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Friday, October 17, 2014

4000-539 B.C.: First civilizations advance medicine, part 1

To understand how you might have been treated if you were sick in the ancient world, it's important to understand where and how people lived back then, and what people believed.  Medicine was often blended in with mythology, and mythology was based on the culture formed by the land and the people living among it. 

Random and violent flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers created a "fertile crescent" in and around the land between the two rivers.  For over a thousand years groups of people migrated to the area, and ultimately came together to create the world's first civilization.  If you were short of breath, this change would have a significant impact on your life, and your options for a cure.

Mesopotamia was not a civilization; it was a term used by the ancient Greeks in reference to the land between two rivers.  Likewise, since Mesopotamia refers to the land between the two rivers only, "It is, therefore, an inaccurate designation for Babylonia and Assyria, since it does not include the Euphrates Valley."  (15, page 1)

Sometime around 10,000 B.C. people who migrated to the area, and those who continued to migrate into it, found that its rich soils were ideal for the cultivation of plants.  People quickly learned about the various crops in the area:  flax, date palm, leeks, millet, sesame, onions, lentils, wheat and barley.  They also learned about fruit, such as figs and grapes, and various herbs and spices. Around 9,000 B.C. they learned to plant their own crops and tame the animals that lived there. They built huts of reed and mud (clay), and lived amid the landscape which consisted of a plethora of palm and olive trees. 
Scene of Sumerian City-State (

They learned quickly that managing the land, and irrigating the crops, took a major effort, and it was nearly impossible to tackle mother nature while working solo.  So it only made sense for the various groups of people in the area to work together for the common good.  They pooled their minds, labor and time and came up with methods of building impressive aqueducts and channels for controlling the flow of water through the land to irrigate the crops. Clans and families turned into villages, which turned into towns, which turned into cities, which, by around 3,500 or 3,000 B.C,. grew into huge cities, each wrapped around a temple on a hill where a god or goddess lived. 

Since the cities each had their own governments, and since there was no government connecting the cities, these cities were referred to as city-states. The largest of these city-states were Ur, Urek, Eridu, Lagash, and Kish. (Kishinger, page 20-21)

Yet as individual clans and families must have realized they could not manage the land alone, so the various kings must have gotten together and come up with some form of treaties.  They must have figured that by working together they could better protect the crops from mother nature and from the plunder of savage people.

Perhaps after a massive flood, or a massive attempt at plunder, one of these kings stepped up as supreme ruler of all Sumeria.  This would have been one of the key moments in the creation of civilization.  The king would have amassed the the armies into one huge military to defeat enemies and protect the nations who volunteered soldiers to the effort.

Yet all this good came as a result of destruction. People migrated to this area because food was plentiful, yet this was only possible due to the flooding of the rivers, which, unlike those of the Nile, were completely random and unpredictable.  As waters quickly spread across the land it wiped out everything in its path, including homes, crops, animals, and humans.  Yet it was by living through this chaos for many years that the men and women of the region learned to manage the waters and perhaps the people as well.

So if civilization grew out of chaos, we can also say that learning how to manage civilization also grew out of chaos.  At first the various groups of people would have worked independently, perhaps even fighting among another.  Some would have been fortunate to beat the floods and prospered, while others would have failed and either perished or forced to start anew.  Those who failed would have been eager to learn the methods of those who succeeded, and this in and of itself may have been the seed of the more advanced civilization that rose from the lands around Mesopotamia.

Perhaps one of the first problems of all these people coming together was the inability to agree on what to do and how to do it.  Plus there would have been the natural yearning to greed and lust, and perhaps this drove some people to fight their peers for power and glory.  There would have been disagreements, and sometimes all out fights, some perhaps to the death.  There would have been fights as to who would be king of Ur, or Urek, or Eridu, or Lagash, or Kish.

Regardless of who won these inner-city battles, the leaders of each of these city-states must have gotten together for a massive blending of their minds. It must have been agreed upon early on that some form of government was needed.  So each city-state initially agreed to vote for a leader, or governor, or king, who served a term.  This governor made rules for the city-state, perhaps with the permission of a group of elder sages and a group of warriors.  With their guidance and permission they decided how to get the people to work together for the common good.  Then the king's term ended and another ruler was selected for that city-state. (Foster, page 46)

They put their ideas together and this resulted in a series of discoveries and inventions that made it easier to manage the lands.  They invented better tools for tilling the land and building structures.  They invented the potters wheel so making pottery was easier and quicker.  They learned how to build aqueducts and channels to manage the floods and flow of water through the land, and temples to house the gods and the people (the god's slaves).

Yet their would have been the development of individual pride and envy, and greed and lust, among the rulers of the people.  Then there would have been continuous disagreements among the assembly of elders. There would have been all out fights, sometimes to the death.  At some point there must have been a massive flood that destroyed all that had been made by the Sumerians, and one of these kings stepped forward to be the supreme ruler of all the land. Or perhaps there was an increase in the number of ox stolen by savages who were trying to feed their own families.

Regardless, one of these kings was granted supreme power over all the city states to get over some crisis.  After the crisis was over he probably gave back his power.  Yet there must have been one king whose ego grew so huge that he believed he could remain king forever.  He wanted to rule all of the then known world.  He refused to give back his power.  The gods and legends of his city-state became known to all of Sumeria, and the main god of his city-state moved to the head of the hierarchy of Mesopotamian gods.

The king of one of the other city-states was unhappy about being controlled by this one ruler, and his pride grew.  Perhaps this was the king of Urek.  He surreptitiously gathered his asspembly of elders, and he petitioned them to attack the ruling city-state, and defeat the supreme king.  But the assembly of elders, perhaps, refused to grant the king this power.  Yet the king refused to give in, so he had his men murder the members of the assembly who disagreed with him, and he sent his troops to war anyway.  He won battles in stunning fashion, perhaps surprising the ruling party.

To be continued...

References:  See post "2000 B.C.:  Assyrian physicians will treat your dyspnea"

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