Cradled by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in what is today Iraq, the Sumerians of Mesopatamia established the earliest known society in which people could read and write. Although the Sumerian’s gift of writing made possible the recording of history, Sumer itself was lost until a century ago, when the translation of cunieform tablets revealed a civilization and a language quite unlike the Semitic tongues of the Babylonians and Assyrians.
The Sumerians came from the east or from the mountains of Elam perhaps as early as 5,000 B.C, to the swamps at the head of the Persian Gulf. They drained the swamps, developed flood control, invented the wheel, and established a permanent agriculture. As successful trade developed with the surrounding areas, Sumerian villages and settlements grew into prosperous citystates, such as Ur, Eridu, Lagash, Nippur and Uruk.
It is theorized that writing evolved to keep track of property. Clay envelopes marked with the owner’s rolled seal were used to hold tokens for goods, the tokens within recording a specific transaction. Later on, the envelope and tokens were discarded and symbols scratched into clay recorded transactions such as 2 bunches of wheat or 7 cows. As writing evolved, pictures gave way to lines pressed into clay with a wedge tip. This allowed a scribe to make many different types of strokes without changing his grip. By 3,000 B.C., the script evolved into a full syllabic alphabet.
Sumerian states were believed to be under the rule of a local god or goddess, and a bureaucratic system of the priesthood arose to oversee the ritualistic and complex religion. High Priests represented the gods on earth, one of their jobs being to discern the divine will. A favorite method of divination was reading sheep or goat entrails. The priests ruled from their ziggurats, high rising temples of sunbaked brick with outside staircases leading to the shrine on top.
The Sumerian gods personified local elements and natural forces. Anu, the supreme god of heaven, Enlil, god of water, and Ea, god of magic and creator of man, were worshiped by the Sumerians. The Sumerians held the belief that a sacred ritual marriage between the ruler and Inanna, goddess of love and fertility brought rich harvests.
Of interest to food historians, the earliest written evidence of beer comes from Mesopotamia, where the ancient Sumerians called it kash. The Sumerian recipe was unleavened barley wafers, malted barley and date juice, called geshtin. Kash was a thick and porridgy beer. Sumerians are usually depicted drinking beer with reed or metal straws, and the cuneiform texts tell of priests drinking beer at cult rites, and of drunken Sumerians. Around 1800 b.c., a poet composed a Hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing. A minor goddess in the Sumerian pantheon, Ninkasi’s name means “you who fill my mouth so full.”
The recording of literature, science, society and history is a lasting legacy of the Sumerians. Tens of thousands of cunieform texts have given us Sumerian lullabies, poetry, ledgers, codes of law, administration, property records, and lists of astronomical occurences, animals and medicinal plants.
In the wet lowlands of the lower Tigris River, local traditions place the Garden of Eden in the marshes. Some archaeologists suggest that prehistoric people would have indeed found a paradise in the waters teeming with fish and waterfowl. As farmers learned to plow the land and tame the waters, a fabled granary flourished in the plain of Mesopotamia. It was then that the Sumerians stood as literary and urban pioneers, ready to change the face of history.