A map showing a bewildering array of possible migrations to and from Sumer.
The Sumerian Problem:
There is a lot of speculation about the origins of the
Historically speaking, it seems like the Sumerians suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. Many different theories have been offered about their
origins. It has been suggested that they migrated from Africa, India, Iran, Tibet,
or the Caucasus mountains (Caucasia). People have been speculating on the
subject ever since the Sumerians were first discovered in the mid nineteenth
century (until then, the Sumerian civilization was buried so deeply that people
forgot it ever existed). Scholars debated this topic for more than 150 years without reaching a definitive conclusion. The mystery surrounding the origins of the Sumerian people continues to vex the scholars even to this day. They call it “The Sumerian Problem”.
In the quest to determine the origin of the Sumerians, numerous attempts have been made to link the Sumerian language to other languages in
the world. One example is an effort to connect Sumerian to the ancient Ural-Altaic
language system, from which the modern languages of Finnish and Hungarian were
derived. This theory proposes that the Sumerians and the modern Europeans developed
from the same genetic stock that originated in Caucasia. The Europeans moved
north, the Sumerians moved south, and their languages evolved independently
from the same root language.
Efforts were also made to link Sumerian to the Indic
languages. Another effort involves the language of Tibet. The theories suggest
that the Sumerians came from these regions, or conversely, the early Proto-Sumerians
moved into the areas and influenced the languages.
The main difficulty is that Sumerian is a “language isolate”,
meaning it's not related to any language in the world, ancient or modern. As a
result, Sumerian ties to other languages remain tenuous at best. If there was a
clear indication that Sumerian is similar to another language, the scholars
would have already discovered it during the past 150 years, and it would be
common knowledge by now. Since it's impossible to link Sumerians to other
people using linguistics, it is therefore necessary to look for other evidence to
find the origin of the Sumerian people.
It has been suggested that the Sumerians were foreign
invaders that subjugated the indigenous people who already lived there. However,
this seems unlikely. It is very difficult for conquerors to impose their language on
a native people, and it’s doubtful that the Sumerians could last for thousands
of years, through every kind of vicissitude, if they had forced their
civilization on an unwilling population. Besides, this still doesn’t answer the
basic question about how the Sumerians got there in the first place.
The Sumerians were probably the first nomadic hunters that
ventured into this fertile region. The land had wild grain that could be harvested
and there was plenty of water for irrigation, which guaranteed a steady food supply. This was a strong inducement for the hunters to settle down and become
farmers. But it still doesn’t tell us where the hunters came from.
People don’t just spring up from the soil. Everyone came to
their land from somewhere else. So where did the Sumerians come from?
There is no archaeological evidence to trace the path of
Sumerian migration and there is no linguistic evidence. I suggest the best way
to solve “The Sumerian Problem” is to look at it geographically. Let’s take a look at
some of the areas in the region and see if we can find the most likely birthplace of the Sumerian people.
The Arabian Peninsula:
The simplest and most obvious conclusion is that the
Sumerians were a Semitic people, just like their Akkadian neighbors and
everyone else in the region (bear in mind that Semitic doesn’t just mean Jewish,
it also means Arabic). The Sumerians were literally surrounded by Semites, so
it’s natural to assume that the Sumerians themselves were also Semitic. There’s
a serious problem with this assumption, however. The Sumerians didn’t speak a Semitic
language. It is absolutely inconceivable that the Sumerians were a Semitic
people − living in a sea of Semitic people – who did not speak a Semitic
History confirms the fact that Sumerians were not ethnically the same as their neighbors. In 2350 BC, the Sumerians were conquered by
the Akkadians under Sargon the Great. The Akkadians ruled Sumer for the next
two centuries. During that time, it would be so easy
for the Sumerians to be assimilated, to “blend back in”, if they were
like their neighbors. Instead, they maintained their ethno-cultural
identity for 200 years, even as a subject nation. Then they regained their
independence, conquered the Akkadians, and began the Neo-Sumerian Revival, the
ultimate expression of Sumerian civilization.
So, if Sumerians weren’t Semitic like their neighbors, then what are some other
Tibet is just too far away. The ancient Tibetans would have
to move through India, Pakistan, and Iran to get to Sumer. Besides, there is
nothing Asiatic about the Sumerians, so we can reject this hypothesis right
from the get-go.
India is a possibility. Civilization began to develop early
in the Indus Valley. The question is: why would the Indians leave India? There was
still plenty of room in India to accommodate an expanding population. As can be
seen on a map, the Indians would have to leave the lush and fertile Indian
subcontinent to venture into the rough and mountainous terrain of Iran, and then battle against the warlike people in the region. Of course, they could avoid
the problem by traveling by boat, hugging the shoreline (although there is no
evidence of this). If they did travel by boat, they would arrive in Sumer relatively
quickly, in which case there would be a strong Indic influence on the Sumerian language,
and this has not been proven.
Iran seems to be reasonable choice for the origins of the
Sumerian people. After all, it is right next door. This would be a very ironic
choice, however, since the Iranians (Elamites) destroyed Sumerian civilization
in 2004 BC. Needless to say, the Sumerians themselves would highly
resent the suggestion that they were Elamites. The Sumerians were at war with the Elamites
(and the Gutians, the barbaric tribesmen of northern Iran) throughout their entire history, so they certainly didn't believe that Iran was their beloved Motherland.
Top: Left, two female
singers in a religious procession. Right, the goddess Ba-u. Bottom: Left, a
standard bearer (click here to see the entire image). Right, Gudea.
