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Describe how irrigation, metal smithing, slavery, the domestication of animals, and inventions such as the wheel, the sail, and the plow contributed to the growth of Mesopotamian civilizations.

Focus Question: How did irrigation, metal smithing, slavery, the domestication of animals and inventions contribute to the growth of Mesopotamian civilizations?

external image Mesopotamia_geographic.png
Topics on the Page
Overview and Women's Roles
Metal Smithing
Domestication of Animals
The Wheel
The Sail
The Plow
Architecture: Column, Dome and Arch
Other Contributions
  • History and Use of Zero

Mesopotamia is located in present-day Iraq and Iran.

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Overview and Women's Roles

It happened first in Ancient Mesopotamia from the University of Chicago offers a short summary of the major contributions of Mesopotamian civilization.

Interactive Overview of Mesopotamia

Prezi of 7 Contributions that Led to the Growth of Mesopotamia.

See also, Daily Life in Mesopotamia: The Land Between the Rivers



A. The Tigris and Euphrates provided major sources of water for farming.
B. Built canals, dams, reservoirs to irrigate crops in the farmlands.
C. Mesopotamia had low rainfall and farmers depended on the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates.
D. They grew grapes, dates, figs, apples and melons which led to the growth of their population.

Prior to irrigation, many areas of Mesopotamia suffered from low water supply and dramatic spring floods which would bring a great deal of silt as a result of snow melt in the highlands of Anatolia. The plains region of Mesopotamia also suffered from poor soil, drought, and soil salinity.
  • Supplied clean and reliable water
  • Allowed crops to be grown where water was not readily available in nature
  • Enabled the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to be utilized to their full potential
  • Also enabled more people to make the transformation from Hunter-Gatherers to farming communities.
  • Each city-state built their own irrigation system
  • Created weirs (direct water) and dams to form reservoirs and canals across flat lands
  • The government was responsible for maintenance of the irrigation systems
    • Paid workers to repair damages
    • Gagullu: special team who sailed the canals looking for damages, making sure that farmers were not abusing the system
  • Major flooding caused the canals to become silt-filled and eventually destroyed the irrigation systems

An example of an ancient irrigation system.

World History For Us All on river systems and development in Egypt Irrigation systems in Egypt.
game_icon.svg.pngGame: Be a Farmer in Mesopotamia from the British Museum.

Lesson Plans for Mesopotamia Related Activities

Mesopotamian metalworking

Metal Smithing

A. Better and more reliable tools
B. Effective in farming increasing food production.
C. Tools were also made out of wood, bone, stone and metal
D. Better weapons were forged that helped in war and increased expansion.

  • Assisted in the development of Urban civilization
  • Known to have occurred in one of the world’s earliest cities: Uruk
  • Used metals such as gold, silver, tin, lead, copper, or bronze
    • Made bronze by melting copper and tin together
    • Pour metal into casts and left to harden
  • Created knives, axes, saws, hoes, and other useful tools and weapons
  • Allowed for the creation of better more reliable tools.
    • Most tools at the time were made out of animal bone, wood, or stone
  • The upper class used gold and silver to make mirrors, necklaces, and statues
  • Many of the metals had to be imported from other regions


A. Forced labor helped in building cities
B. Cheap labor was used in farming increasing food production
C. Free labor was used during trade expeditions
  • Free, forced labor with which ancient cities were built
  • Much akin to slavery in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries
  • Slaves were not paid for their labor, thereby allowing slave owners to require as much work from them as desired
  • Unlike Slavery in the USA during the 18 and 19th centuries, most of the Slaves in this time period were prisoners of war .
    • Also people who did not pay debts or criminals
  • Believed to have started as agriculture developed
primary_sources.PNGHammurabi's Code references slaves.

Domestication of Animals

A. Cattle worked on the farms increasing food production
B. Substituted physical labor
C. Increased farmlands and more crops
D. Allowed transportation of goods and trade

external image 1024px-Mesopotamian_-_Stamp_Seal_in_the_Form_of_a_Reclining_Calf_-_Walters_42540_-_Impression.jpg

  • Hand-in-hand with the plow, domesticated animals allowed farm work to be completed with a far greater amount of ease than ever before
  • Allowed for a shift from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary, village lifestyle
  • Occurred between 10,000 BC and 6,000 BC
  • Herding of cattle became a regular practice
  • Sheep, goat, and pig were domesticated by 7000 BC
    • Provided people with wool, meat, fertilizer, and were even used as sacrifices
  • By 6000 BC cattle were domesticated
    • Used for food and sacrifices
    • Oxen pulled wagons and plows
  • Around 4000 BC donkeys were used for transporting heavy goods
  • Eventually, horses were used for riding

Stamps in the picture to the right are believed to be from between 3200 and circa 2900 BC. The stamps are decorated with animals, the one of the left is decorated with bulls, the one on the right with cats.

