200-Year Drought May Have Caused Death of Sumerian Language

Climate change – and drier weather – may have help killed off the Sumerian language and may have amplified Mesopotamia’s eventual decline.

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Frank Scherschel / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Sumerian art is displayed at the Philadelphia Museum

Sumer was one of the first great ancient civilizations, credited with inventing one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, as well as inventing the wheel and the arch. But around 4,000 years ago, its spoken language all but disappeared — and scientists are only now figuring out why. According to new research, a drought spanning more than two centuries may have caused Sumerian to die out and may have amplified Mesopotamia’s eventual decline as well.

Ancient Sumerian was widely used in Mesopotamia, often hailed as the cradle of civilization. Though scientists and historians have been unable to pinpoint an explicit reason for the civilization’s demise, archaeological and geological clues suggest a natural disaster that may have served as a catalyst. The findings were presented last week at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union.

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“This was not a single summer or winter, this was 200 to 300 years of drought,” said Matt Konfirst, a geologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center, told LiveScience. As Tia Ghose wrote for LiveScience:

Several geological records point to a long period of drier weather in the Middle East around 4,200 years ago, Konfirst said. The Red Sea and the Dead Sea had increased evaporation; water levels dropped at Lake Van in Turkey, and cores from marine sediments around that period indicate increased dust in the environment.

Scientists also point to other clues: a fairly recent archaeological study in present-day Syria concluded that around the same time, 74% of settlements had been abandoned while the population was estimated to have shrunk by 93%.

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There were other factors that contributed, such as a rise in armed conflicts and the destruction of Mesopotamia’s capital city, Ur, around 2,000 B.C., but soon after the Sumerian language was replaced by Akkadian, another ancient tongue. Written cuneiform continued to be in use until about the 1st century A.D. but — as with Latin — the spoken language was considered extinct long before the writing system faded away.