The ancient Sumerians, builders of the world’s first known civilization, are a mystery to us. Settling in what we would now call southern Iraq from about 5400 BCE on, they produced a written language, a complex system of mythology, impressive architecture, and a lost world that held regional hegemony for thousands of years. We don’t know where their language came from; we don’t even know where their genes came from. We have no idea who their modern descendants would be, and we’ve never been able to test the DNA of Sumerian remains.
Skeleton of a 12-year-old Sumerian boy, from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. While human skeletal remains are fairly durable compared to the rest of us, they do eventually break down over time.
Well, not until now. A complete skeleton from the Sumerian capital of Ur, dating back to about 4,500 BCE, was recently rediscovered in the Penn Museum—and its intact teeth may include enough soft tissue to allow DNA testing. Nicknamed “Noah,” the skeleton appears to have survived an ancient flood and everything that followed:
[British archaeologist Sir Leonard] “Woolley’s team found 48 or more graves in a flood-plain, an area which was once subject to regular flooding. The skeletons there were unusually old, dating to an early era known as the Ubaid period (ca. 6500-3800) but only one was intact and fit to be removed. The skeleton and the dirt surrounding him was excavated and coated in wax and shipped to London first. Upon reaching Philadelphia, however, he was lost to time — only one of a multitude.”
Until recently, the primary advocates for testing Sumerian DNA have been followers of Zecharia Sitchin, who hold the unusual belief that the ancient Sumerians socialized with extraterrestrials and may have carried alien genes. But there are plenty of more conventional reasons to study Sumerian DNA: it stands to tell us where the first city-builders came from and who their contemporary descendants are. The migration of the Sumerians is one of the great untold stories of human civilization; if we aim to tell it, DNA is the best tool we have.