Rise Of The Human Race

The Civilizations Of The Ancient Near East


Paleoanthropologists estimate that between three and four million years ago, ancestors of the human race appeared on earth, naked in a world of enemies. The skills necessary for survival were mastered over many hundreds of thousands of years.

Agriculture and the ways of life it engendered were the most important achievements. The first farmers scattered kernels of grain on the earth and waited patiently for harvest time. Wild beasts were tamed as work animals or kept for their meat and hides.

Because their fields and flocks could supply most of their wants, a settled life in villages became possible; people were no longer compelled to move on endlessly in search of food, as their food-gathering ancestors had done for countless generations.

It was along the banks of great rivers that villages first grew into towns and cities. In early Egyptian picture writing a town is shown as a cross within a circle - the intersection of two pathways enclosed by a wall. The symbol is an appropriate one, for in the history of the human race the town marks the spot where civilization as we know it began.

Within the towns the business of living took new turns. While the majority still farmed, there were now more craftsmen turning out specialized wares, merchants trading for metals and other needed raw materials, priests

conducting religious ceremonies, and administrators planning and supervising the necessary cooperative effort for the common good.

Specialization allowed leisure time for intellectual and artistic pursuits that enriched the lives of the participants and developed a cultural heritage.

A culture can endure only if the knowledge necessary for its survival is passed on from generation to generation. Early peoples relied on information transmitted by word of mouth. But as cultures became increasingly complex, methods for keeping records were needed and systems of writing were created. To most authorities, the development of writing is a prerequisite to civilization.

The four earliest civilizations - Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese - arose between c. 3100 B.C. and c. 1500 B.C., in each case in the valley of a great river system. In this chapter we shall trace the progress of civilization, including the earliest advances in technology and creation of writing systems, in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In chapter 4 we shall examine the stirrings of civilization in India and in China.

The Development Of The Human Race

Did God create humanity "in His own image," or was our species itself the product of physical change and adaptation no less than the rocks, plants, and animals of this planet?

This question - so basic in nineteenth-century thought that it caused anguish and bitter controversy among theologians and scientists alike - came to the fore when Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830) provided evidence that the earth was the product of a tremendously long period of change.

Evolution: A Major Theory

The issue of human evolution became critical with the appearance of Charles Darwin's two treatises, The Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871). The controversy surrounding the theory of human evolution has raged on into the twentieth century, although with decreasing intensity as more fossil evidence has come to light. Of course, the fossil record can probably never be complete, and paleontologists have only skeletal remains (usually partial ones) to analyze.

The evidence for evolution appears overwhelming, but the theory by no means precludes the presence of a guiding intelligence ultimately responsible for a progressive development of organic life from simple to more complex forms, culminating in the intelligence and creativity of our own species.

Evolution Of The Hominids

Who the ancestors of early humans were and when and where tools were first made are much debated questions in scholarly circles. According to the theory of evolution, a crucial development occurred when the ape family became differentiated into the tree-dwelling apes and the ground-dwelling types known as hominids ("pre-humans" or "protohumans"). The remains of Australopithecines ("Southern Apes"), the earliest known hominids, were first discovered in South Africa in 1924. Autralopithecus had an erect posture but an apelike brain.

Since World War II, and especially during the 1970s, our knowledge of the hominids and their relation to the genus Homo ("man") has been rapidly growing. The dominant present view is that Australopithecus was succeded by three species of the genus Homo: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens. (A genus contains one or more species. The genus name is capitalized and precedes the species name, which is not capitalized.)

Three major sites in East Africa have produced a remarkable collection of Australopithecine fossils. Between 1972 and 1977, an expedition led by C.D. Johanson worked at Hadar in Ethiopia. The Hadar collection comprises at least thirty-five individuals, with one female skeleton - named Lucy after the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" - nearly 40 percent complete and between 3.0 and 3.5 million years ago.


During this period, too, the British anthropologist Mary D. Leakey discovered at Laetoli, in northern Tanzania, the fossil jaws and teeth of eight adults and three children, between 3.35 and 3.75 million years old. Subsequently, she uncovered fifty-seven footprints made by two individuals the oldest known marks of human-like creatures on earth.

Meanwhile, in 1972 at a site on the east side of Lake Rudolph, Kenya, Mary Leakey's son Richard had made yet another major discovery. Of special interest was his discovery of a skull (labeled KNM-ER 1470), probably 2.9 million years old. Leakey's claim that 1470 is a representative of the genus Homo has been challenged. The find made earlier (1964) by his father, L.S.B. Leakey, however, has been generally accepted as the earliest representative of our own genus, Homo.

