Widely known as “The Cradle of Civilization”, the mysterious and equally
intriguing area in the middle east known as Mesopotamia has provided modern civilization with more than we may know. From material inventions like the wheel or the tank, to moresubstantial influences such as Hammurabi’s Law Code, Mesopotamian civilization is responsible for many firsts’ in human pre-history. In this essay I will focus on two of themost important influential aspects of Mesopotamian culture one being the development of the State, and secondly the invention of written language.
The name Mesopotamia, which in Greek means “between the rivers,” refers to a
region of land in the Middle East surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers stretching
from the Persian Gulf in the south to the mountains of Armenia in the north.(3)
As a part of the Fertile Crescent, the soil in this region and particularly in the alluvial plain was, due to silt left from flooding, extremely fertile. Because of poor drainage, this silt also left large amounts of salt in the soil which caused many problems, ultimately leading to the invention of irrigation in 5000 B.C. which made farming in the area possible.(2) Although Mesopotamia was not the origin of food production, its emergence in this area plays a very important role in the creation of modern civilization. As population in the area grew and food production increased, a new economy based on irrigation and trade lead to the formation of a new kind of society – the State.(2)
A state, by definition, is a “social and political unit featuring a central government,
extreme contrasts of wealth, and social classes.”(2) In southern Mesopotamia around
3700 B.C. the “social landscape”(2) was being drastically changed. Due to
advancements in irrigation, Ubaid communities were spreading along the Euphrates,
linked by advanced social and economic networks (2) Raw materials that could not be
found in southern Mesopotamia like hardwood and stone were imported using the rivers. As populations, cities and economies grew, so did “social differentials” with the separation of a “non-food-producing” group (priests, political leaders etc.) from the general population of farmers and herders who supported them.(2) As population pressures continued to increase, “land became scarce private property that was bought and sold”(2) resulting in a small portion of the population owning much of the land. This separation lead to the formation of the city-state, with the earliest being Sumer and Elam around 3500 B.C.(2) By 2800 B.C., Uruk – the capital of Sumer and the largest Mesopotamian city at the time, had a population of roughly 50,000. As communities began fighting over water and land, people moved to the cities for protection and by 2600 B.C. “Mesopotamia had a well- defined class structure, with complex stratification into nobles, commoners, and slaves.”(2) The emergence of these highly advanced forms of society resulted in yet another great Mesopotamian invention – writing.
Evidence of temple records of economic activity show that writing was invented in 3600 B.C., by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia.(2) As Sumerian city-states continued to advance, economic activities were continually hampered by a lack of record-keeping
means.(4) Originally, the Sumerians developed a system of stone and clay tokens to
keep track of their dealings.(4) This was soon replaced by markings made on soft
clay tablets using long reeds (stylus), known as cuneiform which is derived from the Latin words cuneus, which means “wedge,” and forma, which means “shape.”(1) Original cuneiform consisted of pictograms, which are crude drawings of the item represented. This pictorial form of writing eventually evolved into an abstract series of wedges and hooks known as ideographic writing, with the word symbols called ideograms meaning “concept writing”.(1) Writing was initially used to keep various accounts of trade and “record keeping for a centralized economy,” but as the written language developed, scribes were able to write not just about concrete things, but also ideas and philosophies. Written language had a huge impact on Mesopotamian society. Laws were written, stories and tales were recorded giving rise to literature, and most importantly it provided us here in the present with a clearer understanding of the origins of civilization.
In conclusion, there is much more to be said about Mesopotamian civilization and its impact on our lives today. There are so many firsts’ left unmentioned like the creation of the Zodiac, the electric battery, glass blowing, bricks, the reed boat and sail….the list is seemingly endless. And with so much more left to be discovered about these people, it is still unclear just how much they have done for us. Our lives of today; minus all the technological advances; are not all that different than that of the people of Mesopotamiaover 5000 years ago.
1. Hooker, R. (1999, July 14). Cuneiform. Learning Module. Retrieved March 12, 2005,
2. Kottak, C.P. (2004). Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity (10th ed.).
New York: McGraw-Hill.
3. Mesopotamia. (2003). The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia (6th ed.). Retrieved
March 14, 2005, from http://www.answers.com/topic/mesopotamia#encyclopedia
4. The Mesopotamians: The first Civilization. Home page. Retrieved March 12, 2005
from MOSAIC Sources website http://college.hmco.com/history/west/mosaic/