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Early Mesopotamian culture: Sumer We use the term “Paleolithic,” or “Old Stone Age” to denote human society and human culture during the era after hominids (that is, human-like apes) began using tools but before homo sapiens (i.e., modern humans) turned to agriculture. Thus, the Paleolithic age extended from ca. 2 million years ago, when hominids first picked up stone, wood and bone implements, to about 10,000 BCE, which saw the advent of the so-called “Neolithic” or “New” Stone Age. As I noted a few moments ago, this second ‘stone age’ saw the advent of agriculture, and it lasted about 6-7000 years (between 10,000 and 3500 BCE). During the “Old Stone Age,” a number of higher primate species and subspecies vied for survival in the comparatively harsh environmental conditions of the era. Two of the most famous sub-branches of the homo sapiens family, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons managed to survive until as recently as 30-20 thousand years ago. Cohabiting the planet with the ancestors of modern human beings, these close-cousins shared much of the same biology and many of the same behavioral and social characteristics with us. Among the most important was the use of stone and other tools—Indeed, it was this ability that gave the Stone Age its evocative name (i.e., this was the first time that human beings extended their physical abilities through the use of material adjuncts, i.e., tools made of stone, wood, bone, antler, tusk, hide, plant matter and other natural resources). Anyway, as Paleolithic populations migrated around the globe they continued to undergo minor evolutionary changes that helped them adapt to extreme environments. For example, it is during this period that scientists believe that one such change was skin pigmentation. The dark color of today’s indigenous inhabitants of the tropics (and presumably of all early humans who evolved there) appears to be an adaptation that reduces the harmful effects of the harsh tropical sun. At some point, possibly as recently as 5000 years ago, very pale skin became a characteristic of Europeans living in northern climes that had far less sunshine, especially during the short days of the winter months.
The loss of pigment enabled the skin of light colored peoples to produce more vitamin D from sunshine, though it also exposed Europeans to a greater risk of sunburn and cancers of the skin. Anyway, as distinctive of skin color might seem, in the grand scheme of things, it actually represents a comparatively minor biological adaptation. As many commentators point out, what is far more remarkable is that the widely-dispersed human population varies so little from place to place. Indeed, instead of adapting to different climatic and environmental conditions through biological adaptation, modern humans have responded to the physical challenges of their environment by altering their diet or adopting new forms of clothing and shelter. That is, they have adapted to their conditions by changing their cultural circumstances. What do we mean by the word “culture” at this early date? Usually we think of culture as the artistic and literary expression of a society or civilization. We think of the “culture of the Renaissance” or “post-Modern cultural ideas”. We tend to think of a society’s culture as the special genius of a particular people to express their common values, their common aesthetic, etc. In a wider sense however, culture can simply mean “learned patterns of action and expression”, the skills and ideas that are deliberately passed from one generation to the next. Using this definition, culture can include both material objects such as dwellings, clothing, tools and crafts or non-material things such as values, beliefs and languages. And at some point in the long story of humanity (almost certainly during the Paleolithic era), something extraordinarily momentous happened: culture surpassed raw animal instinct as the primary tool in humanity’s survival kit. The skills and values that one generation learned from the elders of the previous generation became more important as a societal coping mechanism than the evolutionary strategies that early hominids had relied on to that point. As you can no doubt surmise, most human activity during the Paleolithic era centered on the gathering and processing of food items. Food is among the most fundamental daily requirements of the species and human communities from time immemorial have sought new and ingenious ways to reduce energy output and increase caloric intake. Throughout the Paleolithic, humans continued to forage for vegetable foods such as fruits, leaves, seeds and grasses as their primate ancestors had done for millions of years. However, it was during this period that hominids acquired a taste for meat. And while comparatively difficult to metabolize, animal flesh contains a highly nutritious cocktail of proteins, minerals and B vitamins.