L.S.B. Leakey had made his discovery at Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania, at a site some 1.75 million years old. Homo habilis ("skillful man"), as Leakey named his find, was about four feet tall, walked erect, and had a well-developed opposable thumb. Significantly, these fossil remains were found in association with crude tools. With the advent of a hominid capable of making tools, Leakey felt confident in assigning his find to the genus Homo.

The first evidence of the more advanced group known as Homo erectus was discovered in Java in 1891. Peking man and other members of this group, whose earliest fossils are about 1.5 million years old, have been discovered in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Homo erectus had a brain size larger than Homo habilis but smaller than our own. The members of Homo erectus were about five feet tall, had heavy brows, and a receding forehead. They developed the ability to control and use fire, a major step in mastering the environment and setting humans apart from the rest of the natural world. They also perfected the first major standardized all-purpose tool, the hand ax, made by striking flakes from a flint stone that had been hardened in fire to make it flake easily.

Its cutting edge was as effective as steel in cutting meat. The hand ax remained a favored tool for over a million years, long after the extinction of Homo erectus about 300,000 years ago and the gradual emergence of Homo sapiens.

[See Stone Age Environments]

From about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, just before and during the early part of the last glaciation of the Ice Age, the Neanderthals were the principal inhabitants of Europe and adjacent parts of Asia and Africa. Somewhat taller than five feet, Neanderthals had sloping foreheads with prominent brow ridges and thickset bodies. They invented tools of advanced design, were able hunters, and adapted to extreme cold by using fire, wearing clothes, and living in caves.

Despite a brain capacity averaging slightly larger than our own, Neanderthals were long considered to be brutish, dimwitted, slouching creatures - the stereotypical "cave man" of modern cartoonists.

Recent reconstructions of the fossil evidence, however, have determined that Neanderthals are a subspecies of Homo sapiens and deserve the label Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. "If he could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway - provided he was bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens." ^1

The culminating phase of the development of the genus Homo occurred some 40,000 years ago when the Cro-Magnons, a subspecies of Homo sapiens called Homo sapiens sapiens, replaced Homo sapiens neanderthalensis in Europe. What happened to the Neanderthals can only be conjectured.

Named after the locality in southern France where their bones were first

unearthed in 1868, Cro-Magnon skeletons are virtually indistinguishable from human skeletons of today. Skillfully made flint and bone tools and polychrome paintings found on the walls of caves reflect an advanced culture. By 20,000 B.C. Cro-Magnon and other representatives of Homo sapiens sapiens inhabited Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and had moved across the Bering Strait to America. Today, Homo sapiens sapiens is the only existing species of the genus Homo.

Paleolithic Culture

Benjamin Franklin is credited with first defining the human being as a "tool-making animal." The making and using of tools is the first evidence of the human ability to use reason to solve problems. Since the use of stone implements was the most distinctive feature of early human culture, (Anthropologists use the term culture for a primitive people's way of life.) this first cultural stage is known as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It was a food-collecting stage, characterized by hunting, fishing, and the collecting of wild fruits, nuts, and berries.

Much of our knowledge of Paleolithic culture comes from groups that have survived into modern times - Indians in the rain forests of Brazil, for example. Labor was divided according to sex. Men hunted, fished, and protected the group.

Women gathered wild plants, fruits, and nuts, and prepared the food for eating, they processed animal hides and wood into household objects, and cared for the children. Men and women shared such tasks as building dwellings, making ornaments and tools and training children for adult life.

To withstand the cold, late Paleolithic peoples made garments from skins and erected building in areas where natural caves did not exist. The reindeer and mammoth hunters of what is today Czechoslovakia and Russia lived in tents and huts made of hides and brush or in communal houses partially sunk into the ground with mammoth's ribs for roof supports. There is evidence that they used coal for fuel.

One of the highest achievements of late Paleolithic culture was art. Animated, realistic paintings of bison, reindeer, primitive horses, and other animals, colored in shades of black, red, yellow, and brown, have been found in more than a hundred Cro-Magnon caves in Spain and France, dating from about 28,000 to 10,000 B.C. Cave art rivals that of civilized artists not only stylistically but also as an expression of significant human experience.

It represents the Paleolithic response to complete dependence on an abundance of game animals and success in hunting them. By drawing pictures of food animals sometimes shown pregnant or pierced by spears and arrows - the artists may have believed that they could wield a mystical power over the spirits of the animals to ensure the animals' multiplication and human mastery over them.

