The First Farmers

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The First Farmers

This fragment of an ancient stone bowl illustrates a theme often portrayed in early Mesopotamian art - cows, which have been out grazing all day, are shown returning to the cattle fold at night, where they are greeted by calves, eager to be fed. A herdsman, carrying an implement that may be a fly wisk or goad, stands between two cows that are facing away from him. Above the central cow's back are two birds, standing back-to-back. The head of one of the calves coming out to greet its mother is visible at the right edge of the fragment.

Domestication of animals such as cattle - as well as the domestication of plants - changed people's lives and the course of human history dramatically. The most significant change was the shift from a nomadic life-style to settled villages. In order to care for crops and herds of animals, people needed to live in one place. This change from hunting and gathering to planting and herding occurred independently in many parts of the world. In northern Mesopotamia, the process occurred over the period 10,000-6000 B.C. Here, there was enough rainfall to grow crops, and the region was also home to wheat, barley, sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs, the wild plants and animals that eventually were domesticated.

By 5800 B.C. people were living in the southern plains of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The land in this region was exceptionally fertile, but the rainfall was insufficient to grow crops. The rivers were undependable, drying up in the searing heat of the summer. Irrigation was the solution to these problems. Over time, ditches laced the fields near the rivers, making the land a maze of artificial waterways.

The First Cities

In this painting of Babylon, the artist has recreated the view of the eastern portion of the city as it is thought to have looked during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (ca. 604-562 B.C.). In the foreground is the Euphrates River, which ran through the center of the city. Next to the Euphrates is the sacred temple complex of the god Marduk (the "Esagila") including the ziggurat, a stepped tower, which probably gave rise to the famed Biblical account of the Tower of Babel. Beyond the Esagila lies the rest of the eastern section of Babylon and its defensive walls. Beyond the walls are the open cultivated fields of the Mesopotamian plains. The city of Babylon (ca. 600 B.C.) was considered a marvel of the ancient world, with a population of 200,000, and system of defensive walls that ringed the city for ten miles.

For the ancient Mesopotamians, their cities were the centers of life. When they looked back to the beginning of time, they did not see a Garden of Eden, but rather an ancient site called Eridu, which they believed was the first city ever to be created. Ancient Mesopotamia is where the world's first cities appeared around 4000 - 3500 B.C.

No one knows for sure why urbanization began in Mesopotamia. The development of cities could have occurred due to environmental conditions. Lack of rainfall might have been the inspiration for people to organize themselves in a common effort to build canals for the irrigation of farmland. Another reason may have been the need for protection on the open plain, which could have led people to gather together to create walled enclaves. Whatever the reasons, this was the first time in history that humankind channeled its energies towards addressing the needs of a community as a whole.


These carved stone figures, their eyes wide with awe and their hands clasped in reverence, were placed in Mesopotamian temples by worshippers to stand in perpetual prayer on their behalf before the god or goddess to whom the sanctuary was dedicated. When the temples were renovated, those statues that had fallen into disrepair or outlived the terms of their dedication were carefully buried within the building. The ancient Mesopotamians worshipped hundreds of gods, each with his/her own name and sphere of activity. Every city had its own patron god or goddess, and there were also deities connected with various professions - such as scribes and builders. But only a few gods - those who controlled major realms of the universe, such as the sky, the sun, the air - received attention as major deities. Anu was the father of the gods and the god of the sky; Enlil was the god of the air; Utu was the sun god and the lord of truth and justice; Nanna was the moon god; Inanna was the goddess of love and war; Ninhursag was the goddess of earth; and Enki was the god of fresh water as well as the lord of wisdom and magic. While they served and revered the great gods, most people felt little connection with these distant beings. Ordinary people depended on a relationship with their own personal god - a kind of guardian angel - who protected individuals and interceded for them with the great deities.

Invention of Writing

Writing emerged in many different cultures and in numerous locations throughout the ancient world. It was not the creation of any one people. However, the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia are credited with inventing the earliest form of writing, which appeared ca. 3500B.C. The clay tablets shown on the left date from around 3200 B.C. They were unearthed by Oriental Institute archaeologists at the site of Tell Asmar in Iraq.

The writings on these tablets are simple pictures, or pictograms, which represent an object or an idea. Because clay is a difficult material on which to draw lines and curves, the Mesopotamians eventually reduced pictograms into a series of wedge-shaped signs that they pressed into clay with a reed stylus. This wedge-shaped writing is called cuneiform.

The invention of writing was the dawn of the information revolution. This great technological advance allowed news and ideas to be carried to distant places without having to rely on a messenger's memory. Like all inventions, writing emerged because there was a need for it. In Mesopotamia, it was developed as a record-keeping vehicle for commercial transactions or administrative procedures. There are also texts that served as "copy books" for the education of future scribes. Eventually, cuneiform script was used to produce some of the greatest literary works in recorded history.


From the earliest times in ancient Mesopotamia, women who came from a sector of society that could afford to have statues made placed their likenesses in temple shrines. This was done so that their images would stand in constant prayer while they continued to go about their daily chores. This female worshipper statue wears a standard fashion of the time, a simple draped dress with her right shoulder bare and hair done up in elaborate braided coils.

The Mesopotamian woman's role was strictly defined. She was the daughter of her father or the wife of her husband. Women rarely acted as individuals outside the context of their families. Those who did so were usually royalty or the wives of men who had power and status.