Some early Sumerian artifacts, along with these images from
the Gudea Stele, has prompted some writers to suggest the Sumerians were
of African descent. The theory is farfetched, to say the least, but for the
sake of argument, let’s look at the possibility. The map at the top of the page
shows that the shortest route between Africa and Sumer goes across the Arabian
Peninsula. Unfortunately, this means crossing the Arabian Desert, which would
be impossible for a Stone Age band of nomads that included women and children. An
alternative route is to move northeast along Mediterranean coastline, turn east
below Asia Minor, and then turn south toward Sumer. This is a long, circuitous
path, and the nomads would have to battle against the indigenous people who lived all along the route.
The “African” features of the people on the Gudea Stele is a
stylistic device developed by sculptors during the artistic renaissance that
occurred in the city of Lagash. The Sumerians didn't really look like this. A
realistic portrait of Gudea is shown below, and he clearly isn’t African.
Besides, if the Sumerians were of African descent, it would be
obvious, and it would show up on all of the Sumerian artifacts, not just a few.
So, to summarize: The
Sumerians weren’t Semitic like everyone else in the region because they did not
speak a Semitic language. They weren’t Tibetan because they weren’t Asiatic and
Tibet is too far away. They weren’t Indian because India is also too far away, there
was little incentive for the Indians to leave the subcontinent, and there aren’t
any clear Indic elements in the Sumerian language. They weren’t Iranian because
they hated the Elamites (and the Gutians). Needless to say, the Sumerians were certainly not African.
Only one possibility remains for the origin of the Sumerian
It has been the most obvious choice all along.
With the exception of Iran, Caucasia is the region closest
to Sumer. Early in pre-history,
the Sumerians moved south from the Caucasus mountains. At the time, the region between Caucasia and Sumer was sparsely populated, so their progress was not too
greatly impeded by the indigenous Semitic people of the area. As the Caucasian nomads
settled into farming, their population started to multiply. At the same time,
the growing population of the surrounding region filled in around them,
effectively cutting off the Sumerians from their Caucasian homeland. This was
early in the formation of human speech, so the Sumerians developed
their unique language in relative isolation, while the surrounding population developed
their own Semitic languages. Since the Sumerians arrived in the region so early, they can properly be considered the indigenous people. It then took several thousand years for the population to grow and to develop into a discernible civilization. The rest, as they say, is history.
It's the only scenario that makes sense. I therefore categorically
state, in no uncertain terms: The Sumerians were Caucasians.
And they looked like Caucasians.
The Sumerians created portraits of themselves that clearly show their true appearance. At first, human portraiture in Sumerian art was very primitive, so early depictions of the Sumerians are completely useless in showing us what they
really looked like. This
includes all of the artifacts from the Early Dynastic periods, such as Eannatum’s
Vulture Stele and the Standard of Ur. The images of people are very crude and formulaic. They are generic representations of people and not recognizable portraits of individual men and women
The king on
the Standard of Ur, from the Early Dynastic III period. The king and his
friends sit a victory banquet. Two servants stand in attendance. All of their
faces look the same. There is no attempt to individualize the faces of the different
Very late in Sumerian history, during the reign of Gudea, Sumerian artists
began to create highly realistic sculptures that are recognizable portraits of
distinct individuals. For the first time in world history, sculpted portraits
actually resembled the people they portrayed. These portraits show us the Sumerians as they really were.
The riddle of The Sumerian Problem is best answered by the
To decide if the Sumerians were Caucasians, you need only look at their faces:
Gudea. This is the first realistic, recognizable portrait of
any human being in all of history.
High Priestess of the goddess Ninsun, from the Ur III period.
Ur-Namma. The king of Ur, the king of Sumer and Akkad.
Shulgi, the son of Ur-Namma.
The Sumerians are clearly Caucasians.
It’s as plain as the rounded
nose on their rounded face. The Sumerians (as a rule) didn't have the sharp and angular facial
features that are generally associated with a Semitic people.
These are the Sumerians of the Neo-Sumerian Revival. This is how they looked after thousands of years living with their Semitic neighbors, how they looked right after 200 years of Akkadian subjugation. They still retain their distinct Caucasian identity.
By “Caucasian” I do not mean “blond and blue eyed”.
Early Dynastic III statue of Eannatum, the king of Lagash,
with blue eyes. Many Sumerian statues of men and women have blue eyes of lapis lazuli.
This has prompted some people to suggest that the Sumerians had blue eyes. The blue
eyes of lapis lazuli don’t mean anything, however. Many animal statues also have
eyes of lapis lazuli (for example, this statue of a Sumerian bull). Cattle, of
course, do not have blue eyes, and so far as we know, neither did the Sumerians.
There are no references to blue eyes in Sumerian literature.
The same is true for blond hair. There aren’t any references
to blond, yellow, or golden hair in Sumerian literature. Supposedly, the
genes for blond hair and/or blue eyes first appeared 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
This is well within the time frame of the Sumerians, but there is no evidence
that the Sumerians had blond hair or blue eyes. If indeed the Sumerians had these very
distinctive features, it seems they (or someone else) would have mentioned
it − quite often, in fact. Sumerians would be known as "the blond-headed people" rather than "the black-headed people" as they are commonly described. If Sumerians had blue eyes, there would be many references to their blue eyes in Sumerian literature.
Sumerians were Caucasian in the same way that the ancient
Greeks and Italians were Caucasian, the same as most ancient Europeans,
for that matter. They all had black hair and brown eyes. I suggest that a
Sumerian could pass unnoticed in the middle of any European city, ancient or
I also suggest that the answer to "The Sumerian Problem" is obvious: The Sumerians were definitely Caucasians. After all, who else could they be?
A Caucasian origin for the Sumerians is the only one that makes any sense. Caucasia is very close to Sumer. The other possibilities for Sumerian origins (Iran, India, Tibet, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula) can be ruled out for all the reasons listed above. Besides that, the Sumerians look like Caucasians. The evidence is provided by the Sumerians themselves.