Like the religious art of civilized peoples, the magico-religious basis of Paleolithic art in no way detracts from its esthetic qualities as true art. Paleolithic artists also modeled in clay and chiseled pictures on rock and bone.

Mesolithic Culture

With the final retreat of the glaciers about 10,000 B.C., Europe became covered with dense forests. Because of their highly specialized adaptation to cold weather, the reindeer moved north while the hairy mammoth and other animals hunted by late Paleolithic peoples became extinct.

Humans, however, adjusted to postglacial conditions by developing new cultures called Mesolithic or Transitional. Many of these Mesolithic groups lived along the coast, fishing and gathering shellfish. Others lived inland, where they made bows and arrows for hunting and devised skis, sleds, and dugout canoes. Our Mesolithic forebears also domesticated the dog.

The Neolithic Revolution

While the Mesolithic peoples of Europe were adjusting to the postglacial environment by developing new food-gathering techniques, something of far

greater consequence - a shift from food gathering to food producing - was taking place in the Near East (now generally called the Middle East).

Here, on the hilly flanks of the mountains bordering the Fertile Crescent there was sufficient rainfall to nourish wild forms of wheat and barley and to provide grass for wild sheep, goats, and pigs.

By 7000 B.C., people in this region had domesticated these grains and animals and were living in villages near their herds and fields. (At about the same time, yams were domesticated in Southeast Asia; and the cultivation of rice in China dates back to about 6500 B.C.) This momentous change, the most far-reaching breakthrough in the relationship of people to their environment, ushered in the Neolithic or New Stone Age.


One of the oldest Neolithic village sites to be excavated is jarmo in northern Iraq. The 150 people of the village lived in twenty mud-walled houses, reaped their grain with stone sickles, stored their food in stone bowls, and possessed domesticated goats, sheep, and dogs. The later levels of settlement contain evidence of domesticated pigs and clay pottery. Since many tools were made of obsidian, a volcanic rock from beds 300 miles away, a primitive form of commerce must have existed.

The best preserved early village so far uncovered [is] by Catal Huyuk in southern Turkey, excavated in 1961. The large, 32-acre site, first occupied shortly before 6000 B.C., contains some of the most advanced features of Neolithic culture: pottery, woven textiles, mudbrick houses, shrines honoring a mother goddess, and plastered walls decorated with murals and carved reliefs.

It is generally thought that because of their earlier role as gatherers of wild foods, women were responsible for the invention of agriculture. As long as the ground was prepared by hoeing rather than by plowing, women remained the cultivators.

They also invented and performed the making of pots from clay, and the spinning and weaving of textiles from cultivated flax and animal wool.

The Neolithic revolution spread to the Balkan Penninsula by 5000 B.C., Egypt and central Europe by 4000 B.C., and Britain and northwest India by 3000 B.C. The Neolithic cultures of Middle America and the Andes are independent developments, and a possible relationship between China and the Near East is now doubted.


Primitive Society

The organization of a primitive society may be as complex as our own. Rules regarding the role of parents, treatment of children, punishment of the evildoer, conduct of business, worship of the gods, and conventions of eating and recreation have existed for thousands of years, along with methods to compel the individual to do "the correct thing."

How can we know about those features of early culture that are not apparent from the remains of tools and other objects?

The myths of primitive people throw light on their beliefs and customs. Defined as "the result of the working of a naive imagination upon the facts of experience," myths are invented to explain natural phenomena - thunder, for example - as the action of gods. In describing the daily life of the gods, myth makers describe what is familiar in their own lives.

Forms Of Social Organization

Among all peoples, the basic social unit appears to be the elementary family group - parents and their offspring. Anthropologists do not know for certain what marriage customs were prevalent in the earliest societies, but monogamy was probably most common. Other social groupings found in primitive societies include the extended family, the clan, and the tribe.

The extended family is an individual family together with a circle of related persons who usually trace their descent through their mothers and are bound together by mutual loyalty.

The extended family strengthens the elementary unit in obtaining food and in protecting its members against other groups. Land is communally owned but allocated to separate families. Weapons, tools, and utensils are individually owned.

A clan is a group of extended families whose members believe that they

have a common ancestor. A clan is patrilineal if its members trace their relationship through the male line and matrilineal if through the female.


Many primitive peoples identify their clans by a totem - an animal or other natural object that is revered. Totemism exists today in military insignia and the

emblems of fraternal organizations.

A tribe comprises a number of clans, both related and unrelated. It is a community characterized by a common speech or distinctive dialect, common cultural heritage, specific inhabited territory, and tribal chief. Group loyalty is strong, often accompanied by contempt for the people and customs of other tribes.

