A Skilled People
Sumerians invented writing and made
other important contributions to later peoples.
Reading Focus Do you like to read? If so, you owe a
debt to the Sumerians, because they were the first to
invent writing. Read about this achievement and others.
The Sumerians left a lasting mark on
world history. Their ideas and inventions
were copied and improved upon by other
peoples. As a result, Mesopotamia has been
called the “cradle of civilization.”
Why Was Writing Important? The people
of Sumer created many things that still affect
our lives today. Probably their greatest
invention was writing. Writing is impor-
tant because it helps people keep records
and pass on their ideas to others.
People in Sumer developed writ-
ing to keep track of business deals and
other events. Their writing was called
cuneiform (kyoo• NEE • uh • FAWRM). It
consisted of hundreds of wedge-
shaped marks cut into damp clay
tablets with a sharp-ended reed.
Archaeologists have found thousands
of these cuneiform tablets, telling us
much about Mesopotamian life.
Only a few people—mostly boys from
wealthy families—learned how to write.
After years of training, they became scribes
(SKRYBS), or record keepers. Scribes held
honored positions in society, often going on
to become judges and political leaders.
Sumerian Literature The Sumerians also
produced works of literature. The world’s
oldest known story comes from Sumer. It is
called the Epic of Gilgamesh (GIHL • guh •
MEHSH). An epic is a long poem that tells the
story of a hero. The hero Gilgamesh is a
king who travels around the world with a
friend and performs great deeds. When his
Later, kings ran the government. They
led armies and organized building projects.
The first kings were probably war heroes.
Their position became hereditary. That is,
after a king died, his son took over.
What Was Life Like in Sumer? While
Sumerian kings lived in large palaces,
ordinary people lived in small mud-brick
houses. Most people in Sumer farmed. Some,
however, were artisans (AHR•tuh• zuhns), or
skilled workers who made metal products,
cloth, or pottery. Other people in Sumer
worked as merchants or traders. They trav-
eled to other cities and towns and traded
tools, wheat, and barley for
copper, tin, and timber—things
that Sumer did not have.
People in Sumer were
divided into three social
classes. The upper class
included kings, priests, and
government officials. In the
middle class were artisans,
merchants, farmers, and fish-
ers. These people made up
the largest group. The lower
class were enslaved people
who worked on farms or in
Enslaved people were
forced to serve others.
Slaveholders thought of them as property.
Some slaves were prisoners of war. Others
were criminals. Still others were enslaved
because they had to pay off their debts.
In Sumer, women and men had separate
roles. Men headed the households. Only
males could go to school. Women, however,
did have rights. They could buy and sell
property and run businesses.
How did Mesopo-
tamians control the flow of the Tigris and
20 CHAPTER 1 The First Civilizations
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