Most everyone knows about the great civilizations of the Sumerians and the Aztecs. If anyone were to visit the land that the Sumerians inhabited, they might not be able to imagine how these people were able to survive and flourish. The land there is dry and hot, with extreme temperatures. Hardly any vegetation survives in the area. However, the Sumerians did find a way in which they could live in the area and live bountifully (Landau 10-12). The Aztec Empire, on the other hand, appeared in Central America at a time when it seemed impossible to begin a civilization on an island in the middle of a lake. The island was not big enough for a thriving population. Nevertheless, the Aztecs overcame these challenges, flourished and became a powerful empire (Warburton 27). Although 3,000 years and half a world apart, the Sumerians and Aztecs shared common characteristics, like writing systems and religion. Both started where no one else dared. The Sumerians thrived in a desert, the Aztecs on an island, and both realized they needed to give up nomadic ways.
As these civilizations grew larger both groups needed a common set of laws to control their people who were assimilated from various tribes. Both societies made many laws and punishments for crimes the citizens might commit. Sumerian punishments were some of the first to be more humane. The Aztec laws were not as pleasant as the Sumerians. Unlike the Sumerians who may have believed that punishment could lead to rehabilitation, Aztec law usually called for the death penalty for most law breakers.
As the Sumerians and Aztecs began to codify their laws they needed a way to pass these laws down from generation to generation and be enforced equally throughout the empire. This is how the Sumerian and Aztec written languages came into being. The Sumerians developed cuneiform, which at first was one only of pictures, but in time it evolved into a more complete form to include symbols (Landau 33). The Aztecs created a written language but it never evolved beyond pictures. The writings of both groups helped their civilizations in more than one way, and it contributed greatly to the development and expansion of their empires.
Why did the Sumerians and Aztecs want to start a writing system for their civilizations? At the time they may not have known, but writing was a major contribution to these civilizations. It helped them to be stronger and more cunning than the cultures around them. The Sumerians wanted to write so they could keep records. The need to account for stored or traded goods encourage them to list quantities of commodities such as grain, beer and livestock (Editors of Time-Life Books 76). They also wrote stories to leave their legacy. The Aztecs used writing to record activities around them. Like the Sumerians, they recorded taxes collected, lawsuits between villages and individuals, and accounts for merchants. Unlike the Sumerians, they documented their conquests, sacrifices and tribute from different conquered tribes, and their genealogical and dynastic history. Also, they recorded religious events since religion was a main point in their life. The Aztecs were proud of their civilization, and believed that they should leave records for all to see how powerful and great they were.
The Sumerians are credited with one of the greatest cultural advances, which was the development of writing (Nardo 39). They were the first literate civilization to leave records. When the Sumerians first began to write, they developed a system with pictograms. Over time they discovered that they needed a better system because drawing pictures could get confusing. This is when they developed cuneiform. Cuneiform made the writing system more efficient. Slowly they converted their picture words to short-hand consisting of wedged line (Hooker). Over the years it became a complex system, with more than five to six hundred characters. On the other hand, the Aztecs never quite evolved their writing...
Cited: Day, Jane S. Aztec Religion. 1992. Denver Museum of Natural History. 10 February 2005. .
Editors of Time-Life Books. Sumer: Cities of Eden. Alexandria: Time-Life Books. 1993.
Landau, Elaine. The Sumerians. Brookfield: The Millbrook Press, Inc., 1997.
Nardo, Don. Empires of Mesopotamia. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2001.
Smolik, Linda. Culture of the Aztec. 2002. Beloit College. 10 February 2005. .
Warburton, Lois. Aztec Civilization. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1995.
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