Collective Responsibility In Law And Government

No community, however small and primitive, can exist and hold together unless rules regarding the relations between members are recognized as binding upon all. Such rules crystallize into precedent or custom, and the origin of these customary laws may be attributed to the gods.

Later, under the conditions of an urban civilization in which life is much more complicated, a new kind of law, made by humans and called legislation, emerges to deal with new problems for which the old customary laws have no specific remedy.

In primitive societies correct behavior consists in not violating custom. The close relationships that exist in extended families and clans encourage conformity. Justice in a primitive group maintains equilibrium. Theft disturbs economic equilibrium, and justice is achieved by a settlement between the injured person and the thief. The victim is satisfied and the thief is not punished.

Murder and wounding are also private matters to be avenged by the next of kin on the principle of "an eye for an eye." On the other hand, certain acts, such as treason, witchcraft, and incest, are considered dangerous to the whole group and require punishment by the entire community. Clan members who get into trouble too often may be outlawed from the clan or executed.

As a general rule, government in primitive societies is of a democratic character. The older tribal members - the council of elders - play a dominant role in decision making because of their greater experience and knowledge of the group's customs and lore.

Serious decisions, such as going to war or electing a chief, require the consent of a general assembly of all adult males. The elected chief of the tribe is pledged to rule in accordance with custom and in consultation with the council of elders. Due to the strong element of representation present, this early form of government has been called "primitive democracy." ^2

Religion, Magic, And Science

Religion is a strong force in the lives of primitive people. One form of early religious belief is animism, the belief that all things in nature wind, stones, trees, animals, and humans - are inhabited by spirits. Many spirits became objects of reverence, with the human being's own spirit being one of the first. Neanderthal people placed food and implements alongside their carefully buried dead, an indication that they believed in an afterlife and held their ancestors in awe.

We know also that late Paleolithic people revered the spirits of the animals they hunted for food as well as the spirit of fertility upon which both human and animal life depended. this led to totemism and to the worship of a fertility goddess - the Mother Goddess - who is known to us from many carved and modeled female figures with exaggerated sexual features.

At Catal Huyuk, thirty-three representations of the Mother Goddess have been found, but only eight of a god. The latter represented the son of the goddess, or her consort. The relative scarcity of representations of gods, together with evidence that the cult of the goddess was administered by priestesses rather than priests, supports the view that women occupied a central position in Neolithic society.


Closely associated with primitive religion is the practice of magic. In addition to revering the spirits, primitive people wanted to compel the spirits to favor them. They employed magic to ward off droughts, famines, floods, and plagues.

There may have been an element of magic in the paintings of primitive peoples, who may have believed that through their paintings they could wield power over the spirits of animals.

Traditionally, magic has been regarded as diametrically opposed to science. Magic claims supernatural powers over natural forces, whereas science rejects any such determinism and studies natural phenomena by open-ended methods in its search for general laws.

Yet, as scholars are increasingly recognizing, both primitive people and scientists believe that nature is orderly and that what is immediately apprehended by the senses can be systematically classified.

The great contributions of Stone Age men and women - domestication of plants and animals, invention of tools, pottery, and weaving - involved centuries of methodical observation and oft-repeated experiments, few of which could have yielded immediate results. Early people must therefore be credited with a desire for knowledge for its own sake.

Mesopotamia: The First Civilization

Authorities do not all agree about the definition of civilization. Most accept the view that "a civilization is a culture which has attained a degree of complexity usually characterized by urban life." In other words, a civilization is a culture capable of sustaining a substantial number of specialists to cope with the economic, social, political, and religious needs of a populous society.

Other characteristics usually present in a civilization include a system of writing to keep records, monumental architecture in place of simple buildings, and an art that is no longer merely decorative, like that on Neolithic pottery, but representative of people and their activities. All these characteristics of civilization first appreared in Mesopotamia.

The Geography Of Mesopotamia

Around 6000 B.C., after the agricultural revolution had begun to spread from its place of origin on the northern fringes of the Fertile Crescent, Neolithic farmers started filtering into the Fertile Crescent itself. Although this broad plain received insufficient rainfall to support agriculture, the eastern section was watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Known in ancient days as Mesopotamia (Greek for "between the rivers"), the lower reaches of this plain, beginning near the point where the two rivers nearly converge, was called Babylonia. Babylonia in turn encompassed two geographical areas - Akkad in the north and Sumer, the delta of this river system, in the south.

Broken by river channels teeming with fish and refertilized frequently by alluvial silt laid down by uncontrolled floods, Sumer had a splendid agricultural potential if the environmental problems could be solved.


