Over thousands of years, many civilizations have risen and fallen. But what is the oldest recorded civilization? About 30 years ago, this question seemed to have a straightforward answer. Around 4000 BC, the earliest phase of the Sumerian culture arose as the oldest civilization in the region of Mesopotamia, in present-day Iraq.
The Sumerians took this name from the ancient city of Sumer, which was located a few km south of the present-day Iraqi city of Kut, in the east of the country. Archaeologists call the earliest Sumerian phase the Uruk period, after the equally ancient city of Uruk, located about 80 kilometers to the southwest, and many of the oldest Sumerian artifacts have been found.
But evidence uncovered in recent decades shows that the Sumerians have some rivals in this regard, including ancient Egypt. The definition of what constitutes a civilization is unclear. But in general it is said that a culture must achieve certain distinguishing marks, especially urbanism – that is, the building of cities – the water supply system and writing.
The Sumerians had all three of these elements. After 2000 BC, the Sumerian civilization led directly to the founding of the Babylonian civilization in Mesopotamia, which is credited with discovering mathematical truths such as trigonometry and primes, squares, and cubes, concepts that were further developed by the ancient Greeks. more than 1000 years later.
The Sumerians may have also invented religion, building high temples called ziggurats in their cities, as well as creating clerical castes that dealt exclusively with the ritual worship of particular deities, says American historian Samuel Noah Kramer.
Which Gods were most powerful in the vast Sumerian pantheon depended on place and time. For example, the Sky God Anu was very popular at the beginning of the Age of Uruk. While the Storm God Enlil was worshiped in Sumer.
Inanna – “Queen of the Sky” – may have originally been a fertility goddess in Uruk. But her worship spread to other Mesopotamian cities, where she was known as Ishtar, and may have influenced the goddesses of later civilizations, such as Astarte among the Hittites and Aphrodite among the ancient Greeks.
A story very similar to that of Noah of the Hebrew Bible, who built an ark that he filled with animals to save his family during a great flood caused by divine anger, is recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Archaeologists think it was originally a Sumerian story dating to around 2150 BC, several centuries before the Hebrew version was written.
But some scholars argue that other civilizations may be as old, if not older, than the Sumerians. “I would say that Egypt and Sumer were essentially contemporary in their appearance,” says Philip Jones, associate curator and curator of collections in the Babylonian section of the “Penn Museum” in Philadelphia, writes Bota.al.
Decades of war and unrest in Iraq have meant that archaeologists have been unable to excavate many sites in ancient Mesopotamia. But Egyptologists have continued their excavations, says Jones. The result is that archaeologists in Egypt have now discovered writings as early as the earliest writings from Sumer.
This suggests that the oldest phase of the ancient Egyptian civilization appeared at about the same time as the earliest phase of the Sumerian civilization: around 4000 BC. Another possibility is the Indus Valley Civilization, which spanned parts of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwestern India, and which dates back to at least 3300 BC, based on the earliest artifacts found there.
“But we can find very early things in the Indus Valley. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found something that was just as early,” says the archaeologist. Jones suspects that early trade along the edges of the Indian Ocean helped these earliest civilizations—the Egyptians near the Red Sea, the Sumerians at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, and the Indus Valley Civilization further east—to further develop humans. pre-civilized, who lived there before them, bringing them resources and ideas from more distant areas. “I believe there was probably a trade network in the Indian Ocean,” he says.