origins of the Sumerians

John Alan Halloran of wrote: “My belief that mastery of irrigation agriculture is what marked the Sumerians, that they moved down from the middle of Mesopotamia, site of the Samarra culture. The simplest words of Sumerian include words for dikes and channels. Archaeologists are now saying that Choga Mami ware [a kind of pottery associated with the early Sumerians] is transitional between Samarra pottery and Ubaid pottery. This agrees with my belief. [Source: John Alan Halloran,]

Distribution of haplogroup J2 Y-DNA

“The History and Geography of Human Genes by Cavalli-Sforza et al. finds distinctive genes in Kuwait and speculates that Kuwaitis are the genetic descendants of the Sumerians....A 2011 study of the DNA of 143 Marsh Arabs and a large sample of Iraqi controls arrived at the following conclusions: "Evidence of genetic stratification ascribable to the Sumerian development was provided by the Y-chromosome data where the J1-Page08 branch reveals a local expansion, almost contemporary with the Sumerian City State period that characterized Southern Mesopotamia. On the other hand, a more ancient background shared with Northern Mesopotamia is revealed by the less represented Y-chromosome lineage J1-M267*.

Overall our results indicate that the introduction of water buffalo breeding and rice farming, most likely from the Indian sub-continent, only marginally affected the gene pool of autochthonous people of the region. Furthermore, a prevalent Middle Eastern ancestry of the modern population of the marshes of southern Iraq implies that if the Marsh Arabs are descendants of the ancient Sumerians, also the Sumerians were most likely autochthonous and not of Indian or South Asian ancestry." [Source: "In search of the genetic footprints of Sumerians: a survey of Y-chromosome and mtDNA variation in the Marsh Arabs of Iraq", Nadia Al-Zahery1, Maria Pala1, Vincenza Battaglia1, Viola Grugni1, Mohammed A Hamod23, Baharak Hooshiar Kashani1, Anna Olivieri1, Antonio Torroni1, Augusta S Santachiara-Benerecetti1 and Ornella Semino, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:288.]

“The late S.N. Kramer was very proud of his idea that the Sumerians came from somewhere else and enjoyed a Heroic Age in Sumer which he believed had parallels among other migratory peoples. The idea that the Sumerians were late invaders is, however, probably wrong. There are actually good Sumerian or Akkadian etymologies for most of those city names and if you look in my lexicon you can see the Sumerian etymologies for the Tigris and the Euphrates river names. Nippur comes from an Akkadian word that means "ferry-boat", so it was the site of a river crossing. Thorkild Jacobsen wrote an article about the Sumerian etymologies of Eridu, Ur, and some other cities. The Halaf culture of northern Mesopotamia was characterized by colorfully glazed pottery that is completely different from Ubaid pottery, so I don't know anyone who thinks that it was a predecessor other than chronologically to the southern Ubaid culture.

“The Sumerians either called themselves the 'civilized children' or the 'black-headed people'. sag-gi6(-ga): black-headed people; Sumerians ('head' + 'black' + nominative; cf., dumu-gir15/gi7 and ki-en-gi(-r); ki-en-gir15/gi7(-r)). un sag-gi6: black-headed people = Sumerians ('people' + 'heads' + 'black'). dumu-gir15/gi7: freeborn man, Sumerian [in contrast to slaves from foreign countries] ('child' + 'native group'). It seems like originally it may have been sang-gi7, but consonant harmony changed gi7 to ngi6, thereby changing the meaning from 'civilized, native group' to 'black'.

Sumerian City-States

The Sumerians didn’t establish an empire like the Romans did. They lived in a bunch of independent city-states like the Greeks. The first cluster Mesopotamian settlements were established in ancient Sumer around 3,500 B.C. These settlement grew into the city states of Ur (home of Abraham and the Chaldees in the Bible), Eridu, Uruk (Biblical city of Erech), Lagash, Nippur, Umma, Sippar, Larsa, Kish, Adab, and Isin.