"Arable land had literally to be created out of a chaos of swamps and sand banks by a 'separation' of land from water; the swamps ... drained; the floods controlled; and lifegiving waters led to the rainless desert by artificial canals."


^4 In the course of the several successive cultural phases that followed the arrival of the first Neolithic farmers, these and other related problems were solved by cooperative effort.


Between 3500 B.C. and 3100 B.C. the foundations were laid for a type of economy and social order markedly

different from anything previously known.

This far more complex culture, based on large urban centers rather than simple villages, is what we associate with civilization.

Prelude To Civilization

By discovering how to use metals to make tools and weapons, late Neolithic people effected a revolution nearly as far-reaching as that wrought in agriculture. Neolithic artisans discovered how to extract copper from oxide ores by heating them with charcoal.

Then about 3100 B.C., metal workers discovered that copper was improved by the addition of tin. The resulting alloy, bronze, was harder than copper and provided a sharper cutting edge.

Thus the advent of civilization in Sumer is associated with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the West, which in time spread to Egypt, Europe, and Asia. The Bronze age lasted until about 1200 B.C., when iron weapons and tools began to replace those made of bronze.

The first plow was probably a stick pulled through the soil with a rope. In time, however, domesticated cattle were harnessed to drag the plow in place of the farmer. Yoked, harnessed animals pulled plows in the Mesopotamian alluvium by 3000 B.C.

As a result, farming advanced from the cultivation of small plots to the tilling of extensive fields. "By harnessing the ox man began to control and use a motive power other than that furnished by his own muscular energy. The ox was the first step to the steam engine and gasoline motor."

Since the Mesopotamian plain had no stone, no metals, and no timber except its soft palm trees, these materials had to be transported from Syria and Asia Minor. Water transport down the Tigris and Euphrates solved the problem.

The oldest sailing boat known is represented by a model found in a Sumerian grave of about 3500 B.C. Soon after this date wheeled vehicles appear in the form of ass-drawn war chariots. For the transport of goods overland, however, people continued to rely on the pack ass.

Another important invention was the potter's wheel, first used in Sumer soon after 3500 B.C. Earlier, people had fashioned pots by molding or coiling clay by hand, but now a symmetrical product could be produced in a much shorter time.

A pivoted clay disk heavy enough to revolve of its own momentum, the potter's wheel has been called "the first really mechanical device."


  • The Emergence Of Civilization In Sumer, c. 3100-2800 B.C.
  • By 3100 B.C. the population of Sumer had increased to the point where

    people were living in cities and had developed a preponderance of those elements previously noted as constituting civilization. Since these included the first evidence of writing, this first phase of Sumerian civilization, to about 28 B.C., is called the Protoliterate period.

    The original homeland of the Sumerians is unknown. It is believed that they came from the east, but whether by sea or from the highlands is unknown. Their language is not related to those major language families that later appear in the Near East - Semites and Indo-Europeans.

    (The original home of the Semitic-speaking peoples is thought to have been the Arabian peninsula, while the Indo-Europeans seem to be migrated from the region north of the Black and Caspian seas. A third, much smaller language family is the Hamitic, which included the Egyptians and other peoples of northeastern Africa.)

    How would life in Protoliterate Sumer have appeared to visitors seeing it for the first time? As they approached Ur, one of about a dozen Sumerian

    cities, they would pass farmers working in their fields with ox-drawn plows. They might see some of the workers using bronze sickles.

    The river would be dotted by boats carrying produce to and from the city. Dominating the flat countryside would be a ziggurat, a platform (later a lofty terrace, built in the shape of a pyramid) crowned by a sanctuary, or "high place." This was the "holy of holies," sacred to the local god.

    Upon entering the city, visitors would see a large number of specialists pursuing their appointed tasks as agents of the community and not as private entrepreneurs - some craftsmen casting bronze tools and weapons, others fashioning their wares on the potter's wheel, and merchants arranging to trade grain and manufactures for the metals, stone, lumber, and other essentials not available in Sumer.

    Scribes would be at work incising clay tablets with picture signs. Some tablets might bear the impression of cylinder seals, small stone cylinders engraved with a design. Examining the clay tablets, the visitors would find that they were memoranda used in administering a temple, which was also a warehouse and workshop.

    Some of the scribes might be making an inventory of the goats and sheep received that day for sacrificial use; others might be drawing up wage lists.

    They would be using a system of counting based on the unit 60 - the sexagismal system rather than the decimal system which is based on the unit 10. It is still used today in computing divisions of time and angles.

