Once people started farming, they were able to grow more food than they needed to feed themselves. For the first time in human history, a food surplus existed. A food surplus meant that not every individual had to work on collecting food. People could make clothing or baskets and trade these items for food. Services such as medical assistance could also be traded for food. The surplus of food in Mesopotamia led to a division of labor. Many different people were able to do many different jobs. Once the people started doing different jobs, they moved away from their isolated farms and into villages.
While this was the story archaeologists have told for decades, teams have now discovered permanent settlements that pre-date agriculture. Either farming and herding are much older than previously believed, or some hunter-gatherers lived in permanent villages. Archaeologists are working on learning more about these ancient villages to understand our ancestors’ lives better.
By 4500 BC, northern Mesopotamia was running out of farmland. People moved south into southern Mesopotamia. The land in the south held two problems. First, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers would often flood. These floods could destroy crops planted along the river. The second problem was that the land farther away from the river was too dry to support crops. Farming would have been difficult in southern Mesopotamia without human ingenuity.
Over hundreds of years, the people in southern Mesopotamia developed a system of levees and canals. The levees were walls made of earth that prevented the rivers from flooding. The canals were channels that guided the river water to dry fields. Now, farmers could ensure that their fields would always receive the right amount of water. Farming flourished, and villages appeared in southern Mesopotamia.
Southern Mesopotamia was given the name Sumer by the Akkadians, a civilization living in northern Mesopotamia. Sumer meant, “land of the civilized kings” in Akkadian.
Sumer was made up of many city-states. Each city-state was ruled by a different king and worshipped a unique god or goddess. The tallest building in the city-state was always the temple to the patron god or goddess called a ziggurat. The cities were surrounded by high walls to protect them from invaders, but the farmland outside the walls was unprotected. As the city-states grew larger, they began to run into each other. Wars over territory and power were common between the city-states.