Around 3000 B.C. powerful local leaders became the kings of the city-states. Kingdoms were forged by these kings whose armies conquered neighboring city states with lances and shields. The city-states battled each other. Strong rulers were able to conquer their neighbors. Weak rulers were defeated. As time went on different city-states — such as Lagash, Uruk, Ur — were dominant. In general, however, the Sumerians appeared to have relatively peaceable during their 1,200 years of dominance in Mesopotamia. They didn’t make an effort create a large empire.

List of Rulers of Sumer

In the period before 2700 B.C., the Sumerians considered most of their kings to be gods, or at least heros. The Deification and Heroization of kings mostly ceased after Gilgamesh, king of Uruk around 2700 B.C.. The Gilgamesh of the epic was predominantly an Heroic, but tragic, figure. He was no god. Some early Sumerian tales about Gilgamesh make him appear ambivalent. He was not a great king. The story, "Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish," shows him forced to acknowledge the overlordship of the Great King of Kish, possibly Mesannepada of UR.

Gudea, king of Lagash, Sumer

Some women did obtain positions of power. Cuneiform tablets at Cornell described a 21st century B.C. Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. According to the Los Angeles Times: “ The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died. During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts' and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal. "It's our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman," said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.” [Source: Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2013]

Early Dynastic period: Gilgamesh of Uruk (legendary): 2700 B.C.
Mesanepada of Ur: 2450 B.C.
Eannatum of Lagash: 2400 B.C.
Enannatum of Lagash: 2430 B.C.
Uruinimgina of Lagash: 2350 B.C.
Lugalzagesi of Uruk: 2350 B.C.

Dynasty of Akkad (Agade)
Sargon: 2340–2285 B.C.
Rimush: 2284–2275 B.C.
Manishtushu: 2275–2260 B.C.
Naram-Sin: 2260–2223 B.C.
Shar-kali-sharri: 2223–2198 B.C.
Dynasty of Lagash
Gudea(1): 2150–2125 B.C.

Third Dynasty of Ur
Ur-Nammu: 2112–2095 B.C.
Shulgi: 2095–2047 B.C.
Amar-Sin: 2046–2038 B.C.
Shu-Sin: 2037–2029 B.C.
Ibbi-Sin: 2028–2004 B.C.
Dynasty of Isin
Ishbi-Erra: 2017–1985 B.C.
Shu-ilishu: 1984–1975 B.C.
Iddin-Dagan: 1974–1954 B.C.
Lipit-Ishtar: 1934–1924 B.C.
Dynasty of Larsa
Rim-Sin: 1822–1763 B.C.
[Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "List of Rulers of Mesopotamia", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (October 2004)

King Shulgi of Ur, the Greatest Sumerian King

Shulgi, King of Ur (r c. 2029 BC – 1982 BC) was the second king of the Sumerian Renaissance in the Third Dynasty of Ur. He reigned for 48 years and is credited with completing the construction of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, begun by his father, and is known for his extensive revision of the scribal school's curriculum. Shulgi was the son of Ur-Nammu king of Ur — according to one later text (CM 48), by a daughter of the former king Utu-hengal of Uruk — and was a member of the Third dynasty of Ur. [Source: Wikipedia]

possibly Shulgi

Shortly after his father's death, Shulgi engaged in a series of punitive wars against the Gutians to avenge his father. The only activity recorded in the year-names for his first few years involved temple construction. He proclaimed himself a god in his 23rd regnal year. Numerous praise poems have been written for him. Some early chronicles chastise Shulgi for his impiety: "he did not perform his rites to the letter, he defiled his purification rituals" (The Weidner Chronicle (ABC 19)[3]) and improper tampering with the rites and composing "untruthful stelae, insolent writings" (CM 48[4]). The Chronicle of Early Kings (ABC 20)[5] accuses him of "criminal tendencies, and the property of Esagila and Babylon he took away as booty."

In his 20th year he claimed that the gods made him destroy the city of Der, apparently as some punishment. The inscriptions state that he "put its field accounts in order" with the pick-axe. In his 18th year-name his daughter was married off to the king of Elam. Following this, Shulgi engaged in a period of expansionism, conquering highlanders such as the Lullubi, Simurum and the Lulubum nine times between the 26th and 45th years of his reign. He also destroyed Kimash and Humurtu (cities to the east of Ur, somewhere in Elam) in the 45th year of his reign. Ultimately, Shulgi was never able to rule any of these distant peoples; at one point, in his 37th year, he was obliged to build a large wall in an attempt to keep them out.

