Tag Archives: agriculture

How to start up a civilization

Sumer, in the ancient Middle East, was the very beginning of Western Civilization.

Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers (I put in modern place names so you can find this on a bigger map).

A civilization means a big group of people with a government and laws; an economy; technology; religion; and a language and writing system. The Sumerians had all that. They were located in between the Tigris (TEE- gris) and Euphrates (EH-you-FRAH-tays) Rivers—a valley that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.* It’s a friendly place to farm: melting snow from mountains in Turkey feeds the rivers which flood regularly. When the rivers recede they leave behind a sludge of decayed plants, dead bugs and fish bones. That sludge, or silt, is fantastic for growing plants in. The Sumerians learned to control the flood. They built levees and dug canals and reservoirs so they could bring water wherever and whenever it was needed.

Remember that farming for food turned out to be easier than hunting or gathering it. Levees and canals made farming easier still. That meant not everybody had to work on a farm. People could have other jobs, like priests or scribes. Some people built houses and towers. Some people ran the government. This is how a civilization gets started.

Mesopotamia: from Greek words— ‘meso’ means between; ‘potamia’ means rivers.

* Yes, I know, I’m a pronunciation geek.


The Sumerians


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Counting your chickens before numbers

6000-2200 bc. Eventually people figured out it was a lot easier to raise livestock—animals that provide food—than chasing after them with bows and arrows. Human beings domesticated certain kinds of animals, like poultry (chickens), cattle, sheep and goats.

If you wanted to tell somebody how many chickens you owned, you couldn’t, because there weren’t any symbols for numbers.

My version of a clay chicken token.

It was pretty important to know how many chickens—or goats, or sheep—you owned. Sometimes people would keep a bag of pebbles. Each pebble represented a chicken or a goat. Eventually someone had the idea to make little clay chickens and goats. At the end of every day, the animals went back into their pens. As each chicken entered the coop, you could keep track by putting a clay chicken in your bag for every real chicken. As each goat entered the pen, you put a clay goat in your bag.

You get what’s happening here? We switched from making images of animals as grand wall paintings to inventing a token or symbol (a clay chicken) that represents a unit (a real chicken). That’s a big deal. These symbols were the first step toward a written language.

“What do you mean by that, Manders? Stop spewing gibberish!” Okay, okay. To make my point more clearly: look at the cartoons in this post. A cartoon will only represent what it was drawn to represent. Now look at the letters in this text. They’re symbols. The letters can be rearranged to make different words, to say anything you like. It will take a loooooong time to get from chicken tokens to an alphabet, but we’re on our way.


Early Counting Systems

View at Medium.com

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Cyclical time

Hades taking Persephone to the Underworld

There are two ways to think about time: as a circle and as a line.

The ancient Greeks—like other cultures that relied on farming for food—saw time as a circle, as cyclical. They planted in the Spring;, they weeded and pruned in the Summer; they harvested in the Autumn; they waited through the Winter for the cycle to start over again.

Let me tell you the Greek myth of Persephone. Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and harvest. Demeter made the seeds take root, the flowers blossom & the fruit ripen. Demeter loved Persephone and everything was literally sunshine and daffodils all year long. At least it was until Hades, the dark god of the Underworld, saw the beautiful Persephone and decided to steal her away to be his wife. Demeter was heartbroken—and while Persephone was gone, Demeter neglected her goddess-duties until the world became cold and barren. Frosty wind killed all the crops; fruit withered on the vine. No grain to harvest meant no pita bread for gyros. No cucumbers for tzatziki sauce. No falafel. The situation became desperate! Finally Zeus stepped in and made them strike a deal: Hades would keep Persephone only half of each year and let Persephone spend the other half with her mom. So while Persephone lives in the Underworld, it’s winter. When Persephone is reunited above-ground with Demeter, there is planting and growth and harvest.

This is an example of thinking of time as a cycle.

Egyptian calendar

An Egyptian man plows a furrow so the lady can sow seeds into it.

Both the Sumerians and Egyptians had economies that depended on agriculture—they grew crops for their food. If you ever planted tomatoes—or onions, or zucchini, or those two-ton pumpkins you see at the state fair—in a garden, you’ll have seen on the seed packages instructions about when to plant. If you plant your tomatoes too late, the fruit will never ripen in time before the first frost. This is why calendars are so important.

The Egyptians’ planting schedule was built around their river, the Nile. Every year the Nile would flood. After the floodwater receded, it left behind nutrient-rich silt that improved the soil. Egyptian farmers had to plant crops as soon as the Nile receded so they could harvest before the Nile flooded again.

By around 2450 bc the Egyptians had developed a calendar whose year was twelve months. Each month was thirty days long (12 x 30 = 360 days). The year was divided into three seasons—Inundation, when the Nile was flooded (Akhet), Emergence, time to plant the crops (Peret), and Harvest, time to gather the crops (Shemu)—of four months each, with five days added to the end of the year.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Egyptian calendar used Base Sixty for counting the days. I’d like to think they sent a nice thank-you note to the Sumerians.