Most girls were trained from childhood for the traditional roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper. They learned how to grind grain, how to cook and make beverages, especially beer, and how to spin and weave cloth for clothing. If a woman worked outside of her home, her job usually grew out of her household tasks. She might sell the beer she brewed, or even become a tavern keeper. Childbearing and childcare roles led women to become midwives and also to create medicines that prevented pregnancy or produced abortions.

Soon after puberty, a young girl was considered ready for marriage. Marriages were arranged by the families of the future bride and groom. Ceremonies have been described where the future husband poured perfume on the head of the bride. He also gave her family money and other presents. Once a woman was engaged, she was considered part of her fiancé's family. If her husband-to-be died before the wedding, she was then married to one of his brothers or another male relative.


This drawing is an artist's reconstruction of the Temple Oval at Khafajah, Iraq, as it may have looked around 2700 B.C. The remains of the temple and its surrounding community were excavated by the Iraq Expedition of the Oriental Institute between 1930 and 1934. The temple is surrounded by sturdily built mud-brick homes which were packed closely together along the narrow, winding city streets. The thick walls of the houses provided good insulation against the elements, and flat rooftops provided extra living space.

The climate and readily available natural resources determined building styles and construction techniques in ancient Mesopotamia. These factors not only influenced the appearance of buildings and how they were decorated but also their survival in our archaeological records.

The arch and column were developed by the ancient Mesopotamians, and they were also familiar with the use of domes. They were masters of construction using bricks made of mud, their one abundant, but impermanent, building material. Brick making was a major Mesopotamian industry, especially in the south, where wood was in short supply and stone was non-existent. Over the centuries, torrential rains and shifting sands destroyed much of southern Mesopotamia's mud-brick architectural heritage. Only crumbled mounds remain as evidence of the great cities that once stood in the deserts of southern Iraq.

Science and Inventions

The bricks with rosettes pictured at the top left were excavated by the Oriental Institute in 1932. They once formed part of the decoration of a temple façade at the ancient Mesopotamian site of Khorsabad. The drawing on the bottom left is an artist's rendering of what part of that façade looked like when it was first exposed by French archaeologists in the mid-1800s. The rosettes formed the border for a design that included the fig tree and seeder plow shown here.

The seeder plow, invented by the Mesopotamians, was a major technological achievement. It revolutionized agriculture by carrying out the tasks of seeding and ploughing simultaneously. Seed was dropped down the middle funnel into the furrow that the plow created. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the god Enlil created the seeder plow and that the image of the plow could also be seen in the stars. They discovered that by observing the movements of celestial bodies they could measure time, which was key for planting crops and for holding religious festivals. Their astronomical observations still aid today's scientists.

The ancient Mesopotamians were a highly inventive people who created many innovations. They not only invented the seeder plow, but also developed writing, irrigation and sanitation techniques, the "Pythagorean theorem," the concept of zero, glass, and the arch, column, and dome. They revolutionized transportation around 3500 B.C. by inventing the wheel and were among the first to harness the wind as an energy source by using the sail.

Law and Government

The Laws of Hammurabi are the longest and best organized of the law collections that survive from ancient Mesopotamia. King Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792-1750 B.C., had the laws inscribed on stone stelae which he placed in various temples throughout his realm. The stela from which this cast was made stands almost seven-and-a-half feet tall. At the top of the stela, King Hammurabi stands before the sun god Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of justice, who is seated on his throne. Shamash gives Hammurabi the rod and ring, symbols of kingship and divine justice, thus reinforcing the ancient Mesopotamian belief that laws came from the gods.

Below this scene is the law collection itself, mainly comprised of a compilation of legal verdicts describing specific offenses and the penalties to be enforced in particular situations. Preceding the law collection is a lengthy prologue, stressing the gods' appointment of Hammurabi as the ruler of his people. Hammurabi's role was to act as guardian and protector of the weak and powerless, and to pay care and attention to the specific needs of the patron deities of the many cities incorporated into his realm. Following the laws is an epilogue describing the king as the military leader who brings peace to his subjects. It explicitly states that these laws were inscribed on a stela and publicly displayed in order to testify to Hammurabi's righteous and just rule, to bring consolation to anyone seeking justice, and to serve as an example for future rulers.

Wars and empire

This colossal sculpture stands about sixteen feet high and weighs forty tons. It was one of many sculptures that guarded the entrance to the throne room of King Sargon II. A protective spirit known as a lamassu, it was shown as a composite being with the head of a human, the body and ears of a bull, and the wings of a bird.

Between 900-630 B.C. the kings of ancient Mesopotamia built great palaces filled with colossal stone reliefs such as this. These massive palaces reflected the power that these rulers wielded over an empire that stretched from Egypt to Iran. King Sargon II ruled Mesopotamia and much of the then-known world from his palace at Khorsabad in northern Iraq.

The Mesopotamians became empire-builders for a variety of reasons. They fought for security, believing that they could protect themselves by expanding into areas where threats might arise. They went to war for economic gain, taxing the peoples they conquered, collecting tribute in land and resources, and taking prisoners to serve as slave labor. Warfare was also justified on the grounds of religious beliefs. Conquest was considered the divine mission of the king, whose role was to bring more land, people, and goods under the jurisdiction of the national god, Ashur.
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