The cuneiform inscription on this clay cylinder, from Ur, Mesopotamia, is an example of the world's first writing system. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

Imagine a civilisation in an ancient land where there were few trees, and almost no stone or metal. Would you expect its people to be innovative and ahead of their time? Ancient Sumerians were exactly that.

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The ancient Sumerians thrived thousands of years ago, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (what is today southern Iraq). Their civilisation was the ancient equivalent to Silicon Valley today, according to an August 2019 report in In what the Greeks later termed Mesopotamia, Sumerians were driven to be creative because of the lack of resources around them, and were known for inventing new technologies and perfecting the large-scale use of existing ones.

Here are a few areas where the Sumerians left their mark:

1. Pottery

Other ancient people may have crafted their pots by hand, but it was the Sumerians who came up with the idea of the turning wheel – a device that allowed them to mass produce pottery. By being able to churn out large numbers of items, such as containers for workers’ rations (ancient Tupperware), they made life a whole lot more convenient for their citizens.

2. Writing

It’s likely that the Sumerians were the first people in the world to develop a writing system. There’s still evidence of it – tablets dating back to 2,800BC. But they didn’t use writing to record their culture or history, rather they kept track of goods they were producing and selling. Their system initially comprised pictographs – drawings of various objects – which then combined with other pictographs to express ideas and actions. Years later, these pictographs developed into symbols representing words and sounds. Their writing system came to be known as cuneiform, and was borrowed by subsequent civilisations across the Middle East for at least 2,000 years.

3. Hydraulic engineering

The Sumerians were successful at coming up with a way to collect and channel the overflow from the Tigris and Euphrates. The water from these rivers, and the rich silt that came with it, allowed them to water and fertilise their farm fields. The Sumerians were able to develop complex intersections of canals, and built dams with reeds, palm trunks and mud, which had gates that could be opened or closed.

4. Plow

To make farming even more efficient, the Sumerians invented the plow, and even had a manual that offered precise instructions to farmers, on how to use the various types of plows.

5. Bricks

While they weren’t the first to use clay to produce bricks, Sumerians were experts at mass producing them. They created molds to produce clay bricks, and compensate for the shortage of lumber and stones needed to build houses and temples. While their buildings may not have been as durable as those made from stone, they were able to build many of them, at a rapid pace, thus helping expand their cities’ territories.

What do you think of the Sumerians’ innovative spirit? Play today’s Word Search and tell us at