Initially, early humans probably scavenged the carcasses of creatures killed by other predators. This was a dangerous game, however, as animals are rarely more territorial than when it comes to food. When humans decided a) they liked meat and b) they didn’t want to wait for some sabretoothed cat to leave the last vestiges of a rotting carcass, a number of important cultural developments happened in quick succession. Indeed, scientists believe that the use of tools and the formation of close-knit social groupings occurred at this point in our early development. The first crude tools made their appearance with Homo habilis, a late hominid that was particularly adept at making tools. Homo habilis fashioned razor-sharp blades using obsidian (a volcanic rock) and other minerals by chipping and flaking the edges of the stone. Such tools were highly effective for skinning and butchering the carcasses of larger animals, making it easier to transport the meat back to distant campsites. Early hominids also used stone “choppers”, tools that chopped or crushed open bone, so that one could get at the nutritious marrow deep inside. The fact that such tools have been found at great distances from volcanoes suggests that proto-humans carried these items with them as they traveled. Of course the most skillful hunter of the hominid primates was Homo sapiens. They tracked and killed large animals (including bison, mammoths and mastodons) throughout the world. Their success as hunters reflected their superior intelligence and communications abilities and the fact that of all the hominid species, homo sapiens made the most finely crafted tools. They appear to have expertly chosen rocks for flaking, rejecting those which were flawed or imperfectly shaped. They even prepared blades which they later attached to wooden shafts, thereby creating some the world’s earliest defensive weaponry: spears (I say defensive because it kept the hunter at a distance from his prey). Using similar methods and materials, they created a number of other tools as well: axes, knives, saws, pounding instruments, piercing tools, etc. Such technology in fact made humans so successful as hunters that they appear to have caused or contributed to a series of early ecological crises. Between ca. 40000 and 13000 years ago, the great elephantine species of America, Europe and northern Asia (mammoths and mastodons) went extinct. Other animals soon followed: in the Americas, giant bison, camels, ground sloths, stag moose, saber-tooth cats disappeared. Of course, because these extinctions coincided with the last Ice Age, it’s difficult to determine precisely how much human involvement contributed to the problem. Another food-related innovation (or tool) of the Paleolithic period was the use of fire. Humans realized very early that both meat and vegetables become tastier and easier to
digest when cooked over a fire. The first cooked foods were probably found by accident after wildfires, though paleontologists now think that early humans might have set fires deliberately to cook the fruits of their labors (as early as 1.5 million BCE). 2) The Neolithic Revolution --Early humans lived the Paleolithic life for many, many millennia (indeed, of all the historical or pre-historical periods that homo sapiens has lived through, the Old Stone Age lasted the longest) --However, at some point close to 10-12000 years ago (it happened at different times in various parts of the globe), human society underwent a profound process of transformation. --indeed, it counts as one of the most fundamental cultural and social realignments of the entire history of our species—it’s just that important. --I’m speaking, of course, about the so-called “Neolithic Revolution” (i.e., New Stone Age). --recently, some anthropologists and archeologists have challenged the name “Neolithic” on the grounds that, while there were adaptations and modifications in the design and use of stone tools, this was not an essential component of the cultural and technological transformation. --i.e., the “New Stone Age” isn’t about stones at all --These modern scholars would prefer to call the period: “The Stone-Age Agricultural Revolution,” in recognition of the central change of this era --And indeed, whether you call it the Neolithic Period, the Era of Stone-Age Agriculture or some other name, the fact remains that 10-12,000 years ago, humanity underwent a profound change both in terms of how we met our nutritional requirements and how we considered our relationship with the natural world So what happened? Well…we can’t really know the beginnings of agriculture. --It’s been surmised, however, that early humans probably became farmers gradually, over the course of hundreds of generations. --perhaps early foragers adopted seasonal camps near prime food sources and began to deliberately scatter the seeds of plants that they especially liked. --they probably learned that some plants liked marshy soil while other preferred sandy earth. --they probably began to clear away non-edible, competing plants (i.e., weeds)
--this sort of semi-cultivation probably supplemented the other food sources of early humans for a number of generations --however, in the process, they must have eventually realized that they were spending more and more time living in a single fertile location and far less time out on the hunt --of course, such a lifestyle modification required adaptation from the old ways: the emergence specialized tools --this is what alerted archeologists to the fact that something new and important was going on around 10000 BCE --in soil strata from 10-12000 yrs ago, they began to find specialized stone tools that were designed expressly for agricultural purposes: devices for turning soil, implements for cutting wheat, mortars for pulverizing grain. --at this early stage, however, farmers weren’t using scythes or sickles to clear fields for planting: instead they used fire 1) to clear undergrowth, 2) as a natural fertilizer --soon, farmers also began to distinguish between various strains of wild grain; over many centuries, they developed domesticated varieties of wheat, oats, millet, barley and a host of other grains --they also learned that by alternating crops between grains and pulses (i.e., beans and peas), they could re-energize the soil --another Neolithic method for restoring nutrients to the soil was something called swidden agriculture in which crops are rotated from field to field on an annual or longer basis. By allowing fields to remain fallow, or dormant, the soil’s nitrogen content would soon return to pre-cultivation levels. --as to the plants that were first cultivated: this depended largely on geography. Certainly grains such as barley, wheat, rye, corn and seeds such as rice and quinoa were amongst the first vegetable foods to be deliberately planted --however, these weren’t the only crops. Some of the most important sources of plantbased food came a little later when early humans began to push back the limits of temperate forests and tropical jungles: yams, cassava and other crops --this sort of late stone age farming appears to have begun at different dates in different parts of the globe, for example: 1) Middle East, 10000 BCE, 2) southern Europe, 6000 BCE, 3) Nile Valley, 5000 BCE, 4) the Americas, 5000 BCE (all dates approximate) --of course, developments in agriculture were just one part of the food-gathering revolution. Also important was the domestication of various animal species. --first animal to be domesticated was almost certainly the dog. Coaxed into camp-sites with offers of meat-scraps and bones, the sensory abilities and predatory instincts of canines soon became apparent to human communities.
