History of Ancient Mesopotamia: The Earliest Inhabitants

Let’s check out how some of the earliest inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia lived.

Why Mesopotamia?

You may be wondering just why the history of societies so remote in the past is even worth studying. After all, such people had no internet, electricity, iPhones, Rock ‘n’ Roll, YouTube, Hip Hop, the Kardashians, airplanes or even the most trivial things that we in the 21st century take for granted. Well, I’m here to tell you that in a way, possibly none of those things mentioned above would have every come into existence. For example, the internet and smart phones are tools of communication that are dependent on being able to read and write. All of the modern technology that we so effortlessly use is based on science and mathematics.

Arguably, these things would not have been possible had it not been for the many peoples of Mesopotamia. The achievements in the sciences, mathematics, arts, the development of writing, telling time, urban planning and countless other discoveries and inventions are responsible for putting in motion the processes that have created our modern societies of today all have links if not directly come from ancient Mesopotamia.

To put it more simply, it was here that primitive humans first learned how to farm, live in complex societies, and develop laws to govern those societies. As we’re going to see, we owe a lot to the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia. They don’t call this region the “Cradle of Civilization” for nothing.

It’s all in the Name

But first, let’s get a bit oriented to our story’s geography and natural environment. The origin of the word “Mesopotamia” comes from ancient Greek language and means “land between the rivers,” in this case specifically the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. What the earliest inhabitants called their own land is anybody’s guess. The easternmost of these two rivers is the Tigris, which originates in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey. It later joins up with the Euphrates near the town of Al-Qurna in Iraq. Side-by-side, these rivers flow southward more or less together and empty into the into the Gulf.

Mesopotamia makes up the major part of the area known as the “Fertile Crescent.” Sounds like the name for some sort of lunar resort. It’s actually the term given by archaeologists and historians to a large sliver of semicircular land that stretches roughly from the southeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea through modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, southeastern Turkey and a sliver of southwestern Iran, all the way to the mighty Persian Gulf. Here, take a look.
Map of Mesopotamia and Elam
Though most of this area is desert, the northern parts are dominated by steep hills that form the source of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These travel through the plains and deserts to empty out into the marshy areas that precede their way to the Persian Gulf.

Shifting Geographies

Temperature wise, this area goes through extremes of hot and cold. Hot mostly during the day and cold (sometimes frigid) at night. It does rain, though mostly in the winter and spring, and usually in the more temperate north.
Although the climate of Mesopotamia has remained relatively unchanged for the past 10,000 years, the courses of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have changed several times over the course of many millenniums.

When this happened, many of the those who relied on these rivers as their source of livelihood, mainly for fishing and farming, had to abandon whatever permanent settlements they had established in order to follow the course of the river. That is why so many ruins of once mighty metropolises of Mesopotamia are often found tens of miles from the nearest river banks. Due to the large quantities of silt that these two rivers haul from the mountains of Turkey and Armenia, the coastline of the Persian Gulf has also shifted substantially over the years. For example, this is why once great port cities such as Ur lie over 200 kilometers inland from the Gulf’s shores.

Farming Takes Root

Early farms in ancient Mesopotamia
It is believed that agriculture began to develop in Mesopotamia around 6000 BCE. Of course since at the time there was no form or writing, it’s hard to come to a precise date. Don’t ask me exactly how they figured this out because it’s a bit complicated. I can tell you though that it’s based on archaeological evidence and complex techniques such as radiocarbon dating. Our ancient Mesopotamian brethren eventually learned how to cultivate wheat and dig canals to irrigate the land which they inhabited.

As these primitive but effective farming techniques began to provide a stable source of food, they began planting roots in the form of villages. The more food they were able to create and store, the more offspring they could have. The more offspring, the bigger their villages became.

Early Societies of Mesopotamia

The first villages in early Mesopotamia
Most histories of the region seem to focus on kings and wars of conquests. These of course are important because they influence society. However, we should ask just who were the peoples of that society? Eventually we’ll delve deeper into the politics, kings and wars of the region. For now though, let’s take a look at what the earliest of known Mesopotamian society was really like.

So, let’s start our story.