In addition to construction of defensive walls and completion of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, Shulgi spent a great deal of time and resources in expanding, maintaining, and generally improving roads. He built rest-houses along roads, so that travelers could find a place to rest and drink fresh water or spend a night. Samuel Noah Kramer called him the builder of the first inn. Shulgi also boasted about his ability to maintain high speeds while running long distances. He claimed in his 7th regnal year to have run from Nippur to Ur, a distance of not less than 100 miles. Kramer refers to Shulgi as "The first long distance running champion."

Inscription of Umma and Lagash, c. 2500 B.C., Emergence of Kingship

When first traceable in written records, Lagash in the south and Kish in the north were the rival cities, about 30 kilometers apart. Lagash was ruled by a king, Enkhegal. A little later Meselim, King of Kish, conquered all of southern Babylonia, including Lagash. After Meselim died, Ur-Nina founded a new dynasty at Lagash and became independant. Ur-Nina's grandson, Eannatum, raised the power of Lagash to its greatest height, conquering all the cities of Babylonia, even Kish. The Elamites were always invading the fertile plains of Babylonia, so Ennatum ascended the eastern mountains and subjugated Elam. [Source: George A. Barton, “Archaeology and the Bible”,” 7th Edition, "Inscription of Entemena #7" in: The Royal Inscriptions of Sumer and Akkad (New Haven, CT; Yale Univ., 1929) pp. 61, 63 and 65]

These documents below were found on clay cylinders and date from about 2500 B.C. At the time of the events recorded here, Entemena is king of Lagash. His uncle, Eannatum, had been king earlier and was responsible for the treaty with Lagash mentioned in these documents. The names of the rulers of Lagash are confusing: Eannatum was king of Lagash at the time the original treaty with Umma was negotiated. Enannatum was Eannatum's brother and succeeded him on the throne. Entemena, Enannatum's son and Eannatum's nephew, was king of Lagash at the time of the dispute described in the documents.

Inscription of Umma and Lagash

The Inscription of Umma and Lagash reads: I: “By the immutable word of Enlil, king of the lands, father of the gods, Ningirsu and Shara set a boundary to their lands. Mesilim, King of Kish, at the command of his deity Kadi, set up a stele [a boundary marker] in the plantation of that field. Ush, ruler of Umma, formed a plan to seize it. That stele he broke in pieces, into the plain of Lagash he advanced. Ningirsu, the hero of Enlil, by his just command, made war upon Umma. At the command of Enlil, his great net ensnared them. He erected their burial mound on the plain in that place.”

II: “Eannatum, ruler of Lagash, brother of the father of Entemena [who put up this inscription] ... for Enakalli, ruler of Umma, set the border to the land. He carried a canal from the great river to Guedin . He opened the field of Ningirsu on its border for 210 spans to the power of Umma. He ordered the royal field not to be seized. At the canal he inscribed a stele. He returned the stele of Mesilim to its place. He did not encroach on the plain of Mesilim. At the boundary-line of Ningirsu, as a protecting structure, he built the sanctuary of Enlil, the sanctuary of Ninkhursag .... By harvesting, the men of Umma had eaten one storehouse-full of the grain of Nina [goddess of Oracles], the grain of Ningirsu; he caused them to bear a penalty. They brought 144,000 gur,, a great storehouse full, [as repayment]. The taking of this grain was not to be repeated in the future.

Urlumma, ruler of Umma drained the boundary canal of Ningirsu, the boundary canal of Nina; those steles he threw into the fire, he broke [them] in pieces; he destroyed the sanctuaries, the dwellings of the gods, the protecting shrines, the buildings that had been made. He was as puffed up as the mountains; he crossed over the boundary canal of Ningirsu. Enannatum, ruler of Lagash, went into battle in the field of Ugigga, the irrigated field of Ningirsu. Entemena, the beloved son of Enannatum, completely overthrew him. Urlumma fled. In the midst of Umma he killed him. He left behind 60 soldiers of his force [dead] on the bank of the canal "Meadow- recognized-as-holy-from-the-great-dagger." He left these men-their bones on the plain. He heaped up mounds for them in 5 places. Then Ili Priest of Ininni of Esh in Girsu, he established as a vassal ruler over Umma.