Click here for more information on animal domestication from the British Museum.
Rotating_globe-small.gifDomestication of Plants and Animals in Global Perspective An important difference between Mesoamerica and the Middle East lies in the fact that the domestication process in Mesoamerica focused almost exclusively on plants, with almost no animals as domesticates for food, transport, or secondary products.

The Wheel

A. Wooden wheel used in carts and ploughing crops
B. Efficient in transportation of goods
C. Trade was made easier
The picture above shows an ancient wooden wheel.

  • Estimated to have been created around 8,000 BC, the first known wheel was found in Mesopotamia and dates back to 3.500 BC
  • The first wheel was most likely a potter's wheel
  • The wheel was developed
    • Features such as axles added over time
  • Allowed for the armies to move faster and win more battles
  • Animals could pull three times their weight on a wheel than they could on a sledge (see below)
  • Eventually became used for transportation
  • Allowed for transportation of goods to become much more efficient

Click here for a more detailed history of the wheel.

The image above shows the progression which likely led up to the creation of the wheel.

The Sail

A. Allowed ships to travel faster
B. Replaced rowing
C. Allowed ships in war and trade in the Tigris and Euphrates

Art of an African sailboat, using the same design as the Mesopotamian sailboat
Art of an African sailboat, using the same design as the Mesopotamian sailboat

  • Much like the wheel, the sail allowed for more efficient transportation
  • Allowed ships to be used in both war and trade
  • Boats which had previously been rowed now gained another avenue for propulsion
  • Invented in approximately 5,000 BC
    • The earlier boats were shaped like round baskets, covered with reeds and animal skins with a central mast and sail
    • Later boats could be about 60 feet in length and were made up of wood
  • Increased the reach of many civilizations, allowing increased trade and spread of ideas and inventions
  • Also helped the fishing industry
    • Set sail downstream, cast nets, and sail back
  • The sails were square pieces of cloth
    • Unable to change direction of travel

Click here for more information.

The Plow

A. Increased the planting of seeds
B. Allowed farms to till more arable land.
  • Major achievement for Mesopotamians
  • Particularly important was the invention of the seeder plow which allowed the farmer to till the land while planting seeds, thus saving much time since the seed would be dropped right into the furrow that the plow had just created.
  • Started making plows with blades made with copper and bronze around 4000 BC
  • The Mesopotamians believed that their god Enlil designed the seeder plow, and he left the design in the stars for the humans

Architecture: The Column, Dome, and Arch

  • Mesopotamia was geologically different from the present day
    • Because wood and stone were nearly non-existent, mud bricks were the main building tools used to create the first columns, domes, and arches
    • Mixed river clay into molds that were left in the sun or put in an oven to dry
    • A wedge mold was created by 3000 BC so that the bricks can fit closer together
    • Because most buildings were made of mud bricks instead of stone, the buildings were more susceptible to the elements
    • First used as doorways
  • In its most literal sense, these innovations laid the foundation for modern architecture and are still efficient ways to build large structures.

Rotating_globe-small.gifAncient Mesopotamians are also credited with creating the following:

A system of writing. See also material on writing in ancient Mesopotamia from the British Museum.

Sanitation techniques

Concepts that we know today as the Pythagorean Theorem
The image above shows the Pythagorean Theorem

History and Use of the concept of “zero.”

Sumerians in Mesopotamia were the first to represent this concept 5,000 years ago, This concept of zero spread from ancient Mesopotamia into India and eventually China. The ancient Maya used placeholder zeros represented by turtle shells drawings.


The arch

The above image shows an example of an ancient arch.

[1] http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/MUS/ED/TRC/MESO/farmers.html
[2] http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/m/mesopotamia.htm
[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wksHEDgBRnM
VIdeo offers quality outline of the inventions and progress of Anicent Mesopotamia
[4] http://www.ducksters.com/history/mesopotamia/science_and_technology.php
Site provides fantastic summary of science, inventions, and technology