Ancient DNA and Sumerians

By Razib Khan | October 8, 2012 7:49 pm

A few months ago someone asked me (via email) which populations I would love to get typed (genetically that is). There is one population which did not come to mind at the time: the Sumerians. Why? Because these are arguably the first historic nation. The first self-conscious ethnic group which operated by the rules which we define as the fundamentals of literate civilization. Strangely, they are an ethno-linguistic isolate. My own assumption until lately has been that this is not too surprising, in that prior to the rise of expansive civilizations (Sargon of Akkad) there was much more linguistic and ethnic diversity than we currently see around us. Or, was evident even in the early Iron Age. In other words, the ancient Fertile Crescent may have resembled the highlands of Papua, with Hurrians, Akkadians, Gutians, Elamites, Sumerians, etc., all speaking mutually unintelligible dialects which diverged very far back in the mists of antiquity.

I am no longer quite so sure about this model. That is largely due to the possibility that there was a great deal of demographic change between the Mesolithic and the Bronze Age, with successive waves of layering and replacement. My rough model is that a few groups of farmers may have expanded to swallow up thousands of hunter-gatherer groups. These homogeneous farmer societies eventually would diversify, because they were not united by the institutional forces which cemented later imperial regimes, in particular, literate elites which had a sense of consciousness which extended deep into the past because of written records. Therefore, the diversification would presumably have been similar to what we see with Romance languages, or Indo-Aryan, branching out from an common root language which replaced many competitors rapidly. Without writing and large scale polities the divergence would be more rapid, and there would be many more tips on the phylogenetic tree.

The Sumerians, and their neighbors the Elamites, as well as groups like the Hatti and Hurrians & Urartian, pose problems for this thesis. None of these groups seem to be Indo-European or Semitic, the two dominant language families of Near East by ~1,000 B.C. You have in the ancient Near East then a situation where the light of history reveals before us not the diversification of Indo-European and Semitic speaking farmers, but rather a host of unique and disparate peoples, all simultaneously lurching toward literate civilization, one after another.

Something just does not add up in my models. Genetics will not solve the puzzle, but it may help in elucidating relationships. The origins of the Sumerians are murky, but many scholars have suggested that they may have arrived from the south (the oldest city, Eridu, is in the south). Others have suggested that the Sumerians descended from the mountains of the northeast. Though I presume that the people Arabia have changed a great deal since antiquity, it would be interesting if it was found that the Sumerians resembled the Qatari (at least the Eurasian component) more than they did the modern Assyrians.

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Comments (7)

  1. ryan

    I’d guess there is more history to be gleaned as well in cuneiforms documents including ones that are unpublished, others poorly understood and still others still lingering in unexcavated tells.

    Does anyone know whether there remain any medieval works of Arabic history or geography that remain untranslated into Western languages? While these won’t have anything useful to tell us about ancient peoples outside the Semitic & Indo-Europeans divisions, I’m curious whether we may still learn more about survivals of Punic from such documents. It seems strange to me that a tongue that was near cognate to Aramaic would have died out in the Roman Empire even as Aramaic was strengthening itself in the Eastern Empire.

  2. #1, we don’t know that it didn’t persist as long as latin. it was certainly spoken in st. augustine’s time, he mentions it. but it may have been a marginal rustic language, and therefore disappeared between arabicization and re-berberization. latin disappeared after the arab conquest….

  3. Robert Frosch

    Ryan, Punic was not really that closely related to Aramaic. It developed as the North African dialect of Phoenician colonists, and was thus more closely related to the so-called Canaanite dialects (Hebrew, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite). The survival of a language is dependent upon many factors, ethnic, cultural and political.

  4. John Emerson

    I’ve read something about language in New Guinea, and apparently there small face-to-face groups have conscious language policies, and because of paranoia about witchcraft, warfare, etc., groups want to have secret languages other groups can’t understand and will make changes to their language in order to make them difficult and to disaffiliate from related groups.

    Deliberate language change is historically difficult because changes seldom radiate all the way out from the center, so you get old/new dialect differences, but with groups of a few hundred people it is apparently possible.

  5. ryan

    Robert, Canaanite and old Aramaic are pretty damn close themselves. Augustine is thought to have understood Biblical Hebrew via his knowledge of Punic. There continued to be important imperial trading families in most of the old Punic cities – Lepcis; Gadeira = Cadiz; Atiq = Utica; even in Carthage, though many of the other cities sided against Carthage in the Punic wars, and hence retained more political and economic autonomy. Many places were still minting coins with Punic inscriptions into the common era. There is growing awareness that in Sardinia and the Balearics, the Punic heritage seems to lasted much longer than was believed 40 years ago.

    Garum continued to be an important commodity. Purple dye continued to be a luxury good. And the Aramaic-speaking cities of the coast continued to have elites who I expect would have wanted these things. It seems likely that being raised in the Punic tongue would have remained an asset to traders who could sell things eastward.

    And Punic was closely related to a sacred language for North African Christians.

    So I think there’s ample reason to wonder what may have survived long enough to have been picked up by medieval Arabic authors.

  6. Marian

    Razib, and others, can you tell me how Italian developed out of Latin as it disappeared after the Arab conquest?

  7. #5, i have a friend who speaks hebrew who claimed that the aramaic in the passion of the christ was easy for him to understand (he has conversational arabic too). so your assertion rings true to me.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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