III: “Ili, took the ruler of Umma into his hand. He drained the boundary canal of Ningirsu, a great protecting structure of Ningirsu, unto the bank of the Tigris above from the banks of Girsu. He took the grain of Lagash, a storehouse of 3600 gur . Entemena, ruler of Lagash declared hostilities on Ili, whom for a vassal he had set up. Ili, ruler of Umma, wickedly flooded the dyked and irrigated field; he commanded that the boundary canal of Ningirsu; the boundary canal of Nina be ruined.... Enlil and Ninkhursag did not permit [this to happen]. Entemena, ruler of Lagash, whose name was spoken by Ningirsu, restored their canal to its place according to the righteous word of Enlil, according to the righteous word of Nina, their canal which he had constructed from the river Tigris to the great river, the protecting structure, its foundation he had made of stone ....”

Sumerian King List

sumerian king's list

The Sumerian King List is written on a surviving clay tablet dated by a scribe who wrote it in during reign of King Utukhegal of Erech (Uruk), which places it around 2125 B.C. It reads: "After kingship had descended from heaven, Eridu became the seat of kingship. In Eridu Aululim reigned 28,800 years as king. Alalgar reigned 36,000 years. Two kings, reigned 64,800 years. Eridu was abandoned and its kingship was carried off to Bad-tabira....Total: Five Cities, eight kings, reigned 241,200 years. [Source: CSUN]

"The FLOOD then swept over. After the Flood had swept over, and kingship had descended from heaven, Kish became the seat of Kingship. In Kish .... Total: twenty-three kings, reigned 24,510 years, 3 months, 3 1/2 days. Kish was defeated; its kingship was carried off to Eanna.

"In Eanna, Meskiaggasher, the son of (the sun god) Utu reigned as En (Priest) and Lugal (King) 324 years — Meskiaggasher entered the sea, ascended the mountains. Enmerkar, the son of Meskiaggasher, the king of Erech who had built Erech, reigned 420 years as king. Lugalbanda, the shepherd, reigned 1,200 years. Dumuzi the fisherman, whose city was Kua, reigned 100 years. Gilgamesh, whose father was a nomad reigned 126 years. Urnungal, the son of Gilgamesh, reigned 30 years. Labasher reigned 9 years. Ennundaranna reigned 8 years. Meshede reigned 36 years. Melamanna reigned 6 years. Lugalkidul reigned 36 years. Total: twelve kings, reigned 2,130 years. Erech was defeated, its kingship was carried off to Ur...."

Contemporaries of the Sumerians

Elam, adjacent to Sumer in southwestern Persia and frequently treated as an extension of Mesopotamia, reached literacy by 3000 B.C.. Its capital, Susa [Shushash], exercised considerable influence in Valley affairs. This region and adjacent areas may have been the Anshan of the "Sumerian King List." [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

The city of Ebla, in northwestern Syria, had recently adopted Sumerian writing and wrote in Sumerian more often than in its own language [a Semitic language related to modern Hebrew and Arabic]. Ebla was excavated in 1975-76. The archaeologists found some 16000 clay tablets; 80 percent were written in Sumerian. The remainder, written in a previously unknown language, contain the oldest reference to Jerusalem and several other Hebrew proper names.

Prior to 3000 B.C., Egypt seemed to be divided into a large number of small priestlygoverned states each with its own names for commonly accepted divinities. About 3000 B.C. Egypt was unified by a conquering family out of the southern city of Thebes. The new dynasty placed its capital in the city of Memphis which lay at the point where the narrow valley of the Nile broadened into the Delta. This was the boundary, the Balance of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt); also called the Two Ladies. Half the usable soil of Egypt lay upriver (south), the rest lay down-river (north). [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

