Mesopotamia was one of the earliest civilizations on the planet. Its name means "land between two rivers." The rivers described in the nation's title are the Tigris and the Euphrates. Mesopotamian citizens and their culture contributed immeasurably to life in the modern world. One of the most critical inventions in human history can be traced back to Mesopotamia: the invention of the sail.
The Mesopotamian Sailboat
Mesopotamia, tucked beneath the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and home to the community of Sumer, was one of the earliest civilizations on the planet, but there were other civilizations nearby. As a land with precious little in the way of natural resources, Mesopotamians were beholden to other civilizations. In order to survive, Mesopotamians needed to trade and enter into commercial relationships with other societies.
In order to be able to trade, Mesopotamians needed to be able to travel. This was a more difficult prospect than is possibly conceivable to the modern imagination. Because of the location of the civilization being situated between two rivers, traveling to other communities by water was a necessity. Besides the fact that they were situated in an area surrounded by water, roads had not yet been developed, which made travel throughout the land mass a challenging and often dangerous enterprise. This is to say nothing of the risk Mesopotamians' wares faced, traveling in inhospitable climates over rough terrain. Water travel development was inevitable.
In addition to bringing people across the water to trade, the Mesopotamians also needed to be able to shuttle goods and wares – both goods they planned to sell and the goods they acquired upon their return. The development of the earliest boats meant that Mesopotamians could load up a water-faring vessel with goods and ride with them downstream toward the desired landing and trading place. However, people were required to steer, to row and to guide the boat. This made the earliest canoe-like structures difficult to use to transport goods.
The very first sailboats produced by the Mesopotamians would look extremely primitive by today's standards. The boats themselves were made of bundles of wood and a material called papyrus. The sails were made of linen or papyrus and were shaped like a large rectangle or a square. These simple boats could carry people and goods upstream and downstream and could be used to navigate difficult waterways or inclement weather. The addition of the sailboat to the Mesopotamian lifestyle changed everything about civilization as we know it.
What Did Mesopotamia Trade?
Trade was a key force in the development of the Mesopotamian civilization. Sumer, another name for the area where Mesopotamia was located (which today is known as Iraq or Kuwait), was a thriving civilization with art, music and writing. Because Mesopotamia was scarce in terms of natural resources necessary for survival, the Mesopotamians had to trade what they had or what they could make from what they had.
Mesopotamians typically traded wool, cloth and various kinds of jewels as well as staples like oil and wine. The jewels they traded were like lapis lazuli, and the wool they traded was from sheep or goats. Textiles, ivory, copper, reeds and other materials that could be used for building, decoration or entertainment were traded and sold in order to buy the kinds of natural resources that the Sumerians needed for agriculture, building and dwelling.
The trade routes along the Tigris and the Euphrates were among the most extensive and important trade routes in ancient history. The Mesopotamian economy was wholly reliant on the trade routes with which it was involved and required the constant commerce in which it engaged with other nearby cities in order to ensure its own survival.
Consequences of the Sumerian Sailboat Invention
The Sumerians had invented sailboats in order to more efficiently trade with neighboring civilizations. However, after navigating the waterways successfully with the sailboat, the Sumerians realized that it would be useful in wartime too.
The Sumerian sailboat was constructed from light materials which not only enabled it to float but allowed the boats to easily be ferried from land to sea and back again. As the Sumerian sailboats became increasingly used for battle or tactical maneuvering, the design of the boat evolved. Rather than a canoe-shaped vessel, the sides of the boat were raised up higher to protect the oarsmen and passengers from any planned sort of attack. The platforms inside of the ship were raised at an angle so that all of the men onboard would have the ability to fire at their enemy with good aim.
In later years, the Sumerians began to add large battering rams to the front of their ships so that they could deliberately smash into their opponent's boat during a battle. Because the sailing technology was dependent on wind rather than mechanized technology, the boats were still nowhere near as advanced as warships would become, but regardless, the development of the sailboat was a tremendous step forward in military tactics and planning. The impact of the development of the sailboat is still felt today.
What Did the Sumerians Invent?
There are many things aside from the sailboat for which modern civilization is indebted to the Sumerians. If you look back at the history of Sumerian civilization and its innovations, it is striking to see how many pieces of our daily lives in the modern world are traceable back to the ancient civilization between the Tigris and the Euphrates. One of the most profound and world-changing innovations to come out of Sumerian society was the development of cuneiform. Cuneiform was an early form of writing that allowed Sumerians to keep track of their trading, their inventory and their crops. The Sumerians were meticulous bookkeepers, and their cuneiform is the basis for all written language.
Almost more critical than writing is the concept of time, an idea that can be traced back to the ancient Sumerians. Sumerians recognized the light in the sky and the subsequent darkness as the effect of a change. It was this innovative civilization that began to divide the day into portions based on a 60-second minute and then a 60-minute hour. In this realm of abstract concepts, we can also give credit to the Sumerians for the discovery of geometry and for developing a system of numbers and counting.
On the more practical side of things, Sumerians were responsible for innovating the very first wheeled vehicle. They developed schools and with them the concept of truancy and delinquency. They developed children's toys and writing implements and a variety of instruments and artistic tools that were designed to provoke pleasure and delight. The Sumerian inventions communicate that theirs was not a society founded simply on a need and desire for survival but one that also prized the arts, entertainment, child development and the pursuit of pleasure.
In terms of the advancements that help to build a society on a logistical level, we have the Sumerians to thank for much of that too. Domestication of animals, development of agricultural strategies and methods, the beginnings of irrigation plans, city building and improvements made to rudimentary dwelling structures all took place during the Sumerian civilization. Many dental and medical advancements were realized during this period as well.
Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.