Lecture 1, History 101: From prehistory to the Sumerians


Question to start: why is it that we divide the hour into 60 minutes, a minute into 60 second, a day into 24  hours, a circle into 360 degrees? 

            (Sumerians; who, when, where)


Today I’m going to talk about the beginnings of history – the stages humanity went through to get from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to the first literate, urbanized society, who wrote down their stories, mathematics, and laws.


1. When did man begin to exist?

The current consensus (which could change very soon because of genetics research) is that human-like animals existed as early as a million and a half years ago (homo erectus who spread from Africa to Middle East, Asia, perhaps Europe).

Most of these early forms of homo could use tools – but they had somewhat smaller brains than modern man (ca. 70% the size) and did not engage in symbolic expression – i.e. they didn’t leave behind any art or religious objects.


By about 400,000 BC, modern man - homo sapiens - had evolved.


Scientists used to think that man had very early split into different racial groups – who then evolved somewhat differently in different climatic zones.

Recent research in human genetics has proven this theory unlikely

DNA studies (on human mitochondria) suggest that all of us had a common female ancestor who lived about 150,000 - 100,000 years ago.

            Mitochondria are organelles within cells, separate from the nucleus. 

            passed only from mother to offspring.

            differences in mitochondrial DNA of modern human populations have been compared.

            The rate of mutation in the human mtDNA used in calculating last common human ancestor:  Eve's date 

She was probably African – where earliest fossils of modern homo sapiens are.

This form of humanity – homo sapiens sapiens – appear to have migrated from Africa, and replaced all the previous forms of man – including the Neanderthals – (who were particularly populous in Europe).

What this means is that humans are closer relations than we used to think


Migrations of homo sapiens sapiens

So less than 100,000 years ago – very recently – modern homo sapiens began to move from sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world. (at this time the Sahara was not a desert)

By 50,000 years ago, he migrated to Asia, Europe, and somewhat later Australia and the Americas (crossing on a landbridge between Siberia and Alaska)

Earlier forms of man – like the neanderthals in Europe – were displaced


Palaeolithic period (400,000-8000 BCE)

      “Old Stone Age”


The longest period of human existence – your textbook deals with in three pages - the Palaeolithic period –

Palaeolithic means – Old Stone Age

This Palaeolithic period lasted longer than any other period of human existence – from the beginnings of man to the invention of agriculture around 10,000 BC.


Palaeolithic lifestyle

What were these humans, living between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago like?

hunter-gatherers; living in small groups of about 30 to 50 peopleart):

they had sophisticated stone tools to hunt with- sprear throwers, bow and arrows, harpoon, fish spear of bone, finely shaped spears); and could sew clothing from animal skins

Big difference from more primitive types of man like homo erectus: symbolic expression: they produced art

- Venus figures  PICTURE   (what does it suggest about the society)

- Chauvet Cave (cf. Lascaux Cave, France), between 34,000 and 12,000 BP - mainly paintings of animals PICTURE

            importance of food:  wild animals for hunting; aesthetic value of fatness)


Why are these prehistoric hunter-gatherest important for our overall understanding of western civilization?

Because, almost everything of importance biologically developed before 30,000 B. C.

our brains, our sexual and nurturing instincts, our aggression, our need of exercise.

Everything that these people didn’t do and we do – is cultural – learned behavior from our ancestors



The New stone Age – or Neolithic period – is distinguished from the Palaeolithic period because agriculture was invented.

The necessary precondition for complex civilization was the domestication of animals and plants, simply because hunters and gatherers need too much space to develop large concentrations of population.


Why did people start to farm?

probably not technological push, but necessity caused by population growth, or climate change.

It is a lot more work to farm than to hunt and gather food.

Climate change by 12,000 BC: end of last ice age; animal herds decreasing; wild fauna / swamps that replaced begin to dry up

Humans in first used wild forms of sheep, goats, rice, wheat, barely, grapes.