Sumerians Versus Akkadians

Morris Jastrow said: “The Babylonians themselves recognised this distinction between the south and the north, designating the former as Sumer—which will at once recall the “plain of Shinar” in the Biblical story of the building of the tower— and the latter as Akkad. The two in combination cover what is commonly known as Babylonia, but Sumer and Akkad were at one time as distinct from each other as were in later times Babylonia and Assyria. They stand, in fact, in the same geographical relationship to one other as do the latter; and it is significant that in the title “King of Sumer and Akkad,” which the rulers of the Euphrates Valley, from a certain period onward, were fond of assuming to mark their control of both south and north, it is Sumer, the designation of the southern area, which always precedes Akkad.[Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911]

Rimush of Akkad, Sumer's rival and destroyer

“More important, however, than any geographical distinction is the ethnological contrast presented by Sumerians and Akkadians. To be sure, the designations themselves, applied in an ethnic sense, are purely conventional; but there is no longer any doubt of the fact that the Euphrates Valley from the time that it looms up on the historical horizon is the seat of a mixed population. The germ of truth in the time-honoured Biblical tradition, that makes the plain of Shinar the home of the human race and the seat of the confusion of languages, is the recollection of the fact that various races had settled there, and that various languages were there spoken. Indeed, we should be justified in assuming this, a priori; it may be put down as an axiom that nowhere does a high form of culture arise without the commingling of diverse ethnic elements. Civilisation, like the spark emitted by the striking of steel on flint, is everywhere the result of the stimulus evoked by the friction of one ethnic group upon another. Egyptian culture is the outcome of the mixture of Semitic with Hami-tic elements.

“A pure race, if it exist at all outside of the brain of some ethnologists, is a barren race. Mixed races, and mixed races alone, bring forth the fruit that we term civilisation,—with social, religious, and intellectual progress. Monuments also bear witness, in ethnic types, in costumes, and in other ways, to the existence of two distinct classes in the population of the Euphrates Valley—Semites or Akkadians, and non-Semites or Sumerians. The oldest strongholds of the Semites are in the northern portion, those of the Sumerians in the southern. It does not, however, necessarily follow that the Sumerians were the oldest settlers in the valley; nor does the fact that in the oldest historical period they are the predominating factor warrant the conclusion. Analogy would, on the contrary, suggest that they represent the conquering element, which by its admixture with the older settlers furnished the stimulus to an intellectual advance, and at the same time drove the older Semitic population farther to the north.

“We are approaching a burning problem in regard to which scholars are still divided, and which, in some of its aspects, is not unlike the Rabbinical quibble whether the chicken or the egg came first. It is the lasting merit of the distinguished Joseph Halevy of Paris to have diverted Assyriological scholarship from the erroneous course into which it was drifting a generation ago, when, in the older Euphratean culture, it sought to differentiate sharply between Sumerian and Akkadian elements. Preference was given to the non-Semitic Sumerians, to whom was attributed the origin of the cuneiform script. The Semitic (or Akkadian) settlers were supposed to be the borrowers also in religion, in forms of government, and in civilisation generally, besides adopting the cuneiform syllabary of the Sumerians, and adapting it to their own speech. Hie Sumer, hie Akkad! Halevy maintained that many of the features in this syllabary, hitherto regarded as Sumerian, were genuinely Semitic; and his main contention is that what is known as Sumerian is rnerely an older form of Semitic writing, marked by the larger use of ideographs or signs to express words, in place of the later method of phonetic writing wherein the signs employed have syllabic values.”

Samarran Culture, Choga Mami and the Origins of Irrigation

The Samarra culture is a Copper Age culture in northern Mesopotamia that existed roughly dated from 5500 to 4800 B.C.. Partially overlaping with the Hassuna and early Ubaid periods, . Samarra its is associated most with the sites of of Samarra, Tell Shemshara, Tell es-Sawwan and Yarim Tepe. At Tell es-Sawwan, evidence of irrigation—including flax—establishes the presence of a prosperous settled culture with a highly organized social structure. The culture is primarily known for its finely made pottery decorated with stylized animals, including birds, and geometric designs on dark backgrounds. This widely exported type of pottery, one of the first widespread, relatively uniform pottery styles in the Ancient Near East, was first recognized at Samarra. The Samarran Culture was the precursor to the Mesopotamian culture of the Ubaid period. [Source: Wikipedia]

Choga Mami a Samarran site in Diyala Province, Iraq about 110 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, shows some of world’s earliest evidence of irrigation. The first canal irrigation operation dates to about 6000 B.C.. The site,, has been dated to the late 6th millennium B.C., was occupied in several phases from the Samarran culture through the Ubaid. Buildings were rectangular and built of mud brick, including a guard tower at the settlement's entrance. Irrigation supported livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) and arable (wheat, barley and flax) agriculture.