    Certain technical inventions of Protoliterate Sumer eventually made their way to both the Nile and the Indus valleys. Chief among these were the wheeled vehicle and the potter's wheel. The discovery in Egypt of cylinder seals similar in shape to those used in Sumer attests to contact between the two areas toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C.

    Certain early Egyptian art motifs and architectural forms are also thought to be of Sumerian origin. And it is probable that the example of Sumerian writing stimulated the Egyptians to develop a script of their own.

    Sumerian Writing

    As we have noted, the symbols on the oldest Sumerian clay tablets, the world's first writing, were pictures of concrete things such as a person, a sheep, a star, or a measure of grain. Some of these pictographs also represented ideas; for example, the picture of a foot was used to represent the idea of walking, and a picture of a mouth joined to that for water meant "to drink."

    This early pictograph writing gave way to phonetic (or syllabic) writing when the scribes realized that a sign could represent a sound as well as an object or idea.

    Thus, the personal name "Kuraka" could be written by combining the pictographs for mountain (pronounced kur), water (pronounced a), and mouth (pronounced ka). By 2800 B.C., the use of syllabic writing had reduced the number of signs from nearly two thousand to six hundred.

    In writing, a scribe used a reed stylus to make impressions in soft clay tablets. The impressions took on a wedge shape, hence the term cuneiform (Latin cuneus, "wedge"). The cuneiform system of writing was adopted by many other peoples of the Near East, including the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians.

    The Old Sumerian Period, c. 2800-2300 B.C.

    By 2800 B.C., the Sumerian cities had emerged into the light of history. This first historical age, called the Old Sumerian (or Early Dynastic) period, was characterized by incessant warfare as each city sought to protect or enlarge its land and water rights. Each city-state was a theocracy, for the chief local god was believed to be the real sovereign.

    The god's earthly representative was the ensi, the high priest and city governor, who acted as the god's steward in both religious and secular functions. Though endowed with divine right by virtue of being the human agent of the god, the ensi was not considered divine.

    Early Sumerian society was highly collectivized, with the temples of the city god and subordinate deities assuming a central role. "Each temple owned lands which formed the estate of its divine owners.


    Each citizen belonged to one of the temples, and the whole of a temple community - the officials and priests, herdsmen and fishermen, gardeners, craftsmen, stonecutters, merchants, and even slaves - was referred to as 'the people of the god X.'" ^6

    That part of the temple land called 'common' was worked by all members of the community, while the remaining land was divided among the citizens for their support at a rental of from one third to one sixth of the crop. Priests and temple administrators, however, held rent-free lands.

    In addition to the temples lands, a considerable part of a city's territory originally consisted of land collectively owned by clans, kinship groups comprising a number of extended families.

    By 2600 B.C., these clan lands were becoming the private property of great landowners called lugals (literally "great men").

    Deeds of sale record the transfer of clan lands to private owners in return for substantial payments in copper to a few clan leaders and insignificant grants of food to the remaining clan members. These private estates were worked by "clients" whose status resembled that of the dependents of the temples.

    In time, priests, administrators, and ensis became venal, usurping property and oppressing the common people.

    This frequently led to the rise of despots who came to power on a wave of popular discontent. Since these despots were usually lugals, lugal became a political title and is generally translated as "king."

    The Sumerian lugals made the general welfare their major concern. Best known is Urukagina, who declared himself lugal of Lagash near the end of the Old Sumerian period and ended the rule of priests and "powerful men," each of whom, he claimed, was guilty of acting "for his own benefit."

    Urukagina's inscriptions describe his many reforms and conclude: "He freed the inhabitants of Lagash from usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure (of their property and persons). He established freedom. The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful man." ^7

    The Akkadian Period, c. 2300-2150 B.C.

    Immediately north of Sumer lay the narrow region of Akkad, inhabited by Semites who had absorbed Sumerian culture. Appearing late in the fourth millennium B.C., the Akkadians were the earliest of the Semitic peoples who filtered into Mesopotamia from Arabia.

    A generation after Urukagina, Sargon I (2370-2315 B.C.), an energetic Akkadian ruler, conquered Sumer and went on to establish an empire that extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

    Very proud of his lower-class origins, Sargon boasted that his humble, unwed mother had been forced to abandon him: "She set me in a basket of rushes ... [and] cast me into the river." Rescued and brought up by a gardener, Sargon rose to power through the army.

    As lugal, Sargon looked after the welfare of the lower classes and aided the rising class of private merchants. At the latter's request he once sent his army to far-off Asia Minor to protect a colony of merchants from interference by a local ruler.

