Sumerian is an extremely ancient language, believed to be a language isolate (or at least, no relatives of it are known now) which was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia, particularly the southern part, until about 2000 BCE. Its speakers gradually shifted to speaking Akkadian, a Semitic language, instead, but in many places they continued using it as a ceremonial, literary and scientific language until the first century CE. The language was agglutinative, exhibited split ergativity, and had two grammatical genders (basically “human” and “non-human”, although gods and statues counted as human in that) and 12 cases.
It is one of the first languages ever to have been written down. It began with a purely logographic system (which is called “proto-literate”, apparently) between 3300–3000 BCE, but from 3000 BCE we have records with “unambiguously linguistic content”. From about 2600 BCE, they switched to a new way of imprinting lettering onto wet clay with a wedge-shaped stylus; this system is known as “cuneiform”. The cuneiform system was adapted to Akkadian, and our modern knowledge of Sumerian is via Akkadian glossaries.
Now as for the Sumerians themselves, they’re thought to have migrated to Mesopotamia from somewhere in West Asia between about 5500–4000 BCE. This is sometimes called the “Ubaidian period” but also sometimes the Ubaidians are described as a pre-Sumerian people. Wikipedia divides the Sumerians’ history thusly:
- Ubaid period (6500–4000 BCE): They liked making painted pottery. There is a story about Inanna, a goddess of love and war and Uruk (a city), passing the gifts of civilisation on to Enki, god of war and chief god of Eridu (the Sumerians’ “first city”), which is thought to maybe represent this transfer of power from the Ubaidians to the Sumerians.
- Uruk period (4100–2900 BCE): They shifted to mass-producing pottery on fast wheels and not painting it. Trade volumes increased, creating more of a surplus the ruling class could siphon off to make grand temples. It seems they began to practice slavery in this period, capturing victims from the hilly hinterland. Society was theocratic, ruled by a priest-king advised by a council of elders that included men and women. There’s little evidence of warfare at this time; cities were largely unwalled.
- Early Dynastic Period (2900–2334 BCE), including the First Dynasty of Ur (26th & 25th centuries): Characterised by increased welfare. Power shifted from a priest-king to a secular king. This is the era the Epic of Gilgamesh describes.
- Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 BCE): Period started with the rule of Sargon the Great, under whose watch the use of Old Akkadian was at its peak. Although the language of the ruling class shifted, this era was still categorised largely by continuity with the previous era.
- Gutian period (approx. 2200–2119 BCE but I see different dates every time): A chaotic period. The Gutians were a hinterland people who practised hit-and-run tactics and carried out many raids on important cities like Ur. This weakened the rule of the Akkadians, until finally the Gutians toppled them. But the Gutians sucked as rulers, trade suffered dramatically, and before too long (comparatively) they were overthrown themselves.
- Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 BCE): This was not a long era either, but it was seen as a “Golden Age”. There were five kings total in this dynasty; the first two, Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, came to be revered as deities after their deaths. However – considering this is a page about Sumerian – this was a period that saw Sumerian increasingly restricted to literary and ceremonial use, with Akkadian becoming more and more the everyday language of the populace. The last three kings of this dynasty all had Akkadian names.
The Sumerians had many different city-states which were all independent from one another, with their own kings and priests. Which of them was the most influential and powerful shifted over time.
Sumerian culture was stratified and patriarchal. While they apparently discouraged premarital sex, they were in general pretty relaxed about sex otherwise, with their concern not being that any particular acts were immoral, but that they made you ritually unclean. They thought masturbation made you more sexually potent and encouraged it for both men and women; they also weren’t against anal sex at all.
They were great creators of art, some of which survives and is displayed at museums today; they are also known to have enjoyed music, playing lyres for example.
They used a base-60 counting system, and are the first to have used place value in their calculations. They were also the first to work out how to calculate the area of a triangle and the volume of a cube, apparently.
Sumerian religion saw creation as the outcome of a succession of sacred marriages between gods that reconciled opposites. As later interpreted by the Akkadians, for example, you had the union of fresh and salt water in the marriage of male Abzu and female Tiamat. Then there was also An/Anu (sky) and his consort Ki (earth). Sumerian temples are called ziggurats.