Choga Mami yields important evidence on the chronological relationships between North and South Mesopotamian cultures and their connections with Iran. The introduction of irrigation, new types of grain, foreign ceramic styles and domestic cattle are all located in the Choga Mami phase, a late manifestation of the Samarran Period in lowland Mesopotamia. This chronological identification thus also suggests the source of these innovations: migration from the lowlands.

Choga Mami is the largest Tell in the Mandali region. Excavators David and Joan Oates describe the site as a "low mound some 200 meters long and 2-5 meters high," and "heavily eroded, the latest preserved levels dating to 4800 B.C." Based on excavation findings, it appears that Choga Mami had a few small village clusters with small irrigated areas where people grew wheat and barley; herded sheep, goats and some cows; and hunted gazelles and other wild fauna. Lentils and "large-seeded peas" were also grown, while pistachios were gathered from the nearby landscape. The domestication of plants and animals at Choga Mami was possible because of man-made irrigation channels which "ran along the northern side of the mound," which date from the "6th millennium B.C.," and a large canal dating to the end of the Samarran period which was located at the "southwestern side of the mound." Some channels reached more than five kilometers in length, which would require the cooperative labor of larger groups. The latest of these canals can be dated to around 1,500 years ago.

Map of Mesopotamian canals

Struggle Between Sumerians and Akkadians

Morris Jastrow said: “The earliest historical period known to us, which, roughly speaking, is from 2800 B.C., to 2000 B.C., may be designated as a struggle for political ascendency between the Sumerian (or non-Semitic), and the Akkadian (or Semitic) elements. The strongholds of the Sumerians at this period were in the south, in such centres as Lagash, Kish, Umma, Uruk, Nippur, and Ur, those of the Semites in the north, particularly at Agade, Sippar, and Babylon, with a gradual extension of the Semitic settlements still farther north towards Assyria. It does not follow, however, from this that the one element or the other was absolutely confined to any one district. The circumstance that even at this early period we find the same religious observances, the same forms of government, the same economic conditions in south and north, is a testimony to the intellectual bond uniting the two districts, as also to the two diverse elements of the population. The civilisation, in a word, that we encounter at this earliest period is neither Sumerian nor Akkadian but Sumero-Akkadian, the two elements being so combined that it is difficult to determine what was contributed by one element and what by the other; and this applies to the religion and to the other phases of this civilisation, just as to the script. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911]

“When the curtain of history rises on the scene, we are long past the period when the Semitic hordes, coming probably from their homes in Arabia, and the Sumerians, whose origin is with equal probability to be sought in the mountainous regions to the east and north-east of the Euphrates Valley, began to pour into the land. The attraction that settled habitations in a fertile district have for those occupying a lower grade of civilisation led to constant or, at all events, to frequent reinforcements of both Semites and non-Semites. The general condition that presents itself in the earliest period known to us is that of a number of principalities or little kingdoms in the Euphrates Valley, grouped around some centre whose religious significance always kept pace with its political importance, and often surpassed and survived it. Rivalry between these centres led to frequent changes in the political kaleidoscope, now one, now another claiming a certain measure of jurisdiction or control over the others. Of this early period we have as yet obtained merely glimpses. Titles of rulers with brief notices of their wars and building operations form only too frequently the substance of the information to be gleaned from votive inscriptions, and from dates attached to legal and business documents. This material suffices, however, to secure a general perspective. In the case of two of these centres, Lagash and Nippur, thanks to extensive excavations conducted there, the framework can be filled out with numerous details. The general conditions existing at Lagash and Nippur may be regarded as typical for the entire Euphrates Valley in the earliest period.