--so, trained to assist in the hunt for wild game, the dog quickly became a companion animal for human societies throughout the globe --next after the dog, it appears that ungulates of the sub-order bovidae: that is, cattle, sheep, goats and other hoofed ruminants (i.e., animals that chew cud). --they too were probably lured to human habitations by the promise of easy food. And, generally docile, they accepted human control in exchange for a steady food supply --and while it’s difficult to determine the precise date for the domestication of animals, selective breeding for desired characteristics can be given an approximate time-line: it seems that humans began the process of engineering various physical characteristics (ie, increased milk production, woolly coats, etc) some time between 7000-3000 BCE --once cattle became tame enough to be yoked to plows, they became essential to successful grain production; as an added bonus, their droppings could be used to increase crop yields by restoring vital minerals and amino acids to depleted soil. 1. Intro: Çatal Hüyük One important consequence of the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic Era was the development of comparatively large human communities (i.e., villages, towns and, eventually, cities). The hunter/gatherer culture of the Paleolithic Era had no need of such communities. Indeed, surplus population was undesirable because hunting communities relied on the delicate balance of predator and prey and the habit of relocation (i.e., moving on whenever resources were depleted). Pastoralists and farmers, however, generally grouped together. They did this for a variety of reasons. The first reason: they required a tier of secondary, specialized workers to produce the tools of their profession: 1) smiths: ploughs, rakes, hoes (and other earth turning devices); 2) potters: pottery (for storage); 3) weavers: textiles, etc The second reason: As sedentary farmers, they also tended to place more emphasis on religion; thus they increasingly required spiritual expertise and guidance in the form of a professional priestly class (one which could intervene between humanity and the spiritual forces which brought sun, rain and the cycle of the seasons). The third reason: because surplus was the point of farming (i.e., farming ensuring that you had enough food to last through a drought or some other natural calamity), agricultural producers were vulnerable to attack from competing groups of pastoralists as well as from hunters/gatherers who fell on hard times. Thus there was a defensive purpose to such early social impulses.
Two of the earliest recorded human settlements were both in the Middle East: Jericho (in modern Israel, 8000 BCE) and Çatal Hüyük (in Turkey, 7000 BCE). In early towns such as these, people lived what was essentially an agricultural life. They would leave their mud or timber huts daily and labor under a hot sun in the surrounding fields. A small portion of the town’s population would create goods or provide specialized services. --at Catal Huyuk, for example, there is evidence of pottery making, basket weaving, cloth making as well as weapons making, beadwork and leatherwork. --there is even evidence of long-distance trade: the workers of the town created a number of products using local obsidian—tools, weapons, mirrors, ornaments. --of course agriculture was dominant: produced barley, wheat, legumes and other vegetables; kept pigs, goats and sheep. --at this early stage, they still relied on wild animals and ate a variety of goods from throughout the area (acorns, wild game, wild grasses) --perhaps the most striking finds at Catal Huyuk are those that reveal religious practices. --there is a religious shrine for every two houses!! --at least forty rooms that have been excavated contained little altars or shrines --they are decorated with: wild bulls, leopards, female breasts, handprints, etc. --rituals appear to have included: burning grains, legumes and meat as sacrificial offerings (no live animal sacrifice). --statues of plump female deities abound, suggesting that locals venerated a fertility goddess of some sort and there appears to have been a large female priestly class at Catal Huyuk 2. What do we mean by “civilization”? --As you can see, something entirely new was going on in places like Catal Huyuk and Jericho (which unfortunately I won’t get a chance to talk about today) --the creature known as Homo sapiens sapiens was beginning to adopt some frankly complex social behaviors, not the least of which was town life. --this requires: cooperation, tolerance, trust, interdependence—all on levels previously unheard of. --at this point in the human story, roughly 8000 BCE, humanity was on the verge of something approximating the human category we call “civilization” --however, what do we mean by the term?
