The Division of Labor Produced the First Great Civilization: Sumer

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 25th, 2011

History 101

The Sumerians’ Large-Scale Farming Produced the First Reliable Food Surpluses in History

The first civilization was in Mesopotamia.  The Cradle of Civilization.  In the Fertile Crescent.  That land between the Euphrates and Tigris.  Roughly modern day Iraq.  Where things started happening around 5,000 BC.  And lasted a long time.  A few thousand years.  And some.  During this time we see the first city-states.  Like Babylon in the north.  And Ur in the south.  Home of Abraham.  Yes, that Abraham.  The biblical one.  Who was part of the great Sumerian civilization.

Why here?  Because of the fertile soil along the river banks.  And the source of fresh water.  For drinking.  And farming.  For the Sumerians harnessed this water to irrigate their fields.  In Sumer they farmed for the first time on a grand scale.  Marshalling and organizing a great labor force.  Made possible by language.  That they could read and write.  They became specialists in food production.  And with these specialists we see the development of the division of labor.

They domesticated animals.  For food.  And for work.  This advance into large-scale farming produced the first reliable food surpluses in history.  Which allowed a lot of people to live in crowded cities.  Many of who had a lot of spare time.  And they used it.  To create other things.  Becoming specialists themselves.  Civilization became more complex.  And better.  Thanks to the division of labor.  That created all of these new specialists.

Sumer had the Surpluses to make Trade Possible and their Location put them in the Center of a Civilizing World

In Sumer they created the potter’s wheel.  Pottery.  And a kiln to bake it in.  Others did, too.  But they most likely did it first. Some thought about the potter’s wheel led to the wheel and axel.  Heavy transportation.  And the war chariot.  Pulled by their domesticated animals.  With the harnesses they made.

They also had boats.  For the two great rivers (Euphrates and the Tigris), their tributaries and the canals they made.  And, yes, they were builders.  Made easier by their creation of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra.  And they were astronomers.  Among the first to map the stars and planets.  Which formed the basis for much of the work the Greeks did.  Leading the way to open-water seafaring.  Navigation by the stars.  And long-distance trade.

A priest-king probably ruled each Sumerian city-state.  And each city-state worshipped in their own way.  As theocracies.  Everything belonged to the priest-king.  What the people produced went to the temple.  And the priest-king distributed the proceeds of their labors.  So there were no markets.  But there was trade.  For they have found items in Sumerian digs that are not native to Sumer (such as cedar from Lebanon).  But the details of that trade are sketchy.  But what is certain is that they had the surpluses to make trade possible.  And their location put them in the center of a civilizing world.

Fertile Soil, Irrigation, Large-Scale Farming and the Division of Labor Produced the Great Civilizations

Sumer was the first great civilization.  Egypt was right behind them.  With their kingdoms on the Nile.  Civilization soon followed on the banks of the Indus in Indian.  And on the banks of the Hwang-Ho in China.  These were isolated areas that began without outside influence from other advanced civilizations.  They were the first of the firsts.  And they all shared some things in common.  Fertile soil in their river valleys.  Irrigation.  Large-scale farming.  And a division of labor that produced the other great things of their civilizations.


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