“The religion had long passed the animistic stage when all powers of nature were endowed with human purposes and indiscriminately personified. The process of selection (to be explained more fully in a future lecture) had singled out of the large number of such personified powers a limited number, which, although associated in each instance with a locality, were, nevertheless, also viewed as distinct from this association, and as summing up the chief Powers in nature whereon depended the general welfare and prosperity. Growing political relationships between the sections of the Euphrates Valley accelerated this process of selection, and furthered a combination of selected deities into the semblance, at least, of a pantheon partially organised, and which in time became definitely constituted. The patron deities of cities that rose to be centres of a district absorbed the local numina of the smaller places. The names of the latter became epithets of the deities politically more conspicuous, so that, e.g., the sun-god of a centre like Lagash became almost an abstract and general personification of the sun itself. Similarly, the moon-god of Ur received the names and attributes of the moon-gods associated with other places.”

Decline of Sumerians and the Return and Fall of Ur

The Sumerians had to fight off numerous incursions by the Semite barbarians and rival Sumerian states fought over land and water rights. The Sumerians were defeated by the invading Akkadians in 2350 B.C.

Around 2250 B.C., Sargon the Great made Ur part of his Akkadian empire, one of the world's first centralized states. Akkadian, a Semitic language distantly related to the modern Arabic now spoken there, gradually replaced Sumerian as Ur's language. [Source: Michael Taylor, Archaeological magazine, March/April 2011]

Ur reemerged when the Akkadian empire collapsed. In 2047 B.C., Ur became the capital of its own centralized state, ruled by what historians call the Ur III dynasty. Its new king, Ur-Nammu, sought to create monuments to make the city equal to that status, and began construction of the ziggurat temple in honor of the city's patron deity, Nannar, god of the moon. But Ur-Nammu died before his greatest work could be finished, and the project was completed by his son, Shulgi. The Sumerians spread their influence westward and Ur was again powerful and remained so from about 2150 to 2000 B.C. This was the era of Abraham. By about 2000 B.C. Sumerian kings had established many colonies and Mesopotamia was "ringed by a series of satellite civilizations."

Akkadian king storming a fortress

The Ur III empire founded by Ur-Nammu was overrun around 1950 B.C. by Elamites and the nomadic Amorites invading from the east, a disaster memorialized in haunting Sumerian laments:

“ Ur — inside there is death, outside there is death
Inside we succumb to famine
Outside we are dispatched by Elamite blades...
Oh your city! Oh your house! Oh your people!
Turmoil descended upon the land.
The statues that were in the treasury were cut down...
There were corpses floating in the Euphrates; brigands roamed the roads.”“

Another inscription describing Ur's destruction went:

” The great storm howls above...
In front of the storm fires burn;
the people groan...
In its boulevards, where the feats were celebrated.
scattered they lay...the people
lay in heaps..."”

The city, however, endured and was eventually subordinated under successive empires of Babylonians, Kassites, Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, and (briefly) Macedonians. At some point after the Persian invasion in 539 B.C., the Euphrates shifted to the north and east of the city, transforming Ur from prime riverfront property to the center of an expanding desert. While a tablet found at Ur that mentions Philip Arrhidaeus, Alexander the Great's half-brother, states that the site was inhabited as late as 316 B.C., it was more or less abandoned for the next 2,200 years.

Ur was abandoned in the forth century B.C., possibly after the Euphrates changed course leaving Ur high and dry in the middle of the desert. Between 2100 B.C. and today the coastline of Iraq has retreated around 100 miles, leaving Ur even more isolated from waters that once made it a great port.

Decline of Early Mesopotamian Cultures

Akkadian victory stele

A decline in agriculture led to a decline in the Sumerian economy and finally a collapse of the Sumerian kingdom. By 1700 B.C. water had disappeared completely from southern Mesopotamia. The population of the region shifted to the north to Babylon.

The Mesopotamia kingdoms were ravaged by wars and hurt by changing watercourse and the salinization of farmland. In the Bible the Prophet Jeremiah said Mesopotamia’s “cities are a desolation, a dry land, and a wilderness, a land wherein no man dwelleth, neither doth any son of man pass thereby." Today wolves scavenge in the wastelands outside of Ur.

