NuMuZu is a phrase in the language of the people of ancient Sumer.
The civilization of Sumer was an astonishing accomplishment. Its seeds were planted by prehistoric people who are believed to have migrated out of Africa as hunter-gatherers, arriving in what is now southern Iraq, in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, during the long dawn of humanity's protracted spread across the world, many, many tens of thousands of years ago.
These migrants found fertile flood plains there, marshy and thick with reeds, teeming with wildlife, and quickly became accomplished boat-builders and fishermen.
There is evidence that, beginning about 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, they periodically absorbed groups of newcomers. This undoubtedly sometimes happened as a consequence of someone being subdued in a fight, but probably fairly often through curiosity and intermarriage. The new arrivals brought with them new forms of domesticated animals, the extinct language known to scholars as Sumerian, and, eventually, sophisticated techniques of planting and raising crops, which had economic advantages.
As the Sumerians absorbed their newcomers, and gradually began realizing the benefits of a farming economy, they began building permanent villages on the flood plains of the two rivers. That made it important for them to learn to build canals, and dikes. To do that, they had to first learn to make and fire clay bricks, because those river valleys have plentiful clay and no stone. And they also had to learn to measure and survey land, so they could know who was entitled to farm on what plot, and where that plot's boundaries were.
This merging of peoples, and the creative challenges of their environment, created a technological and cultural explosion.
Art, architecture, engineering, widespread travel and trade, religious and ethical preoccupations, astronomy, metallurgy, and meticulous craftsmanship all became features of everyday life, and the subjects of education. They were among the earliest — and may well have been the earliest — humans to use the plow, irrigation, and the wheel, and they enlarged their villages into urban centers with workshops, storehouses, and temples.
Their urban centers became city-states: Eridu, Uruk, Larsa, Isin, Adab, Kullah, Lagash, Nippur, Kish, and Ur. The kings of these city-states were often at war with each other. Nonetheless, their scribes continued to perfect and share their written symbology, their priests invented and shared a base-60 mathematical system that we still use today, to tell time and divide the circle, and their counselors introduced the codification of law into writing. To them we owe the military platoon and phalanx, the 24-hour day and the seven-day week, square and cube roots (even a geometric solution to the quadratic equation), and the story of the Flood.
All this was possible because, as trade became more and more important, around 3,500 BC, they began using a system of pictograms, impressed onto the surface of flattened lumps of clay, to record numbers and other information, typically about quantities of foodstuffs or products that were being stored, transported, or traded. These early pictograms resembled the items being described, or were simple mnemonics of the sound of a word.
Their neighbors, the Elamites, who undoubtedly traded with them, also used crude pictograms on clay surfaces for the same purpose. In fact, late-neolithic peoples all over the world made use of pictograms, as can be seen in carvings and cave paintings pretty much everywhere that early modern people existed.
But in Sumer, unlike in Elam and elsewhere, this system evolved into a complex script made up of abstract symbols representing semantic ideas, and the sounds of syllables, capable of recording messages as well as tallying quantities. This sophisticated script made possible the first known successful and widespread use of the kind of complex written communications that we now take for granted. Importantly, for the first time, the rich inner lives of people were transformed into a permanent, written literature. Other scripts were created later, probably independently, in Egypt and Asia, as well as in the Americas, by other peoples newly enriched by agriculture, but the Sumerians did it first.
The Sumerian world was constantly being expanded, reduced, and transformed by wars being won and lost. Sumerian armies ranged as far as the Mediterranean, Black and Caspian Seas, and armies of those regions, in turn, ranged as far as Sumer. The cities of Sumer fell to their northern neighbor Akkad in about 2,300 BC, and spoken Sumerian eventually was replaced in everyday usage by Akkadian.
The Sumerian script, however, was adopted in Akkad, despite the fact that Akkadian and Sumerian were completely unrelated, and as mutually incomprehensible as Mandarin and Salish are today. Akkadian is recognizably a Semitic tongue, but Sumerian is an isolate, with no known relatives anywhere.
Sumerian culture itself was absorbed into the broader culture of Akkad. It was fully subsumed by about 1700 BC. That is the fate of cultures carried by isolated languages. But the Sumerian script survived as empires rose and fell, and served as the medium of high culture, religion, and scholarship in the languages of Babylon, Persia, and parts of the Roman and Greek worlds, for many more centuries.
Babylonian art, architecture, astronomy, and religion, Greek mathematics and rationality, and Persian poetry can all be traced to Sumerian roots, because those roots existed in writing.
To understand this, think of the way the Latin and Greek alphabets, and the cultural heritage embodied in those alphabets, facilitated religion, education, governance, and intellectual discourse in Europe for centuries after the eclipse of Greece and Rome, in languages as different as Finnish, Gaelic, Franconian, Bavarian, Basque, Occitan, English, Glagolitic, Czech, and Provençal. The political structure of Europe today would be unrecognizable to a Roman, but its laws are written in the same alphabet the baffled Roman used.
Sumerian script was eventually eclipsed by the the simpler and more efficient alphabetic system of the Phoenicians, in which symbols stood for sounds, not syllables. Phoenician script, not Sumerian, is the source all historic and modern Western alphabets.
But for a long time, Sumerian script had clout. For a very long time.
The earliest surviving Sumerian clay tablets, with simple pictograms, date from roughly 3,300 BC (the photo above shows a tablet with complex symbols, dated ca 2052 BC, in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Undoubtedly tablets like this had been known and used for several hundred years before then.
The last known document inscribed in Sumerian script is said to be an astronomical text in one of the classical Babylonian languages, produced in about 75 AD (to put that in perspective, Peter, the first Pope, had been alive just ten years earlier). It was probably a teaching aid, or a show of virtuosity, like a 21st-century musician composing a fugue or a madrigal.
Think about this: Sumerian script was in use for something like 3.500 years. That's about twice as long as European civilization has existed.
The phrase "numuzu" is made up of three Sumerian symbols:
- Nu (meaning "not")
- Mu (indicating that the word refers to the speaker)
- Zu (meaning "to know")
and it means, literally, "I don't know."
Of course we don't know. That is our normal condition, because knowledge is rare and expensive. The Sumerians knew that.
And that reminds me of a Sumerian proverb: "He who knows, why should he keep it hidden?"