It’s a puzzle that’s long vexed archaeologists, historians and linguists alike. What caused the decline the of the ancient Sumerian civilization and the language they spoke?
The ancient Sumerians were the first civilization to invent a system of writing. Cuneiform tablets that describe their laws, myths and stories still survive today. For centuries, the Sumerian language was spoken in the Mesopotamian region of Sumer, located in what is now Iraq. However, some time around 2000 BCE, people stopped speaking it in favor of the language of the nearby Akkadians. Eventually, they also stopped writing and studying it.
What caused the decline? A geologist named Matt Konfirst says that local climate change could be the culprit. But can a drought really kill off a language? Maybe…especially if it’s a drought that lasts centuries.
Konfirst’s findings, which were written up on LiveScience, were presented to colleagues on December 3rd at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. In his presentation, he described what he believes happened:
“This was not a single summer or winter, this was 200 to 300 years of drought…As we go into the 4,200-year-ago climate anomaly, we actually see that estimated rainfall decreases substantially in this region and the number of sites that are populated at this time period reduce substantially.”
As the Sumerian city-states declined, the once-proud civilization made easy prey for invading nomads. The population of Sumer moved to the north, and according to Live Science, 74 percent of the ancient Mesopotamian settlements were abandoned. The Sumerian people had long maintained close ties to the Akkadians, and eventually Akkadian replaced Sumerian completely as a spoken language.
But did climate change really kill off the Sumerian language? Certainly not by itself. According to Wikipedia, rising soil salinity in the region provided another strong incentive for the Sumerians to leave. A centuries-long drought was doubtless a contributing factor in the decline of the civilization and its language, but even if they’d had rain, the high salt levels in the soil would have made it difficult to grow enough food.