The early Mesopotamian civilizations are believed to have fallen because salt accruing from irrigated water turned fertile land into a salt desert. Continuous irrigation raised the ground water, capillary action — the ability of a liquid to flow against gravity where liquid spontaneously rises in a narrow space such as between grains of sand and soil — brought the salts to the surface, poisoning the soil and make it useless for growing wheat. Barley is more salt resistant than wheat. It was grown in less damaged areas. The fertile soil turned to sand by drought and the changing course of the Euphrates that today is several miles away from Ur and Nippur.

Sumerian Genes Found in Okinawa, Japan?

According to the sources cited below, the Y-chromosome J2#1 haplotype is found in the gene pool of Okinawan populations, southern Japan (frequency 1.12 percent). This haplotype shows match patterns in populations of the Caucasus, and areas along the northern coast of continental Europe, such as The Netherlands, Hamburg, Estonia and Poland. [Source: [Source: Rootsweb Haplogroup J J2 page, Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

According to a 2011 study “In search of the genetic footprints of Sumerians: a survey of Y-chromosome and mtDNA variation in the Marsh Arabs of Iraq”, Haplogroup J, with its two branches J1-M267 and J2-M172, is a Middle Eastern Y-chromosome lineage dating to about 30,000 years ago with a common ancestral origin of Marsh Arabs (located in Southern Iraq) and Southern Arabian peoples. From focal points of high frequency in the Near East the haplogroup has a frequency distribution that shows radial decreasing clines (i.e. migratory paths) toward the Levant area, Central Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and Europe.

The study also determined that although both clades (J1-M267 and J2-M172) evolved in situ and participated in the Neolithic revolution, their different geographic distributions suggest two distinct histories: a more ancient background shared with Northern Mesopotamia revealed by the less represented Y-chromosome lineage J1-M267* but which alone characterizes more than 80 percent of the Marsh Y-chromosome gene pool; the J1-Page08 branch that reveals a local expansion around 4,000 years ago, almost contemporary with the Sumerian City State period that characterized Southern Mesopotamia; and J2-M172 which has been linked to the development and expansion of agriculture in the wetter northern zone and is also considered the Y-chromosome marker for the spread of farming into South East Europe.

It is not clear how this J2 lineage arrived in Japan, whether via the Caucasus or maritime seafarers or along the Silk Route of Central Asia. The article “Is there a deep history Sumerian connection or Near Eastern layer to Japanese prehistory?” considers the existence of any archaeological or anthropological evidence to support the arrival in southern Japan of an early J2 Sumerian/Middle Eastern lineage.

Like haplogroups E3b and G, haplogroup J and its subclades originated in the Near East and spread across Europe and the Mediterranean during the Neolithic. It is common among Semitic populations, and includes the Cohen Modal Haplotype – the paternal genetic legacy of the Jewish priestly class. It is also present in North Africa, Arabia and the Caucasus. / J Haplotype #1: The highest frequencies for this haplotype occur in Mediterranean countries, among American Hispanics and in the Caucasus. /

J2 Haplotype #1: The match pattern for this haplotype includes the Caucasus, and areas along the northern coast of continental Europe, such as The Netherlands, Hamburg, Estonia and Poland. The haplotype may have originated with a Jewish population, or from an admixture that had been present in a Germanic population thousands of years ago. The hits in the U.S. heartland and Southern Ireland suggest that it diffused into the British Isles to a greater degree than many J2 haplotypes. The closest matches for DYS385a,b values of 12,16 are, in fact, with Oregon and Southern Ireland. One cautionary note about this haplotype however. The DYS393 value of 13 causes it to resemble some R1a haplotypes, so we can’t rule out convergence.

Geographical Locale (percent): North Caucasus [Rutulian]: 4.55; Indiana [European-American]: 2.94; Oregon [European-American]: 2.86; Maryland [African-American]: 1.37; Netherlands: 1.15; Okinawa, Southern Japan: 1.15; Southern Ireland: .93; Hamburg, Northern Germany: 88; Lublin, Eastern Poland: .75; Tartu, Estonia: .75; Buenos Aires, Argentina [Europeans] .67; Dusseldorf, Westphalia .67; Lombardy, Northern Italy: .55; Sweden: .25; Freiburg, Baden-Wurttemburg: .23; Berlin, Brandenburg :.18.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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