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The peoples of Sumer are among the earliest denizens of Mesopotamia. By about 4000 BCE, the Sumerians had organized themselves into several city-states that were spread throughout the southern part of the region. These city-states were independent of one another and were fully self-reliant centers, each surrounding a temple that was dedicated to god or goddess specific to that city-state. Each city-state was governed by a priest king.

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Though they shared the Sumerian language as a form of communication, these city-states shared little else, and were in a constant state of warfare, often battling each other for control over water supplies and the fertile land. A typical Sumerian city was well fortified with thick, tall walls, which the king was responsible for maintaining, in hopes of deterring would-be attackers. Within a Sumerian city’s walls were avenues that were used for religious processionals, and high, stepped temples know as ziggurats. Sumerian cities often had several ziggurats, each dedicated to a different god or goddess.

While the king of a Sumerian city lived in a luxurious palace, most of his people lived in very small thatched houses that were crowded together and separated by narrow alleyways. This was evidence of a distinct social system that was in place in Sumer. The highest class was the ruling class and priests. The only middle class to speak of was made up of merchants, scribes, and artisans. The majority if a city-state’s people were considered the lower class, and that class was made up mostly of farmers. While these farmers could and did own and work their own land, they were often made to work government-owned land instead.

The Sumerians saw most of their wealth and success from trade. Artisans such as weavers and potters would sell their wares to traders who had traveled the rivers or the desert. The fertile land (the area was known as the Fertile Crescent) upon which they lived provided a successful agriculture industry as well.

The government of Sumer grew very complex as history progressed, and each city-state had begun to collect taxes and employed scribes to keep meticulous records. Each city-state had complicated irrigation systems, whose management the ruler oversaw. And the ruler also took on the role of chief priest, leading rites and procession in order to honor the gods.

Sumer was the southernmost region of ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) which is generally considered the cradle of civilization. The name comes from Akkadian, the language of the north of Mesopotamia, and means “land of the civilized kings”. The Sumerians called themselves “the black headed people” and their land, in cuneiform script, was simply “the land” or “the land of the black headed people”. In the biblical Book of Genesis Sumer is known as Shinar. According to the Sumerian King List, when the gods first gave human beings the gifts necessary for cultivating society, they did so by establishing the city of Eridu in the region of Sumer. While the Sumerian city of Uruk is held to be the oldest city in the world, the ancient Mesopotamians believed that it was Eridu and that it was here that order was established and civilization began.

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The region of Sumer was long thought to have been first inhabited around 4500 BCE. This date has been contested in recent years, however, and it now thought that human activity in the area began much earlier. The first settlers were not Sumerians but a people of unknown origin whom archaeologists have termed the Ubaid people (from the excavated mound of al-Ubaid where the artifacts were uncovered which first attested to their existence) or the Proto-Euphrateans (which designates them as earlier inhabitants of the region of the Euphrates River).

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Whoever these people were, they had already moved from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one prior to 5000 BCE. Excavations from al-Ubaid and other sites throughout southern Iraq have uncovered stone tools from the Ubaid people such as hoes, knives, and adzes and clay artifacts which included sickles, bricks, painted pottery, and figurines. These people were the first agents of civilization in the region. At what point the people who came to be known as Sumerians entered the area is not known.