But starting around 10,000 BC, they started to raise them.


This is the “agricultural revolution” - one of the most significant changes in human history

First domestication was of animals, not plants.

Around 10,000 BC - sheep and goats , for milk products, wool mainly

Crops soon followed - rice in China ca. 8,000 BC,  (Lerner says 5000 BC)

wheat and barley in Middle East - southern Turkey/ Northern Iraq, Israel, etc., what is called the Fertile Crescent: 8000-3500 BC

DNA studies of animals and plants show separate development, not diffusion of the technology

            cattle  lineage split 22,000 to 26,000 years ago into groups that gave rise to modern African and European cattle.  “Cattle in the Near East were not domesticated until about 9,000 years ago, and cattle in India and Africa were genetically distinct before then. The latter two could not possibly be descended from domesticated Near Eastern cattle, as was thought, but must have been domesticated independently”: TABITHA M. POWLEDGE AND MARK ROSE,  The Great DNA Hunt, Archaeology (1996)


Implications of agricultural revolution: Agriculture allowed people to live in settlements of larger size than before and not have to move around all the time.

The first permanent villages began to develop during the Neolithic Age.

At first the people of these villages lived in simple round huts

            small villages of several hundred people, in circular huts, with querns for grinding

These are certainly larger human groups than the bands of hunter-gatherers, but they are not yet “civilization”


First town

First settlements which resembled town: in southern Turkey, in the 7th millenium BC.

Most famous site in Turkey: Çatal Hüyük (Chatal Huooyook), occupied ca. 6500 B.C.

population of about 4000-6000 people - HUGE

women used cosmetics; obsidian tools (wideley exchanged in area)

they ate on pottery,

the people grew wheat and barley

Instead of primitive huts, they lived in rectangular dwellings, plastered walls and floors, one story high, inside raised platforms for sleeping.

Hearths near to hole to the ceiling, where people would enter the house by means of a ladder (probably for security). They walk along each others roofs.


With Çatal Hüyük, you can see that by the 7th millenium BC , societies were becoming decidedly more complex in this part of the world.

But the people of Çatal Hüyük didn’t learn how to write – so we don’t know who they were, what language they spoke, or what became of them.

Without writing, they couldn’t develop large political entities – states – states need to be able to keep tax records, to send letters to far-away officials.

It wouldn’t be until 3 thousand years after the Çatal Hüyük – after the first cities – that writing would be invented.




The Sumerians, were the first people to have a history.

They were the first people to learn how to write and rule states consisting of more than a couple of towns.

Sumerians would have a huge influence on the people who come after them – their legal system, their technology, their stories, – would be borrowed by their successors – as you will see on Friday.


Origins of Sumerian society: irrigation society

Who can tell me what where the Sumerians lived – what modern state did they inhabit?

southern Mesopotamia

“Mesopotamia,” same space as modern Iraq, is the land “in the middle of the rivers” - the rivers in this case the Tigris and Euphrates


Sumer was originally a swamp.

In the course of the fourth millenium - climate of this river valley growing more arid

There was not enough rainfall to allow intensive farming without the use of river-water for irrigation.

This need to irrigate might be one reason that the people there developed complex forms of social organization - they had to act in groups to build and maintain canals, and to keep other groups from taking their water or raiding their food stores

(As we will see, irrigation also played a role in state-formation in Egypt).


3500-3000 period of innovation:

            bronze smelting

            wheeled transport (Lerner)



Invention of writing: cuneiform


The people of these city -states, around 3300 BC invented the first recognizable writing - cuneiform.

They didn’t have paper; they wrote on wet clay tablets, with a metal stylus.

These clay tablets survive in Iraq in the thousands - tax records, letters, wills, the occasional creation story, both for the Sumerians, and even more for their successors - the Babylonians and Assyrians.

We would perhaps like to think that the Sumerian invented writing for grand purposes - for literature, poetry, religious histories, or even to write letters to friends.

