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History | Trade Routes

Ancient Trade and Civilization

By Gregory S. Chora
July 9, 2009
In the evolution of trade and civilization, as prosperity became more and more defined by economic status, the potential for ornament to be exploited as wealth redefined the concept of “luxury goods”. 
The Lady of Shalott
The Lady of Shalott -John William Waterhouse (1888)

Ancient trade originated in the migratory patterns of prehistoric nomadic people who ranged over long distances across the continents of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America, for thousands of years.

Archaeological evidence reveals the origins of a mysterious and creative people who learned to transform themselves in response to changes in the environment and disruptions in age-old patterns of nomadic life.

It can be surmised that nomads were close observers of nature –its colors and patterns, its natural cycles, and its sudden impulses –because the ability to journey easily over diverse geographic areas depended on a knowledge of terrain, plant and animal life, climatic variations, and food and water resources.

As small families followed migrating herds of deer, antelope, and bison, they moved easily and quietly, gathering wild honey, tsama melons, cucumbers, roots, and berries. They lived, worked, and raised their children beside rivers, across vast deserts and valley landscapes, and in pristine mountain caves.

They developed complicated navigational skills, a thriving trade network, symbolic etchings, ceremonial burials, extravagant cave paintings, beads, jewelry, carved figurines, and elegant stone tools.

About 100,000 years ago there was a technological, cultural, and demographic evolutionary period in which people began to ornament themselves with shells and ivory beads, create colorful abstract patterns, realistic cave paintings, and symbolic figurines, and engage in a thriving trade with their neighbors to obtain the materials necessary for survival –obsidian, medicinal herbs, deer hides, shells, amber, stone ornaments, and so forth.

This evolutionary period was marked by a high degree of complexity in stonework, tool skills, weaving, and pigmentation, with a great deal of attention to color, shape, image, and artistic pattern in bead making and costume, and to the symmetry of a stone tool, the balance of a grinding wheel, or the precision of a weaver’s shuttle.

Market in Jaffa
Market in Jaffa -Gustav Bauernfeind (1887)

Nomadic handwork was the first “luxury goods”; beads, ornaments, finely made tools or spear points that evoked the status and power of a particular family, which recognized the importance of complex, detailed, and elegant design to the art of communication, and were important as “ritual gifts” and items of trade.

At differing times and in various geographical areas, and perhaps due to either positive or negative environmental changes, instead of following migrating herds, a number of hunter-gatherer tribes began to specialize in the domestication of sheep and goats. This involved protecting, feeding, breeding, and herding the animals, and marking the boundaries of water supplies and grazing pastures.

The traditional migration ranges became the herding routes for nomadic pastoralists who also built migrating tribal villages, making it possible to move their herds between pastures and water supplies while maintaining a home base.

As a result, there was stabilization and increase of food supplies and the ensuing economic prosperity brought trade in livestock, surplus foodstuffs, and materials such as obsidian and amber, which gave nomadic life a sense of social structure and settled existence, which first temporarily and then permanently began to absorb the nomadic way of life.

The age-old patterns of nomadic hunter-gatherer life were transformed by pastoralism, and some nomadic sheepherders, instead of herding their animals long distances, began to experiment with growing wild grasses, which led to cultivating wheat, flax, barley, shallots, watercress, vegetables, and herbs.

The families who maintained the home camps specialized in protecting the water sources and farming the crops, while other families specialized in animals to pull transport and haulage carts or in the production of farm tools, cooking utensils, and storage vessels.

As the home camp families and crop farmers became more sedentary and dependent on the herders for milk, meat, and supplies of draft animals, the herders became dependent on reliable supplies of water and feed, and everyone depended on the toolmakers and artisans.

Consequently, the gradual evolution of food and tool specialization increased the need for social interaction, communication, and trade. It was essential for traders to learn foreign languages and be familiar with dissimilar customs; and the development of cultural and language skills in the course of trade interconnected the families and laid the groundwork for the founding for local trade networks between early communities.

The emergence of Neolithic civilizations can be traced to this kind of cultural and commercial exchange organized around an alliance of pastoralism, cultivation, artisanship, and trade, as nomadic families, who had prospered by complying with the laws of nature, now depended on pastoralism and cultivation and relationships of mutual exchange.

