In what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia, Sumer, which flourished between c. 4,500-c. 1,900 BC, was a civilisation responsible for inventing new technologies and developing the large-scale use of existing ones. Sumerians, who lived in an area situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is known today as southern Iraq, developed technologies that fundamentally affected how humans cultivated food, built dwellings, kept track of time and communicated.
Much of their activity was due to their lack of natural resources: the area had few trees and almost no stone or metal, meaning they had to make ingenious use of materials such as clay for everything from bricks to writing tablets. Their real genius, however, was likely organisational, since they had the ability to adapt technologies that had been invented elsewhere and apply them on a vast scale, which allowed them to trade with neighbouring civilisations.
From the wheel to writing, here are 6 Sumerian inventions that changed the world.
Though not entirely certain, it’s likely that the Sumerians were the first to develop a writing system. By 2,800 BC, they were using written communication to keep record of the goods they were making and trading – the earliest records of their texts are simply numbers and commodities, rather than great works of prose.
Initially, pictographs were used, which were essentially drawings of different objects. Pictographs then evolved into symbols that stood for words and sounds. Scribes used sharpened reeds to scratch the symbols into wet clay, which then dried to form tablets. This writing system became known as cuneiform, which was then borrowed by other civilisations and used across the Middle East for some 2,000 years and was only replaced during the Roman era when alphabetical forms were introduced.
2. Fabrication of copper
Sumerians were the first to use copper, one of the earliest non-precious metals, as early as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. In fabricating copper they were able to make arrow heads, razors and harpoons, and later chisels, vessels and jugs. These expertly-crafted objects helped aid the significant growth of Mesopotamian cities such as Uruk, Sumer, Ur and al’Ubaid.
It was also the Sumerian people who used copper weapons for the first time, since they invented swords, spears, maces, slings and clubs for the purpose. Along with their invention of the wheel, these technologies radicalised the military world.
3. The wheel
The Sumerians were the first to use circular sections of logs as wheels to carry heavy objects by joining them together and rolling them, with the oldest existing wheel from Mesopotamia dating to around 3,500 BC.
They didn’t invent wheeled vehicles, but did likely develop the first two-wheeled chariot by drilling a hole through the frame of the cart to create an axle, which then connected the wheels to form a chariot. These chariots were most likely used in ceremonies or by the military, or as a means to get around the rough terrain of the countryside.
4. A counting system
The earliest humans counted using simple methods, such as carving notches into bones. However, the Sumerians developed a formal number system based upon units of 60 known as the sexagesimal system, which evolved out of a need to create a trade and taxation policy. A small clay cone was used to denote 1, a ball for 10 and a large clay cone for 60. An early version of the abacus was invented by the Sumerians between 2,700 and 2,300 BC. With the development of cuneiform, vertical marks were used on the clay tablets.
Assigning symbols to large numbers was further necessitated by the night sky, which the Sumerians tracked in order to prepare the lunar calendar.
Sumerians called their land the ‘land of black-headed people’. These people were responsible for developing the first ruling system of monarchy, since the earliest states required a ruler to govern the many people who lived across a broad area. Before the monarchical system, priests ruled as judges of disputes, organisers of religious rituals, administrators of trade and military leaders.
However, there was a need for legitimate authority, so followed a theory that the monarch was divinely selected, and later, a divine power themselves. The first confirmed monarch was Etana of Kish who ruled in around 2,600 BC.
6. Astrology and the lunar calendar
The Sumerians were the first astronomers to map the stars into separate constellations, such as those which were later observed by the ancient Greeks. They were also responsible for identifying the five planets visible to the naked eye. They documented the movements of stars and planets for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they used astrological symbols to predict future battles and the fortunes of city-states, and also charted their month from the beginning of the sunset and first crescent of the new moon.
Phases of the moon were also used to create a lunar calendar. Their year consisted of two seasons, the first of which was the summer which started with the vernal equinox, and the other was winter which began with the autumn equinox.