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Bas relief of the goddess Bau, ca. 2100 BCE. Photo: © 2007 Marie-Lan Nguyen. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

The Mysterious Origins of the World’s First City-Builders

At some point near 5400 BCE, settlers in southern Mesopotamia—in what would now be called southeastern Iraq—founded Eridu, which historians now generally regard as the world’s first city. It had all the things we ordinarily associate with an ancient city: temples, administrative buildings, housing, agriculture, markets, art, and, of course, walls to keep out wild animals and bandits.

But here’s the funny thing: we have absolutely no idea where the Sumerians acquired their language, or what they might have looked like. Their language, which we call Sumerian, was a linguistic isolate—it’s the oldest known written language on Earth, and any languages it might have derived from or developed alongside have been lost to time. The Sumerian people were also, it can be reasoned, ethnically isolated; referring to themselves as the sag gigga (“black-headed people”), they appear to have had no concept of race. And figuring out what their ethnic identity might have been based on their art is a doomed effort, because their art was so stylized that a good case could be made that it portrays people of any ethnicity.

Culturally, they’re often linked to the Ma’dan (Marsh Arabs) who still live in southern Iraq. But the idea that the Ma’dan are ethnically Sumerian seems a bit unlikely, as the Sumerian language was not Semitic and the Akkadian conquests of 2334 BCE disrupted the ethnic and cultural isolation of the Sumerian people. By about 2000 BCE, the Sumerians were speaking Akkadian and the Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations were regarded as a single people; there is no evidence in any extant texts that they were discouraged from intermarrying, so we can reasonably assume that it was normal to do so. Given that fact, and the 4,000 years of history between then and now, it seems unlikely that anyone living today has more than a tiny amount of Sumerian ancestry.

Does this mean that we’ll never know how the Sumerian language developed, or where the Sumerians originally came from? Probably, but there are some ways we might find out: an older extant text from the region, written in a proto-Sumerian language, might connect Sumerian with languages that currently seem unrelated. And if any reasonably well-preserved Sumerian bones can be found (which isn’t completely implausible; scientists have successfully sequenced 400,000-year-old human DNA), DNA testing could tell us their ethnic origin. Then again, it’s possible—and, given how little we know about the ancient world, perhaps even probable—that these discoveries will only deepen the mystery.

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  • Rædwald

    ‘…referring to themselves as the sag gigga (“black-headed people”), they appear to have had no concept of race.’

    How is that conclusion gained from that? There are lots of ethnic groups that call themselves, in their individual languages, names referring to physical characteristics of themselves as a majority, that doesn’t mean they had no concept of race.

  • Ralph Waldo Winkerbean

    Maybe their culture was like the old Tahitians and Eskimoes.
    Hey stranger, come sleep with my wives/daughters/sisters.
    For one thing, they were refugees from a much earlier time in South Asia.
    Haven’t you ever heard of Mohenjo Daro?