Meet Kushim, the accountant from ancient Sumer

Francois Badenhorst
Practice correspondent
Sift Media
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Who’s the first person in history whose name we know? A king? A warrior? Maybe a famous scholar?

Nope, none of those. It’s an accountant named Kushim.

A fascinating article in National Geographic speaks of “a 5,000-year-old clay tablet found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). It has dots, brackets, and little drawings carved on it and appears to record a business deal”.

The tablet seems to be a receipt for multiple shipments of barley. It reads, “29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim”.

“The most probable reading of this sentence,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ ”

Like many things in history, the tablet does have mystery attached; at a certain point historians have to make an inferential leap. For all we know, ‘Kushim’ could’ve been a job title. But all signs indicate Kushim was a real Sumerian man who was, as National Geographic puts it, “a record keeper who counted things for others—in short, an accountant”.

This isn’t really surprising, though. Accounting has a historical pedigree which is enviable. Accounting records older than 7,000 years have been found in Mesopotamia, and documents from ancient Mesopotamia show lists of expenditures, and goods received and traded. The ancient Phoenicians had a phonetic alphabet solely for bookkeeping purposes.

Accounting is as old as civilization because the sedentary life brought with it money, numbers, goods, trade. In general, wherever you find early human settlement, you’ll find proto-accountants tallying and recording the costs of civilization.

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By waltere
25th Aug 2015 09:12

Sic transit gloria mundi

So a Mesopotamian clay tablet lasts 5,000 years.  And a tweet...?

I do wonder sometimes what the historians of 100, 200, 1,000 years hence will make of this period.  Perhaps they won't even realise we existed.

The moral?  If you want to leave a lasting legacy, it's time to dig out those clay tablets, tally sticks and scrolls of vellum!

 

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25th Sep 2015 19:39

Bureaucracy - the legacy of Mesopotamia

We know that they were amongst the first farmers, but bureaucracy was the other legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia. Surplus produce went to the temples for storage, and so records were kept. Tributes coming from other kings/princes - again, it was all recorded.

Some of the ancient seals produce fascinating glimpses of what life was like, and we can also see that as people, they were no different to us. 

If anyone gets a chance to go to the British Museum, I would recommend having a look at the various cylinder seals on display - I think there is one set on the top floor where the restaurant is. They come in all sizes, and are works of art in themselves.

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16th Feb 2017 04:20

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