People have lived in northern Mesopotamia since about 100,000 B.C. Around 9000 B.C., people took advantage of the wild wheat and barley and sheep and goats and began to develop farming techniques. Farming settlements existed in southern Mesopotamia before 5000 B.C. At that time, the Persian Gulf may have extended further north because of the melted polar ice and high sea levels. After that time, the climate became cooler and drier and the shore of the Persian Gulf receded. No one knows what language was spoken at that time. Around 3500 or 3400 B.C., the first writing appears on clay tablets. This writing system used pictographic symbols. Some believe the pictograms were developed by a people who were not Sumerian-speakers. The names of some rivers and some of the earliest cities in southern Mesopotamia do not seem to come from Sumerian or Semitic (Akkadian) sources. Terms for "farmer", "smith", "carpenter", and "date" (as in the fruit), also do not appear to have a Sumerian or Semitic origin. This suggests that there was a language spoken in the area before the arrival of the Sumerians and Akkadians. Some people call this language "Proto-Euphratean". Place names do not tend to change quickly, so this earlier language may have died out long before writing developed. Uruk was an early large center by 3500 B.C. The people of Uruk took early counting symbols and turned them into true writing. (3)
Sumerian-speakers were living in southern Mesopotamia by 3000 B.C. The Bible speaks of Noah's descendants moving into the plains of Shinar, which is another name for Sumer. The first clear indication for the use of Sumerian on clay tablets comes from 3000 B.C. Sumerian is a non-Semitic language. Cities of Sumer included the Biblical cities of Ur, Erech (Uruk), Accad (Akkad), and Babel (Babylon), as well as Eridu, Kishi (Kish), Lagash, Mari, Nippur, Shuruppak, and Sippur. (3, 4)
Sargon of Akkad built a Mesopotamian empire around 2371 B.C. Akkadian speakers were in Mesopotamia at least by 2600 B.C. Sargon conquered Ur and many other cities in Sumer (southern Mesopotamia). His name is Akkadian, which is a Semitic language (like Hebrew and Arabic), but his daughter has a Sumerian name. Sumerian and Akkadian were both spoken in Mesopotamia at that time. Sumerian seems to have been more favored in the south and Akkadian in the north. The Akkadian empire Sargon founded lasted until 2154 B.C. The people of Ur, formerly a Sumerian-speaking area, rose to fill the void left behind by the fall of Sargon's empire. The Third Dynasty of Ur had strong rulers, such as Ur-Nammu and his son, Shulgi. By now, Sumerian was a dying language. Sumerian literature flourished in scribal schools and the language was used in royal inscriptions, but Sumerian was being replaced by Akkadian as a spoken language. The power of this dynasty collapsed as Amorites moved into the area from northern Syria. Around 2100 B.C., the power of Ur waned and Sumerian ceased to be a living language. (3)
(1) Ur of the Chaldees: A Revised and Updated Edition of Sir Leonard Woolley's Excavations at Ur, by P.R.S. Moorey, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982.
(2) Sumer: Cities of Eden, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1993.
(3) Babylonians: Peoples of the Past, H. W. F. Saggs, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
(4) The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations, ed. Arthur Cotterell, New York: Penguin Books, 1980, 1988.
(5) Mesopotamia: Women in World History Curriculum.
Return to the Ancient Names Galleria
Return to the main room of the Peiraeus Public Library.
Updated November 30, 2009