Some have suggested that the Sumerians should be researched more in depth because they were the first people. However, this is not true. Homo sapiens, meaning "man who knows," in Latin, is the scientific name for the general human species. Homo is the genus, or, taxonomic category that is positioned above species and below family. This includes Neanderthals and Denisovan, as well as many other of our extinct cousins. In fact, Homo sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo. Modern humans are classified even further as the subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. This classification system branches out further and further whenever a new specimen is found. Sometimes, a specimen that does not neatly fit into this ongoing jig saw puzzle gets conveniently forgotten in the basements of museums; museums funded by oligarchs.
Now, you may argue according to your religious beliefs, or personal research theories, that these “ancestors” are of no relation to us modern humans, thus, their existence does not factor into the equation. To which I would point to the Omo remains, discovered between 1967 and 1974 in Africa, at the Omo Kibish sites near the Omo River, in Omo National Park in south-western Ethiopia.
Found at the site were a number of bones including, two partial skulls, four jaws, a leg bone, and about two hundred teeth. This discovery provided evidence of the first anatomically modern humans appearing in the fossil record about 195,000 years ago, right around the time scientists claim modern humans diverged from a common ancestor 200,000 years ago. If the radiocarbon dating is correct, these fossils are the oldest known Homo sapiens remains, “making Ethiopia the cradle of Homo sapiens.”1
Ethiopia may be considered the cradle of Homo sapiens, but Mesopotamia, home of Sumer, is known as the cradle of civilization. The distinction is quite evident. Existing and civilization building are two very different things. However, one could then reasonably ask what about Göbekli Tepe? Evidence found at Göbekli Tepe clearly indicates more than just simple existing was taking place. Considering that the settlement is at least 11,000 years old, it is much older than any settlement found near Ur. Thus, the enigmatic inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe should be considered the cradle of civilization, but the problem with this is how one defines civilization.
Some scholars adhere to the theory that Göbekli Tepe was a temple but not all scholars agree. Archaeological evidence of day to day activities have led other scholars to believe that Göbekli Tepe was a multi-purpose domestic settlement. Still, the general consensus is that Göbekli Tepe was a hunter-gather site with the possibility of rudimentary agriculture. Does this constitute civilization? Perhaps it is the seed of civilization but to date, no evidence of an advanced state of human society where a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been found.
This is not to suggest that Göbekli Tepe is not a profoundly important site to the history of humanity. After all, its mysteries have only begun to be addressed. I only mean to suggest that in Sumer, something different happened. This something would do more than simply plant the seeds of human civilization, it would go on to develop complex systems and hierarchies the world had never before seen.
While not the first ever people, and not the first to make art or large settlements, the Sumerians forever changed the trajectory of humankind. Thanks to having invented the world’s first true system of writing, 2 the Sumerians have left us with many artifacts and texts to paint a picture of life in their time.
1. Leakey, R. E. F. "Early Homo Sapiens Remains from the Omo River Region of South-west Ethiopia: Faunal Remains from the Omo Valley." Nature, 1969, 1132-133.
2. Millard, A. R. (1986). "The Infancy of the Alphabet." World Archaeology 17 (3): 390–398. doi:10.1080/00438243.1986.9979978