A long time ago in a land, well, not so far away. I mean, it’s like a five-hour flight from London. Anyway, in this land we now call Mesopotamia, there lived these groups of people who would go on to build the foundations of what we today call civilization.

Though eventually this area produced the first farms and cities, the earliest people of Mesopotamia were hunter-gatherers. Like the name implies, this means that they hunted animals and gathered food from plants, such as nuts, berries, roots and whatever fruits they could find. They generally lived in groups of closely-knit families called clans and were nomadic, meaning that they moved from place to place quite often. When they had exhausted their supply of food in one area, they simply moved along until they came to another area with more edible resources. Such was their life for several thousands of years, pretty much from the end of the last ice age, about 10 to 12,000 years ago. Then a great thing happened. The Agricultural Revolution.

The Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution, which was the large-scale transition of human societies from hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, had a tremendous impact on the world for many, many reasons. Unfortunately, we only have time to name a few of them here. The biggest impact though was on the food supply. Though a highly intensive and laborious process (there were no tractors back then), farming the land and growing crops allowed humans to create more food than they would need on a daily basis. This extra crop is known as a surplus, and this surplus could be stored and consumed at a later date. This in turn developed the need for granaries and pottery.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? However, we should remember that farming, especially in the desert, is an extremely ambitious and wrenching endeavor. When the first peoples migrated to the area, probably from the Zagros mountains to the west or the mountains of southwestern Turkey, they were not led directly into the proverbial land of milk and honey. In fact, they likely found the soil baked dry from the scorching hot summer heat. It was probably so hot and arid that any plants that had managed to grow through the Spring would simply wither up and die by mid July or August. It addition, the strong, searing winds out of the northwest blew up the sands, dirt and stones smack into their faces, blinding them. If they were lucky and the winds were mild, they had a good chance of not being buried alive.

Winters weren’t much better. They brought torrential rains that flooded the plains and caused rivers to overflow. These could be extremely deadly by overwhelming a primitive settlement and drowning its inhabitants. Perhaps it was such heavy rains and the deluges that followed that are the origins of the Sumerian and later Biblical story of the Great Flood. You know, the one about Noah and his ark.

There was however a silver lining to all of this natural calamity. Due to thousands of years of such storms, the southern parts of the Euphrates and Tigris river basins created naturally occurring levees. These levees were made up of fertile silt that contained nutrients ideal for growing crops. In addition, the overflowing of the rivers, especially of the Euphrates, created hundreds of square miles of marshes where fish and waterfowl conglomerated. Not only did the marshes provide a source of food, but the areas surrounding them were ideal for grazing animals such as goats, sheep and cattle. When you take all of these into consideration, it becomes easier to understand why ancient peoples would eventually flock to this otherwise harsh environment.

The Impact on the Agricultural Revolution on Mesopotamia

The impacts of the Agricultural Revolution were huge! As mentioned earlier, around 6000 BCE things began to change for the Mesopotamian population. Even though they lived in an area that probably had little to no rain, they were able to use their noodles and come up with irrigation systems that took water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to their fields. This fed them with enough nutrients to create sizable harvests of grain and other staple crops. As these techniques proved successful over the years, these farming settlements grew larger with permanent houses and became villages and towns. So, no more living in caves and makeshift tents.

Two examples of such places that have been discovered are the archaeological sites of Tell-es-Sawwan and Choga Mami. Both of these were thriving farming villages from about 6500 BCE onward to about 4500 BCE. Both probably contained at least 1000 inhabitants at their peaks. Along with evidence of multi-roomed houses, streets and something resembling a central town square, archaeologists found evidence of defensive ditches or moats surrounding the villages to ward off raiders. When not in the village, the residents of these areas were likely out in the fields farming, with the exception of their rulers, tribal leaders who eventually would become their kings.

The Earliest Peoples of Mesopotamia

So let’s put a name to some of these early peoples. We’ll start with the first that we know about, the Halaf.