--value-laden (i.e., the word carries moral baggage about which sorts of behaviors are those of advanced peoples and what might be considered “primitive” or pre-modern ways of thinking and acting). --in the past, the term “civilization” has been used to excuse or justify the worst sort of atrocities (i.e., abuse, violence against indigenous peoples the world over). --however, we might still use it as a useful category so long as we jettison the assumption that so-called “civilized” peoples are somehow more moral, better or superior to early peoples. --indeed, I hope that one thing that you will discover in the next few weeks is just how sophisticated and complex early human societies were… Anyway, modern anthropologists and historians have arrived at the following set of criteria for what constitutes a “civilization”: 1) cities serve as administrative centers; 2) political system based on the control of a defined territory rather than on kinship connections; 3) a significant number of people engaged in specialized non-food producing activities; 4) status distinctions (often linked to wealth), 5) monumental building, 6) a system for keeping permanent records, 7) long-distance trade, 8) artistic and scientific achievement 3. Ancient Mesopotamia: Sumer --the earliest societies in which these traits are apparent developed in the floodplains of Asia and Africa: the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, the Indus in Pakistan, the Yellow (or Huang He) in China and the Nile in Egypt and Sudan. --while such locations could be extremely threatening to human lives and property, they also brought great benefits: the periodic flooding of the world’s great rivers served to irrigate parched soils and to leave behind extremely fertile deposits of silt on agricultural lands. --to protect themselves and channel these powerful forces of nature, people living near rivers responded by creating new technologies and new forms of political and social organization. --of all the early societies, the peoples of Mesopotamia were amongst the first to respond to the challenge of living in river valleys by organizing themselves into something resembling a civilization --where does the word Mesopotamia come from? (i.e., Greek, meso = between, in the midst of; potamos = river. So Mesopotamia = “the land between the rivers”) --it embraces all the lands adjacent to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and together with ancient Syria and Palestine, forms the geographic area that we know as “the Fertile Crescent.” --the Tigris and Euphrates rise in the mountains of eastern Anatolia (i.e., Turkey) and empty into the Persian Gulf. Along the way they meander through hills, grasslands, deserts and swamps.
--most of Mesopotamia, therefore, lies within the boundaries of modern Iraq, though parts of it extend into western Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. --the earliest people to inhabit this region during the “historical period” (what is the difference between history and pre-history?) were a group known as the Sumerians. --it is they who, in the words of one historian, created the “archetypes of civilized life” in the Fertile Crescent. --by this I mean that they were the ones who dictated and defined the earliest elements of Mesopotamian society, and that those who came after them (including groups that we know as the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians and others), developed many of their political, social and cultural institutions on the Sumerian model. --in the same way that Roman society looked to Greece as a source of inspiration, or in the same way that the US and Canada developed political and cultural models on preexisting European ideas, so too did the Babylonians and the Assyrians use Sumer as the basis for many of their cultural ideas. --it is largely for this reason that I’m going to start our discussion of the Ancient World with Sumer --well, sometime after ca. 3500 BCE, the Sumerian people began to exploit the potential of the lower Tigris-Euphrates Valley. --they built up a confederacy of city-states (i.e., independent, self-governing cities together with their suburbs and outlying areas) --these included towns such as Ur, Uruk, Eridu and Langash. It’s reckoned that each of them contained between 10 and 50,000 people: positively huge by ancient standards (digression on Ur…name of anything prototypical—i.e., the “Ur-text” is the oldest manuscript of a given book; the “Ur-form” of an idea or concept, etc). --even though they built cities, Sumerian people were primarily agricultural, sustaining themselves on many of the crops that we discussed for the Neolithic period, --however, by aligning themselves together and recognizing their fundamental need for interdependence, they managed to create a civilization that survived for more than 1500 years (i.e., 3500-2000 BCE) --they were successful largely because the Sumerian city-states took Neolithic agriculture several important steps further than their forbears. --for example: they parceled out land in tracts of almost geometrical regularity, ensuring that most everyone in the community had enough land to feed him/herself—and, of course, they even had surplus for the various specialized workers of the culture. --moreover, to increase yield, the Sumerians were amongst the first to engage in largescale irrigation: they developed a system of canals, dykes and dams that channeled the flood water of the Tigris and Euphrates into basins, controlled the flow, and then directed the water to individual peasant farms. --in addition to this, the Sumerians built a network of efficient roads and navigable waterways to move surplus agricultural products, trade goods and people around their territory --and trade they did.
