While modern humans like to think of themselves as the most advanced in history, most of the tools and technology that we take advantage of today have their roots in the ancient world. Writing, math, and units of measurement got their start in the world’s earliest advanced civilization: Sumer. Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq, Sumer was a thriving settlement of city-states in the early Bronze Age and these Sumerian inventions revolutionized the world and continue to shape our lives today.
The Sumerian Invention of Writing
The most important contribution of the ancient Sumerians was their writing system: cuneiform. Cuneiform, named for the wedge-shaped impressions that make up the script, first developed around 3500 BCE to ensure accurate communication during long-distance trade. Merchants needed to ensure that the grain, animals, and other goods were delivered to the correct person in the correct quantity. This task could be daunting by word of mouth only. The development of written language allowed merchants to communicate with traders and their consumers over vast distances.
The earliest characters that made up cuneiform were pictorial representations of trade goods and their distribution. For example, one picture might represent an animal or grain, another picture might indicate the person or location where the product would be delivered to. Another symbol would indicate the number of products the other person would receive. Eventually phonograms, or symbols representing sounds, developed in Uruk, a major city in Sumer. Once cuneiform developed to this point, people began using writing for non-trade purposes.
Writing became an expressive art form. The Sumerian epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first recorded pieces of literature, has influenced literature for thousands of years. Other Sumerian writings were emotionally complex pieces that reflect themes most of us are familiar with — love, fear, hope, and death. Archeologists have even discovered “textbooks” that were used for training scribes. These “textbooks” offered profound insight into the Sumerians’ knowledge of geography, nature, and mineralogy.
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Many ancient civilizations used and adopted cuneiform for thousands of years. It influenced other languages including Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite, and Old Persian. Eventually, alphabet-based writing systems replaced cuneiform as the most widely used writing system in the world, but the development of written language in the early civilized world rests on the back of cuneiform.
Before the discovery of the Sumerian clay tablets in the 1800s, historian’s understanding of language was incomplete. The discovery and translation of cuneiform deepened our historical understanding of life five thousand years ago, fundamentally changed our knowledge about the ancient world, and brought ancient life a little closer to our modern lives.
The Development of Mathematics and Number Systems
Much like cuneiform, the Sumerian number system developed as a trade necessity. Although the Sumerians didn’t create the concept of number systems, the Sumerian number system was the first time a civilization had used a decimal or place value-based number system.
The Sumerian number system is a sexagesimal, or base 60 number system. This means that the system of counting and calculation used powers of 60 (our modern number system is a base 10 system). Historians and mathematicians believe that the Sumerians used a base 60 system because it has a high number of divisors and can easily be represented using your fingers. In modern mathematics, 60 is a popular system of division. Think 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 360 degrees in a circle (60 x 6).
Using the base 60 system, the Sumerians created addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables. This knowledge further developed into geometric equations, arithmetic constructions, and a standard measurement system.
Much like cuneiform, the Sumerian math system influenced later civilizations’ number and measurement systems. Most notably, the Babylonians expanded on Sumerian mathematical concepts to include more complex geometrical and algebraic equations. The Pimpton 322 tablet includes integers that satisfy the Pythagorean theorem, a2+b2=c2. So, to answer every school child’s question, “Who invented math?” the correct answer would be the ancient Sumerians.
The World’s First Medicines
As in most ancient cultures, the will of the Gods drove humanity’s understanding of most ills that befell them. The same is true of medicine. While ancient Sumerian doctors would often attribute a malady or sickness to the patient’s actions and prescribe a confession or offering to the correct god or goddess, often a medical prescription accompanied a religious offering.
There were two types of Sumerian doctors. The asu were doctors who practiced therapeutic medicine and provided medical treatment to patients. The asipu practiced religious medicine and treated their patient’s ills through religious prescriptions (confessions, wearing talismans to ward off evil spirits, or making offerings to the offended god or goddess). Although the two sects of doctors seem to work from opposing philosophies, there is no evidence that one was more important than the other. Historians believe that they may have worked together to both physically and spiritually heal patients.
Ancient Sumerian doctors used herbs, salves, and other natural remedies to treat a variety of ills. According to surviving tablets, doctors had knowledge of remedies for everything from minor aches and pains to male and female sexual health. Ancient doctors also understood that cleanliness and health are linked. Doctors would clean their hands before performing examinations or minor surgeries. Ancient “hospitals” included beds which the asu used to both allow a sick patient to rest and perform surgery.
Asu used botanicals to create healing remedies. Herbs, plants, and minerals were ground up and delivered to patients via honey, water, beer, or wine. Salves for treating wounds were also made from the same ingredients, combined with a carrier, spread on the affected area and bound with cloth. There is also evidence that asu used opium to treat pain.
While surgery in ancient Sumer did not resemble the invasive surgeries that we think of today, it was more advanced than scholars previously believed. Ancient medical knives and catheters have been discovered and written evidence suggests that they were used for drainage and urinary tract treatments. One text describes a procedure for draining the liver as requiring a cut between the third and fourth ribs. Another text describes cutting into the skull to drain an abscess. Ancient healers also understood how to set bones, treat battle wounds, and pull infected teeth.
It’s clear from Sumerian texts that despite medicine and religion’s close relationship, the Sumerians had a vast knowledge of disease, treatment, and remedies to heal the sick. Doctors were respected members of society who served all classes of citizens. The combined respect for the asu and asipu demonstrates an in-depth understanding of physical and spiritual wellness.
As doctors of today have to worry about malpractice lawsuits, doctors of the ancient world could be punished if they harmed a patient or performed an illegal medical procedure. Ancient medicine was a well-understood and long-established profession. While doctors today take the Hippocratic Oath, it’s clear that the guidelines set in this oath have their roots in ancient Sumerian medical practices and laws.
The Sumerian Invention of Agriculture
One would be remiss to study ancient Sumerian technology and not discuss the many advancements the Sumerians made in relation to agriculture. Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the land settled by the ancient Sumerians was the perfect region for large-scale agriculture to develop. The land is flat and mostly treeless with fertile soil. Flooding from the rivers means large silt deposits keep the soil well-nourished.
Five to six thousand years ago, the climate warmed and the annual floods of the rivers changed. While this opened more land for agriculture, it also meant that annual rainfall levels fell to a level inadequate for large-scale farming.
The ancient Sumerians used artificial irrigation to provide water to farms. Initially, the irrigation system consisted of canals that drew water from the river directly onto the fields. Around the ancient city of Uruk, archaeologists have discovered the remains of large canals and reservoirs. Hand-operated water lifts called shadufs have also existed in the region since about 3000 BCE. Eventually, the central government developed aqueducts to carry water over long distances.
Soil in this region tends to dry out and crack, resulting in the need to aerate the ground. To rectify this, the Sumerians invented the plow around 3000 BCE. A team of farmers helped guide the oxen-pulled plow. One would lead the animals, another would drop seeds into the trench, and the third would guide the plow through the ground. Eventually, the development of the plow changed so that a seed bag was attached to the plow so seeds could be dropped automatically.
In the tablet Instructions to a Farmer we also get a look into the vast knowledge the Sumerians had about farming. The text explains every step a farmer should take from sowing fields and preparing them for planting through to the harvest. Included in between is advice on how to run a successful farming operation. Sumerian knowledge of farming was so extensive that the tablet includes instructions for leaving fields fallow to ensure good soil fertility.
Sumerian agriculture was also far more advanced than previously believed. Sumerian aqueducts predated Roman construction by hundreds of years. Their knowledge of crop rotation, plowing, and teamwork to achieve the feat of producing surplus grains set the Sumerians apart from the other early civilizations of the ancient world.