The Halaf

The Halaf are believed to have originated in what is today northern Syria and southern Turkey. They’re best known for their superb pottery, ceramics and terracotta objects. Such handiwork seems to have been in high demand as pieces of pottery have been found all of the region.
Halaf pottery
Due to its great quality, it’s possibly that it was given to the elites of other peoples and tribes of the region as gifts. The Halaf lived in distinctive buildings known as tholoi which were made out of mud, straw and limestone. Eventually though, their culture seems to not have so much died out as been transformed or transitioned into the up-and-coming Ubaid culture. This is believed to have happened around 5500 BCE.

The Ubaidians

Great, another ancient people to learn about. These guys and gals were cool though, as can be seen by their pottery and the other kitchenware that they left behind. No really, I’m serious!

Archaeologists call them the Ubaid because they first dug up remnants of their civilization from a hill called Tell al-Ubaid, not far from the ancient city of Ur. The earliest remains of the Ubaid have been dated to about 6000 BCE. They appear to have not only been enterprising farmers, but also skilled artisans. Over the centuries, their towns got bigger, their technology a bit more advanced and by around 4000 BCE, they had become more or less the dominant civilization in Mesopotamia. They must have been pretty good at whatever they did because traces of their culture, including their pottery, have been found from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to beyond the Zagros mountains in the east.

Another thing that makes the Ubaid special is that they are the first people in the history of mankind that we have linguistic evidence of. This actually doesn’t come from themselves but those who wrote about them in later years, namely the Sumerians. Though we do not know specifically what they called them, they mentioned the Ubaid as a non-Sumerian people in several documents that have been discovered. Even several words, for example the names of the Tigris and Euphrates – Idiglat and Buranum – are of non-Sumerian origin and are believed to have been absorbed by the newcomers as they mixed with the Ubaid, either by conquest or emigration into their domains.

The Sumerians

Ancient Sumerian figurines praying – from the site of Tell Asmar ca. 1900 BCE
So now let’s talk about the Sumerians, the most famous of the ancient early Mesopotamian civilizations. At least, they seem to get the credit for a lot of discoveries and innovations that have shaped humankind up to the current day.
Ancient Sumerian mural depicting farmers and herders of different domesticated animals.
We call the land that they occupied “Sumer,” but the Sumerians themselves called their land Ki-en-gir, roughly translating to “land of the civilized lords.” Who though were they referring to? The Ubaid or themselves? Regardless, we know that they were not the original inhabitants of the land, but we also don’t know exactly where they came from.

The Sumerians are believed to have arrived onto the scene sometime around 3500 BCE. Some scholars think that they came from Central Asia or Iran while others point to the Arabian Peninsula. One theory is that they emerged out of the Caucasus or some part of Anatolia. Another is that they emerged out of Africa via Egypt. What if they were aliens? The truth is that we just don’t know.

The main reason for this is simple: the Sumerian language has been determined to be unlike anything else known to exist. For example other ancient languages such as Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian are related to Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, – languages that we actually know – so it can be determined that those ancient peoples were of Semitic origin. The Sumerian language? No known relation. The Assyrians and Babylonians are also mentioned in the Bible. The Sumerians are not. Sumerian also doesn’t have any resemblance to any known Indo-European language. It is also very different than ancient Egyptian. Seriously, we’re really at a loss here. There are several other theories for their origins but for now, let’s move forward.

Expanding on the Old

In the end though, it probably doesn’t really matter where they came from. The Sumerians and the civilization that they built were truly remarkable by ancient and even modern standards. As was mentioned earlier, the Sumerians arrived around 3500 BCE and mixed with the existing Ubaid culture. As a result, the great and well-known Sumerian cities of Eridu, Ur, Nippur, Lagash, Kish and others were likely Ubaid settlements that were reoccupied by the Sumerians and later expanded upon. In fact, there’s a lot of archaeological evidence to support this. For example, all of these ancient cities had one thing in common: a temple dedicated to their patron deity.

The foundations of such temples in what became major Sumerian metropolises date back to the Ubaid period. Over the centuries though, especially after the arrival of the Sumerians, these temples were expanded to the point that they became the huge ziggurats, or tall step-temples, that we so associate with Mesopotamia today. This means that these sites were not only adopted by the Sumerians, but eventually became a large part of their culture as well.

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