An Introduction to Sumer in Ancient History

Ruins of the Bit Resh temple in the ancienct Sumar city, Uruk
Jane Sweeney / Getty Images

In about 7200 B.C., a settlement, Catal Hoyuk (Çatal Hüyük), developed in Anatolia, south-central Turkey. About 6000 Neolithic people lived there, in fortifications of linked, rectangular, mud-brick buildings. The inhabitants mainly hunted or gathered their food, but they also raised animals and stored surplus grains. Until recently, however, it was thought the earliest civilizations began somewhat further south, in Sumer. Sumer was the site of what is sometimes called an urban revolution affecting the entire Near East, lasting about a millennium, and leading to changes in government, technology, the economy, and culture, as well as urbanization, according to Van de Mieroop's A History of the Ancient Near East.

Sumer's Natural Resources

For civilization to develop, the land must be fertile enough to support an expanding population. Not only did early populations need a soil rich in nutrients, but also water. Egypt and Mesopotamia (literally, "the land between rivers"), blessed with just such life-sustaining rivers, are sometimes referred to together as the Fertile Crescent.

The two rivers Mesopotamia lay between were the Tigris and the Euphrates. Sumer came to be the name of the southern area near where the Tigris and Euphrates emptied into the Persian Gulf.

Population Growth in Sumer

When the Sumerians arrived in the 4th millennium B.C. they found two groups of people, the one referred to by archaeologists as Ubaidians and the other, an unidentified Semitic people. This is a point of contention Samuel Noah Kramer discusses in "New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East, American Journal of Archaeology, (1948), pp. 156-164. Van de Mieroop says the rapid growth of the population in southern Mesopotamia may have been the result of semi-nomadic people in the area settling down. In the next couple of centuries, the Sumerians developed technology and trade, while they increased in population. By perhaps 3800 they were the dominant group in the area. At least a dozen city-states developed, including Ur (with a population of maybe 24,000, like most population figures from the ancient world, this is a guess), Uruk, Kish, and Lagash.

Sumer's Self-Sufficiency Gave Way to Specialization

The expanding urban area was made up of a variety of ecological niches, out of which came fishermen, farmers, gardeners, hunters, and herdsmen [Van de Mieroop]. This put an end to self-sufficiency and instead prompted specialization and trade, which was facilitated by authorities within a city. The authority was based on shared religious beliefs and centered on the temple complexes.

Sumer's Trade Led to Writing

With an increase in trade, the Sumerians needed to keep records. The Sumerians may have learned the rudiments of writing from their predecessors, but they enhanced it. Their counting marks, made on clay tablets, were wedge-shaped indentations known as cuneiform (from cuneus, meaning wedge). The Sumerians also developed monarchy, the wooden wheel to help draw their carts, the plow for agriculture, and the oar for their ships.

In time, another Semitic group, the Akkadians, migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to the area of the Sumerian city-states. The Sumerians gradually came under the political control of the Akkadians, while simultaneously the Akkadians adopted elements of the Sumerian law, government, religion, literature, and writing.


  • ( The Middle East & Inner Asia: A World Wide Web Research Institute
  • ( Map
    Black and white map shows the Near East from 6000-4000 B.C.
  • ( The Sumerians
    Clear, well-written history of the Sumerians, from Richard Hookers' World Cultures Site.
  • Civilization in Mesopotamia, Frank Smitha's chapter on the Sumerians
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Gill, N.S. "An Introduction to Sumer in Ancient History." ThoughtCo, Oct. 23, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, October 23). An Introduction to Sumer in Ancient History. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "An Introduction to Sumer in Ancient History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).