Thursday, October 08, 2009

Semitocracy   posted by Razib @ 10/08/2009 02:15:00 PM

Reading Sumer & the Sumerians to see if there are any new facts known about these people and period since I was a kid. Unfortunately, as noted in the preface, after 1991 and until the mid-2000s (when the book was published) archaeology in Iraq wasn't feasible. So not so much. But, the author does note and reiterate an old dynamic: the slow but persistent decline in the proportion of those for whom Sumerian is a native language in the cities of Mesopotamia. Semitic speakers (e.g., Akkadians) were a presence in the earliest extant cuneiform tablets ~3000, and were likely dominant in the north of Mesopotamia. Earlier and more speculative works in fact have suggested that the Sumerians, whose language seems an isolate (unrelated to any other in the world), were outsiders who arrived from the south. So the Semitic speaking peoples may in fact have been indigenes who were temporarily dispossessed.

In any case, the text makes it clear that it seems two types of rural nomads moved into the cities of Sumer. Very wealthy individuals who experienced diminishing marginal returns as their herds expanded in size, and who found in cities more opportunities for efficient allocation of their capital. And secondly, very poor nomads who simply no longer had herds which were numerous enough for them to subsist. For the whole period of Sumerian cultural ascendancy, from 3000 to 2000 BCE, one presumes that the nomadic population reserves were stocked then with the "middle class" which hovered around the margins of subsistence. From what can be gathered by the textual evidence the nomads were invariably populations which were Semitic. The Sumerians were city-dwellers, though no doubt they also formed the peasantry around the canals and irrigation works during much of this period. Somehow we know that gradually between 3000 and 2000 the Sumerians went from being the majority in the cities of Sumer, to being a likely minority (though still culturally and to some extent politically dominant). By 1800 BCE it is likely that Sumerian was a dead language (one can't dismiss the possibility of Sumerian speaking communities here and there, but they're gone from the written record).

So what happened? The gradualism is of particular interest to me, and the likely concentration of Sumerians in the cities. It seems plausible that because the Sumerians were the first to settle in the cities, and concentrate disproportionately within them, natural increase would have been reduced for them relative to less urban populations. The slow replacement by Semitic speakers may have been due to the fact that Semitic speakers had a demographic reservoir which the Sumerians did not. There is of course a way to balance this out, and that is cultural assimilation. It seems likely that this did occur, but for some reason this was not a powerful enough effect so as to prevent the Semitic takeover. Or was it? 1,000 years is a long time. For all we know the Sumerians may have arrived as a small minority form the outside, and their lasting 1,000 years, as well as leaving a cultural impact which redounded down the generations, was a rather good show. That being said, I do wonder if the edifice of cultural complexes were more primitive during the time of Sumer than they became later, as the long road of cultural evolution of written & institutional civilization was only beginning.