    We are told that Sargon "did not sleep: in his efforts to promote prosperity and that in this new free enterprise economy trade moved as freely "as the Tigris where it flows into the sea, ... all lands lie in peace, their inhabitants prosperous and contented." ^8

    Sargon's successors, however, were unable either to withstand the attacks of semibarbaric highlanders or to overcome the desire for independence of the priest-dominated Sumerian cities. As a result, the house of Sargon collapsed about 2150 B.C.

    The Neo-Sumerian Period, c. 2100-2000 B.C.

    Order and prosperity were restored by the lugals of the Third Dynasty of Ur. By creating a highly centralized administration in Sumer and Akkad, these rulers solved the problem of internal rebellion that had plagued Sargon and his successors.

    The formerly temple-dominated cities became provinces administered by closely watched governors. The "church" became an arm of the state; the high priests were state appointees, and the temple economic organization was used as the state's agent in rigidly controlling the nascent free enterprise economy that Sargon had encouraged came to a temporary halt.

    At the head of this bureaucratic state stood the now-deified ruler, celebrated in hymns as a heaven-sent messiah who "brings splendor to the land, ... savior of orphans whose misery he relieves, ... the vigilant shepherd who conducts the people unto cooling shade."

    Much of what we now call social legislation was passed by these "vigilant shepherds." Such laws were called "rightings" (Sumerian nig-si-sa, usually translated "equity"), since their object was the righting of wrongs that were not covered by the old customary law (nig-ge-na, "truth").

    The prologue to the law code of Ur-Nammu, founder of the dynasty, declared that it was the king's purpose to see that "the orphan did not fall a prey to the wealthy" and the "the man of one shekel did not fall a prey to the man of one mina (sixty shekels)." ^10

    Disaster struck Ur about 2000 B.C., when Elamites from the highlands to the east destroyed the city. The Sumerians were never again a dominant element politically, but their culture persisted as the foundation for all subsequent civilizations in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.

    For more than two centuries following the destruction of Ur, disunity and warfare again plagued Meopotamia, along with depression, inflation, and acute hardship for the lower classes. Merchants, however, utilized the absence of state controls to become full-fledged capitalists who amassed fortunes that they invested in banking operations and land.

    (Three merchants used a form of double-entry bookkeeping they called "balanced accounts." Their word for capital, qaqqadum, meaning "head," influenced later peoples; our word capital is derived from the Latin caput "head.")

    The stronger local rulers of the period freed the poor from debt slavery and issued a variety of reform laws best illustrated by the legislation of Hammurabi.

    The Old Babylonia Period, c. 2000-1600 B.C.

    Semitic Amorites (from Amurru, the "West"), under the rule of their capable king, Hammurabi of Babylon (c. 1792-1750 B.C.), for a time brought most of Mesopotamia under one rule by 1760 B.C.

    Hammurabi is best known for his code of nearly three hundred laws whose stated objective was "to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak ... and to further the welfare of the people."


    Hammurabi's legislation reestablished a state-controlled economy in which merchants were required to obtain a "royal permit," interest was limited to 20 percent, and prices were set for basic commodities and for fees charged by physicians, veterinarians, and builders. Minimum wages were established, and debt slavery was limited to three years.


    Other laws protected wives and children, although a wife who had "set her face

    to go out and play the part of a fool, neglect her house, belittle her husband" could be divorced without alimony, or the husband could take another wife and compel the first to remain as a servant. Unless a son committed some grave offense, his father could not disinherit him.

    (Only Louisiana among American states has a similar "forced heirship" law.) If the state failed to maintain law and order, the victim of that failure received compensation from the state: the value of the property stolen, or "one mina of silver" to the kin or a murder victim.

    Punishments were graded in their severity; the higher the culprit in the social scale, the more sever the penalty.

    In the epilogue to the code, Hammurabi eloquently summed up his efforts to provide social justice for his people.

    Let any oppressed man, who has a cause, come before my image

  • as king of righteousness! Let him read the inscription on my monument! Let him give heed to my weighty words! And may my monument enlighten him as to his cause and may he understand his case! May he set his heart at ease! (and he will exclaim): "Hammurabi indeed is a ruler who is like a real father to his people ... " ^12

    This paternalistic concern for the general welfare helps explain why the

  • people of Mesopotamia - as well as of Egypt and all other areas of the ancient Near East - never moved on to democracy, as the Greeks will be the first to do. The Greek explanation, in Aristotle's words, was that these people "were by nature slaves" and so incapable of democracy.