Instead the first readable texts are mundane record-keeping - lists of grain, animals, slaves received by the temples - i.e. tax documents.

First, the Sumerians used pictogaphs - where simple pictures represented objects (fourth millenium BC).

Of course the problem with this is that you would have many pictures as objects - thousands - and some things just could not be represented.

The real novelty was when Sumerians used signs to represent sounds.

The example is the ideogram for Water” - which in Sumerian was pronounced “a”. “A” also meant “in,” the preposition. Scribes began to use the ideogram for water to mean both “water” and preposition “in”.

writing started to represent phonetic sounds, instead of objects or ideas. They needed much fewer of them to write their language than pictograms.

Sumerian cuneiform was not yet an alphabet - syllables were represented, not individual sounds - but the Sumerians were on their way.  500 symbols

Writing Because of writing, the Sumerians were the first people to transmit their religious stories to posterity.


Complex political structure

Writing also allowed Sumerians to develop the first state.

At first, they had city-state theocracies: about 13 of them

earliest Sumerian city-states formed around temples

citizens of these cities paid taxes to the temples; priests ruled the cities.

Between 3100 BC and 2300 BC - war leaders began to take over - the cities built walls, slavery increases (remember slaves in antiquity usually acquired by war), metal weapons were forged.

Gilgamesh ruled a large Sumerian city-state (Uruk) around 2700 BC, as war leader. Uruk was fortified at that time.

Rulers of cities like Uruk began to rule other cities – forming states of hundreds of thousands of people



Sumerian culture spread throughout the Near East (much like American culture has around the word in this century).

Communities in Syria, s. Asia Minor, Palestine adopted Sumerian script and myths.

New people immigrated into Mesopotamia and eventually took it over: the Babylonians under Hammurabi ca. 1800 BC).

            Assyrians next week

They also borrowed much from Sumerian culture.

This borrowing is why western civilization is said to start with the Sumerians (“ALCOHOL” for example has Sumerian root)



Class distinctions: aristocrats, clients, commoners, and slaves (most societies we will be studying had slaves).

A person’s class affected how much protection they got from the laws:

if an aristocrat injured a slave, he just paid a fine to the owner

for a commoner, a larger fine to the family.

Among equals, “an eye for an eye” code applied - if you destroyed someone’s eye, you lost your own eyes.

Women in ancient Mesopotamia were not equal to those of men.

But in early periods women were free to go out to the marketplaces, buy and sell, attend to legal matters for their absent men, own their own property, borrow and lend, and engage in business for themselves.

High status women, such as priestesses and members of royal families, might learn to read and write and be given considerable administrative authority.

They could get a divorce (with dowry) if their husbands were brutal to them.

This was important because women had very little choice in husbands - everything was arranged between the groom and the bride’s father, without bride consulted.

Double-standard in definition of adultery: (this will be true until the medieval period):

            Hammurabi’s Code:

            “If a married lady is caught lying with another man, they shall bind them and cast them into the water. If her husband wishes to let his wife live, then the king shall let his servant live.” (#129)”

A husband could have sex with slaves and prostitutes without any problem.



Mesopotamians had an advanced number system.

The base was 60 rather than the base 10 of our present system.

They divided the day into 24 hours, each hour into 60 minutes, each minute into 60 seconds. This form of counting has survived

One major disadvantage of the system however was their lack of a zero.

This meant that numbers did not have a unique representation but required the context to make clear whether 1 meant 1, 61, 3601, etc



By 3000 BC, we have moved out of the Neolithic Age, and into the first historic societies

And what was happening in Europe at this time? Very little.

The beautiful cave art of the period between 20,000 and 10,000 BP had disappeared

There was no ceramic industry, no settlements larger than small villages, less than one hundred people.

It would be thousands of years before “civilization” would develop in Greece - and the Greeks would owe much to the peoples of the fertile crescent when