Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sumerian Origins - Agriculture

Sumer was situated on the delta at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  The land was flat and arable, but away from the rivers it was too dry to farm.  Early in their history the Sumerians developed a knowledge of irrigation techniques.  By constructing irrigation canals along the rivers, they were able to open up vast tracts of land for farming.  Agriculture became the mainstay of the Sumerian economy.  Mobilizing their population, and utilizing slave labor, they were able to produce vast amounts of grain and other commodities.  Much of this grain was surplus, and because of these surpluses, they were able to engage in an extensive and profitable export trade with their neighbors. 

The Sumerian farmer lived in the city, or suburban area, and traveled to the outlying farm to work during the day.  The farm lands were owned by the nobility, the temple, wealthy individuals and the commoners.  Kramer notes: "As for the land which did not belong to the temple and which comprised by far the larger part of the territory of the city state, the documents show that much of it was owned by the 'nobility,' that is, the ruling princes and their families and palace administrators as well as the more important priests. These noble families often possessed huge estates measuring hundreds of acres, much of which they obtained by purchase from the less fortunate citizens. The labor on these estates was performed by clients or dependents, whose status resembled that of the dependents of the temple, who were clients of the more prosperous temple officials and administrators. The rest of the land that is, the land not owned by the temple or the nobility belonged to the ordinary citizens of the community, probably more than half of the population (1039)."  

Regarding the specific crops raised by the Sumerians, Kramer observes: "The cereals raised by the Sumerians were barley -  by all odds the most important -  wheat, millet, and emmer (1422).  Vegetables were grown, including chick peas, lentils, vetches, onions, garlic, lettuce, turnips, cress, leeks, mustard, and various kinds of cucumbers (1423)."  The date palm was important to them and they even knew how to artificially fertilize it. They had about 150 words to describe the palms and their various parts.

In addition: "Animal husbandry ...  was fundamental to the Sumerian economy (1428).". Animals provided transportation, food, leather, and clothing. Donkeys were used for transportation.  Oxen were used for plowing, pulling carts and sledges, and carrying heavy loads. Cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were utilized for meat. In addition sheep provided valuable wool, and goat hair was used for weaving carpets (1431).  They raise huge flocks of sheep and goats for this purpose (1361).
One branch of Sumerian medicine was devoted to the treatment of animals. "There were ... veterinarians known as "the doctor of the oxen" or "the doctor of the donkeys" (1314)."
Kramer doesn't mention the use of elephants, however, there are two words in the Sumerian vocabulary that can refer to the elephant, and other contemporary cultures did use elephants for cargo, transportation and construction.

Evidence of the vast knowledge of agriculture possessed by the Sumerians is found in their cuneiform tablets devoted to this subject.   They had compiled “farmer's almanacs” to assist in the planting, nurturing, and harvesting of their crops (1375).  One of the tablets contains detailed instructions on normal farming practices (1382). There is also a tablet which outlines precise instructions on preparing and planting a field (1391).
The Sumerians developed a large vocabulary relating to animals, plants, and agriculture in general (2981). For example, they had over a hundred words that referred to different types and varieties of sheep (1431).

A common tool used in gardening was the hoe, which would often be made of copper, or a copper alloy (1424, 3375).  They also used a copper mattock and copper axes.
Sumerian agriculture was supplemented by hunting and fishing.  The nearby sea, and adjacent rivers contained abundant fish.  Birds were plentiful in the nearby marshes.  

The Book of Ether also gives us some additional insight into the agricultural resources available to the people of Sumer.  When the Jaredites left on their epic journey, they were commanded to take flocks and seeds of every kind (suggesting a lot of variety).  They snared birds, and even took containers of fish with them.  We are told that they carried hives of honey bees with them, suggesting that beekeeping was a known practice in Sumer (Ether 1:41; 2:2). 

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