--because they managed to accumulate such impressive food surpluses, the Sumerian towns could sustain a commercial and artisan class that produced goods that were saleable far and wide. --Surplus food commodities could also be sold, with the result that for more than a millennium, Sumerian cities became the largest, wealthiest and best defended cities that the world had ever known to that point. A. Sumerian Cities --for example, archeological research confirms that, at its height in the 2nd millennium, the city wall at Uruk was nearly 6 miles (10 km) in circumference. It enclosed more than 1000 acres and contained more than 900 defensive towers. --W/in the walls of Uruk there were thousands of peasants hovels (most of them made from mud bricks, wattle and daub or other, more perishable substances). --and, because they were the products of early urban planning, Sumerian cities were often rectangular in shape, surrounded, as I say, by high, wide walls. Inside the city gates, there were broad avenues used for religious processions or victory parades. The largest buildings in Sumerian civilization were the ziggurats, temple-pyramids that soared toward the heavens. Their sloping sides had terraces, or wide steps, that were sometimes planted with trees and shrubs. On top of each ziggurat stood a shrine to the chief god or goddess of the city (these structures were the basis of Tower of Babel story). The civic rulers of Sumeria (called ensi) lived nearby, in magnificent palaces with spacious courtyards. They were sort of “mayor-priests” who intervened between the pantheon of Sumerian gods and normal folk. They coordinated the various temple activities within the city walls and assigned work on public buildings and on the various water control installations. The ensi also controlled the foreign policy, deciding whether his city would wage war against a neighbor, whether peaceful relations would be maintained, who would be the city’s major trading partners and what sort of goods would be made available for trade. The Sumerian army was under the strict control of the ensi and, as commander-in-chief, he dictated every aspect of military service from training to pay to military discipline to terms of service. Over time, these ensi evolved into hereditary rulers. Everyone in the Sumerian cities recognized the supreme earthly authority of the ensi, and he was given gifts and other tokens of esteem from his people. B. Cuneiform writing
Sumer’s most enduring contribution to Mesopotamian and subsequent civilizations was probably its writing system called “cuneiform”, one of the earliest writing systems. By 3200 B.C., the Sumerians employed a sharp-pointed instrument- called a stylus - to inscribe wedge-shaped characters on soft clay tablets, which were then hardened by baking. Reading and writing in cuneiform were difficult because the Sumerian alphabet consisted of about 550 characters. Sumerian scribes had to go through years of strict schooling to acquire their skills. Nevertheless, cuneiform was widely used in the Middle East for thousands of years. Because they left records, we know much about their government, economy, literature and religion. One of the most important literary efforts of Sumerian culture was the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest recorded story in human history. The work is a collection of stories about a hero-king named Gilgamesh. On his journeys he meets the sole survivor of a great flood that destroyed the entire world, he subdues the wild-man Enkidu and then fights against the “Bull of Heaven”. Throughout the work, he looks for eternal life. However, by the end of the story, Gilgamesh has learned the greatest truth of all- that even heroes must die. The story, which was known not only to the Sumerians but also to the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Greeks, provides a fascinating glimpse into the religious and spiritual assumptions of Mesopotamian culture. Like most ancient peoples, the Sumerians were polytheistic, worshipping many gods. These gods were thought to control every aspect of life, especially the forces of nature. Sumerians believed that gods & goddesses behaved like ordinary people. These gods ate, drank, married, and raised families. Although the gods favored truth and justice, they were also responsible for violence and suffering. To Sumerians, their highest duty was to keep these divine beings happy and thereby ensure the safety of their city-state. Each city-state had its own special god or goddess to whom people prayed and offered sacrifices of animals, grain, and wine. People celebrated many holy days with ceremonies and processions. The most important ceremony occurred at the new year when the king sought and won the favor of Inanna, the life-giving goddess of love.
The ensi participated in a symbolic marriage with the goddess. This ritual, Sumerians believed, would make the new year fruitful and prosperous. Like the Egyptians, the Sumerians believed in an afterlife. At death, they believed, a person descended into a grim underworld from which there was no release. The gloomy Sumerian view of an afterlife contrasts with the Egyptian vision of the Happy Field of Food. Possibly differences in geography help account for this contrast. The floods of the Tigris and Euphrates were less regular and more destructive than the Nile floods. As a result, Sumerians may have developed a more pessimistic view of the world. Anyway…these are some of the dominant features of the early phase of Mesopotamian culture. Next class I want to talk about later manifestations: Akkadian Kingdom (2350-2150 BCE) Old Babylonian Kingdom (2150-1500 BCE) Assyrian Kingdom (1300-900 BCE) Chaldean Period (600-540 BCE) --I’ll be concentrating on the middle two
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