8500-6000 BCE: The slow transition from semi-nomadic hunter/gatherer existence to a slightly more urbane, village-centered existence takes hold in various regions of Southern Africa, Egypt, India and the Fertile Crescent regions around this time. Specific to the Tigris-Euphrates area, early shepherd communities seem to have come down from the mountainous north, after several continuous harsh winters, to settle on the valley plain.i Villages and towns were established along the shores of the two rivers – and with these settlements livestock breeding, grain cultivation and primitive irrigation emerged as sound practice. The people of this pre-historic culture are often referred to as proto-Sumerians or the Ubaid.
“Droughts, catastrophic storms, even a few decades of marginally lower temperatures, could force entire peoples in to migration and subsequently help bring on civilization by throwing together people of difference cultural, linguistic and technological traditions. In collision and cooperation they learnt from one another and so increased the total potential of their societies.” –J. Roberts, History of the World, 36.
5000 BCE: With better resource sharing, farming & communal effort, the villages grow into towns, and towns into cities. The town of Eridu is established on the grassland marsh just south of the lower Euphrates, the oldest extant town-site in the region.

3500 BCE: Better irrigation practices and food surpluses lead to increased birth rates, decreased infant mortality, and even larger communities. City-life begins to adhere, with increased specialization and more productive division of labour. Ur, Uruk, Lagash & Nippur now rise alongside Eridu as the principal centers in the region. Simultaneous with the ascendance of these city-states, early cuneiform scripts are developed. Previously, as far back as 75,000 BCE, special rock tokens, bone wands or carved wooden counters had been used to calculate trade or track goods, but for the first time, in Sumer, an actual syllabic form of writing emerged for the first time beyond crude pictographic marks.1

3360-2400 BCE: With these foundations, Archaic Sumerian culture flourishes and grows for centuries. Sheep, goats, milk, grain, wool, bread, honey and fish became the major components of the local market. Increased trade leads to increased competition between various competing interests leading each city-state, who begin to vie for wider control. At the same time, cultural, economic and technological exchange from Sumeria extends to Anatolia (Lower Turkey), Syria, Persia (Iran) and as far away as the Indus River valley. Internal wars between city-rulers erupt as cities begin to fortify their walls and mobilize crude, four-wheeled chariots. 2

2400-2350 BCE: Sargon I unites Sumer into a loose confederation of city-states, the first in a chain of Mesopotamian empires. The Akkadian prince (from the hilly region north of the lower Tigris) pushes his troops3 and influence to the cedar forests of Lebanon, the silver rich Taurus Mountains of Anatolia (southern Turkey), and to the rich stone quarries of Elam (southern Iran). Trade and diplomatic missions are extended to Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as Harappa & Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus. The Akkadian Sumerians supply barley, grain, glasswork, bronze, millet, and alcohol to most of their trade partners. 4 The raw metal resources of the Akkadians had to be imported, as there were few productive mines in the mostly marshy region. As an early example of economic interdependence, when the tin supplies of the Levant were exhausted around this time, Sumerian weapons reverted from bronze to copper.

2250 BCE: The Sumerian pantheon of elemental gods is solidified – ISHTAR, goddess of love, fertility and war;ENLIL, Air Lord; ENKI: god of wisdom and life; ANU, father of the gods. Sumerians were a deeply animistic, fatalist people, who believed themselves surrounded by elemental spirits and malevolent demons, most notably the evil Kur. As a result demonology and divination became crucial components of their cosmology (subsequently passed down to the Chaldean culture). The Sumerian vision of the afterlife was a wholly nihilist conception: ”The house where they sit forever in darkness, where dust is their food and clay their wheat, they are clothed like birds with feathers or garments, over bolt and door lie dust and silence.”

2150 BCE: The city of Akkad is invaded by Gutian forces, severing three centuries of Akkadian rule. The city of Ur, now some 80,000 souls, becomes the major political center, with provinces extending from Susa (Elam/Iran) to Byblos in Lebanon. Ziggurats over 100 ft. high are build with baked mud bricks.
”The great storm howls above…in front of those clouds, fires burn. All our people moan. In its boulevards, where our feast were celebrated, scattered they lay. The children lay in heaps. Cry for my city! Tears for my home!” – Lament for Ur, dated est. 2000 BCE
2000 BCE: Elamites revolt against Sumerian dominion and destroy Ur. The now fragile priesthood class governing the region disperse in fear, and the unity of the region collapses. However, in Nippur, the Epic of Gilgamesh is written down for the first time, and added to an extensive library of hymns, omens, laments, aphorisms, creation tales, legends, epics, grammars and dictionaries. Amid a crumbling empire, the first organized libraries, with catalogues and indices, first appeared in Nippur.5 Sumerian writing, much like Latin, remained the lingua franca of the Near East’s literate class for another millennium.
iA geologist friend of mine asserts, "8,000-9,000 BC: Civilizations like Sumer started right at the end of the Ice Age. It was just too hard to farm before: weather patterns were too chaotic, big storms, unreliable growing seasons. It wouldn't take a fledgling farmer too many years of snow in June to go back to hunting. Right after the biblical flood period, climates all over the world settled down, and the Fertile Crescent was lush and wet (not dry like today). This all started there for the weather."
1 Archeologists date clay tablets of ‘proto-cuneiform’ script found in the temple ruins of Uruk (Erech, as it appears in the Bible) around 3500-3100 BCE. Temples, in Sumerian culture as in others, were powerful nodes of religious, political and administrative power, and were viewed as owners (or at the least distributors) of all agricultural product. Hence the need for accounting to encode the raw data of materials passing through officials hands – context, titles, etc. were rarely recorded at first, the scribe taking them for granted, and records were poorly maintained. Most tablets became landfill soon after their use.
2 “Iraq: Cradle of Civilization”, National Geographic, v.179, n.5, May 1991, 102-115.
3 The development of the bone-reinforced composite bow, chariots and bronzed weapons, backed up with a refined communication/writing system, made Sargon the first true imperial power. The military, with 6,000 specialized troops as a result, became a crucial check on the power of the city-based priest class. See J.M. Roberts, History of the World (NY, 1985), 74-75.
4 C.N. Parkinson, East & West (Mentor, 1966), 21. Incidentally, the word alcohol is derived from the original Sumerian – and beer and wine was a major export, as one can imagine. The Tigris-Euphrates was a plentiful source, by geological estimates its soil was at that time, roughly 2000 BCE, able to yield a grain harvest on par with the best Canadian grain fields.
5 D. Diringer, The Book before Printing (Dover, 1982), 87-96. Most of the Nippur material is now at the University of Pennsylvania (see http://www.upenn.edu/museum/Games/cuneiform.html, to render your name in Sumerian cuneiform).

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