…there was the Sumerians. Or, as they would have called themselves, the ùĝ saĝ gíg-ga. I prefer “Sumerians.” I heart the Sumerians.
Now this was a technological civilisation to be sure. By 3000 BCE it had already been worked out that smelting copper, not just mining the pure stuff, is the efficient way to go about things. This lead to the “science” of different metal-bearing ores which could be determined through all sorts of empirical qualities like colour, weight, flame colour and the smell of heated ore. Probably around this time some poor Sumerian would have also discovered the phenomenon of arsenic poisoning though, not living to tell about it, this discovery would have been made again and again and again.
The chemical knowledge of ancient Sumeria was by no means restricted to metallurgy. There is, for example, the discovery of an ancient third-millennium clay tablet upon which a Sumerian doctor listed his arsenal of favourite drugs and prescriptions. Setting aside the question of their efficacy, it’s fascinating that this is not just a gather-up-some-dodgy-berries-and-eat-them affair (although many of the ingredients are from animals, trees, plants, etc.). What we have is also a pharmaceutical industry, the physician as chemist. These drugs are manufactured out of raw ingredients like sodium chloride, sodium carbonate, ammonium chloride, potassium aluminum sulphate (alum), calcium sulphate (gypsum), sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate (niter). Prescriptions required techniques of chemical extraction involving ethanol (or in the parlance of the day, wine and beer).
The Sumerian physician, though he frustratingly fails to list the various diseases actually being treated in each case, also gives directions for manufacture and treatment. Unlike later Babylonian society (or, for that matter, 16th century European ideas that equate disease with demonic possession) sorcerers, incantations and magic rituals are not part of the formulae.
I heart the Sumerians.