Countless civilizations have risen and fallen over the millennia. But which one is the oldest?
About 30 years ago, this question seemed to have a simple answer. Around 4000 BCE, the earliest phase of Sumerian culture emerged as the oldest civilization in Mesopotamia, in what is now most of Iraq.
The Sumerians are named after the ancient city of Sumer, which was south of the modern city of Kut in eastern Iraq. Archaeologists call the earliest Sumerian phase the Uruk period, after the ancient city of Uruk, 80 kilometers to the southwest, where many of the earliest Sumerian artifacts have been found.
But evidence uncovered in recent decades indicates that the Sumerians have some serious contenders, including Egypt, for the title of “oldest civilization.”
What, in fact, is a civilization?
The definition of what makes a civilization is vague, but in general to be called a culture it must achieve several distinguishing characteristics, notably town planning, irrigation, and writing; and the Sumerians had all three.
After about 2000 BCE, the Sumerian civilization led directly to the Babylonian civilization of Mesopotamia, which is credited with discovering mathematical truths such as trigonometry and prime numbers – concepts further developed by the ancient Greeks over 1,000 years later.
The Sumerians may have invented religion as we know it today
The Sumerians may have invented religion as we know it now by also building towering temples called ziggurats in their cities and establishing castes of priests devoted to the ritual worship of certain deities, according to American historian Samuel Noah Kramer.
Also, the biblical myth of Noah has its origin in the Sumerian work called the Epic of Gilgamesh, dated to about 2150 BC, according to Live Science.
Which civilizations could be equally ancient?
Some scholars argue that other civilizations may be as old or even older than the Sumerians. “I would say that Egypt and Sumer were practically contemporaneous in their emergence,” said Philip Jones, associate curator and curator of collections at the Babylonian section of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
Decades of war and Iraq meant that archaeologists could not access many sites in Mesopotamia, but Egyptologists continued to dig. The result is that archaeologists in Egypt have now discovered writings just like the earliest writings in Sumer, suggesting that the earliest phase of Egyptian civilization arose at about the same time as the earliest phase of Sumerian civilization.
Indus Valley Civilization
Another contender for the title might be the Indus Valley Civilization, which arose in parts of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwestern India and dates back to at least 3300 BCE, according to the earliest artifacts found there.
Jones suspects that the existence of early trade along the edges of the Indian Ocean helped these civilizations—the Egyptians near the Red Sea, the Sumerians in the northern Persian Gulf, and the Indus Valley Civilization to the east would have exchanged both products and ideas, driving progress further. .