    It would seem, rather, that they were content to be ruled by enlightened despots like Hammurabi. Today in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), the situation is little different. Saddam Hussein, the despotic ruler of Iraq, was enormously popular - at least before his ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1991.

    "Since Hammurabi," one Iraqi has said, "we have lived without choosing our own head of state, so we have a different feeling about leadership. In this part of the world, we have an instinctive love for our leader, if he is a leader ... [Saddam Hussein is] the symbol of their aspirations, who really cares for them ... Saddam Hussein is in their hearts." ^13

    Mathematics And Science

    Building on the work of the Sumerians, the Babylonians made advances in arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. For ease of computation with both whole numbers and fractions, they compiled tables for multiplication and division and for square and cube roots.

    They knew how to solve linear and quadratic equations, and their knowledge of geometry included the theorem later formulated by the Greek philosopher Phythagoras: the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of squares of the other two sides.

    Perhaps their greatest achievement was the principle of place-value notation that gave numbers a value according to their position in a series. To represent zero, they employed the character for "not," which is the same as our "naught," still used in place of zero.

    The Babylonians achieved little that today can accurately be called science. They did observe nature and collect data, which is the first requirement of science; but to explain natural phenomena, they did not go beyond the formulation of myths that explained things in terms of the unpredictable whims of the gods.


    The sun, moon, and five visible planets were thought to be gods who were able to influence human lives; accordingly, their movements were watched, recorded, and interpreted. Thus was born the

    pseudoscience of astrology.

    Literature And Religion

    The Babylonians took over from the Sumerians a body of literature ranging from heroic epics that compare favorably with the Iliad and the Odyssey to wisdom writings that have their counterparts in the Old Testament books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.

    The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the exploits of a heroic ruler of Uruk who lived about 2700 B.C. The central theme of the epic is Gilgamesh's hope for everlasting life. He seeks out and questions Utnapishtim, who was granted eternal life because he saved all living creatures from the flood.


    Utnapishtim's story has many remarkable similarities with the Hebrew account of Noah and the flood. But Gilgamesh's quest is hopeless, and he is so informed on several occasions:

    Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?

    The life thou pursuest thou shalt not find.

    When the gods created mankind,

  • Death for mankind they set aside, Life in their own hands retaining.

    Thou Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly. Make thou merry by day and by night.

  • Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,

    Day and night dance thou and play! ...

  • Pay heed to the little one that holds on to thy hand, Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom!
  • For this is the task of mankind! ^14

    The ancient Mesopotamians never progressed beyond this early view that immortality is reserved for the gods. Unlike the Egyptians, they did not go on to develop a belief in an attractive life after death as a reward for good behavior on earth.

    They did come to believe in divine rewards for moral conduct, but these were rewards to be enjoyed in this life - increased worldly goods, numberous offspring, and long life.

    Thus the sun-god Shamash was celebrated in hymns which proclaimed that "the honest merchant ... is pleasing to Shamash, and he will prolong his life. He will enlarge his family, gain wealth ... and his descendants will never fail." The dishonest merchant, on the other hand, "is disappointed in the matter of profit and loses his capital." ^15

    The ethical content of Babylonian religion was largely lost when the numerous priesthoods - more than thirty different types of priests and priestesses are known - became preoccupied with an elaborate set of rituals, particularly those designed to ward off evil demons and divine the future.

    Good deeds, the priests insisted, could not protect a person from demons that have the power to make their part-human and part-animal bodies invisible:

    Doors and bolts do not stop them;

    High walls and thick walls they cross like waves;

    They leap from house to house ... ;

    Under the doors they slip like serpents. ^16

    While one large class of priests provided amulets inscribed with incantations and magic formulas to exorcise demons, another group dealt with divining the future.


    Almost anything could be viewed as an omen, but most popular were dreams, the movements of birds and animals, the internal organs

    of sacrificed animals, the shape taken by oil poured on the surface of water, the casting of lots, and astronomical phenomena.

    Some of these methods of divination have survived virtually unchanged through the ages.

    The End Of An Era

    The pattern of disunity and warfare, all too familiar in Mesopotamia, reasserted itself following Hammurabi's death.

    In 1595 B.C. the Hittites, an Indo-European people who had established themselves in Asia Minor, mounted a daring raid down the Euphrates, sacking Babylon and destroying the weakened dynasty of Hammurabi.

    The next five centuries is a dark age about which little is known; yet the cultural heritage left by the Sumerians and Babylonians survived. Meanwhile, in a neighboring river valley, another civilization had emerged.