The travel and trade patterns and that had played a pivotal role in nomadic survival now brought people together around permanent villages and established interchanges of goods, services, favors, and obligations, and reinforced community cohesion and tradition through an awareness of common goals, cultural ceremonies, intermarriage, and political coalitions.

The rudimentary techniques of pastoralism and cultivation that had enticed nomadic hunter-gatherer families into villages were increasingly replaced by complex farm cultures, and the resulting increase in populations depended on the methodical breeding of sheep, goats, and cattle, as well as developing seed diversity and germination, and seasonal irrigation and soil conservation, for a constant food supply.

During the Neolithic Age, as far back as 16,000 BC, long distance trade in the black volcanic glass called obsidian flourished as a material excavated for exchange. This was concurrent with lapidary artisans inventing complex tools for the symmetrical cutting, precise drilling, and polishing of hard stone and the gradual increase in the trade of exotic goods such as lapis-lazuli, garnet, sapphire, jade, mother-of-pearl, carved ivory, carnelian beads, gold and silver jewelry, soft leather bedding, furs, medicinal herbs, and salt.

Obsidian would be supplanted by copper during the Chalcolithic Age, and later by bronze and iron. Nomadic travel and the trade in goods promoted an exchange of ideas and technologies, blurring the lines between families and tribes and encouraging their assimilation into communities, which was made possible by the increase in food supplies.

The long distance exchange of goods made it profitable to produce and distribute pottery, beads, jewelry, glass, gold, and silver on a large scale, and new tools and methods were invented to extract metals, minerals, fine clays, crystals, pigments, precious stones and metals, tin, copper, iron, and coal from the earth.

Innovative metalworking techniques and pottery and lapidary skills, led to the crafting of storage and ritual vessels, fine ceramics, richly-colored glazes, ivory and jade carvings, complex copper and bronze objects, intricate carnelian and lapis-lazuli beads, seed pearls, garnets, rubies, diamonds, topazes, and sapphires, metal basins, copper kettles, cast-iron pots, glass faience beads, and gold figurines.

In the evolution of trade and civilization, as prosperity became more and more defined by economic status, the potential for ornament to be exploited as wealth redefined the concept of “luxury goods”. For ancient nomadic people, the “luxury” of costume and ornament was an essential part of communication, along with the ability to journey to diverse geographic areas, know the territory and climate, speak languages and be familiar with customs.

Familiarity with cultures was an important aspect of a trade network and helped merchants be familiar with the possibilities of for exchange. With the increase in trade affiliated with larger populations, “luxury goods” now evoked power and wealth, and technologies were invented to produce material luxuries in greater quantity.

As the political power of city-states was formalized, the consumption of rare, artistic, costume, ornament, and furnishings, demonstrated official status and personalized the way a person wanted to be seen with gold and silver jewelry, pearls, sapphires, and diamonds, silk and wool carpets, woven stuffs, brocades, fine white linen cloth, embroidered coverlets, bed ornaments, and tapestries, porcelains, blue-glazed stoneware, and celadon, carnelian, lapis-lazuli, and onyx beads, faïence, pâte de verre, and liu-li glass beads, jade figurines, delicate forged ironwork, paneled screens, and intricate woodcarvings.

While “luxury goods” became the accouterments of power, the techniques of agriculture, winemaking, metalworking, lapidary, and textile weaving evolved in complexity. The first long-distance networks of caravan routes and shipping routes were established by approximately 10,000 BC, between the early-urban settlements in lowland Mesopotamia; and by 8,000 BC, there were trade routes throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Along with luxury items, stone beads, gold, silver, and silk, seeds –wheat and flax grains, preserved foodstuffs, and beer and wine were highly prized as trade goods. The rapid transmission of goods from farmer and artisan to merchant and trader was central to the emergent civilizations of Mesopotamia, Eastern Mediterranean, lower Nile Valley, Indus Valley, and China.

These first civilizations were reliant on the regular trade in grain, olive oil, spices, incense, opium, wool, textiles, copper, iron, enameled mosaics, celadon pottery, cedar timber, silver inlay, carved ivory, precious gemstones, honey, wine, raisins, tea, pine resins, building stone, furniture, metal weaponry, and horses.

As each successive political power understood the value of trade and cooperation, they gathered powerful merchants, traders with language skills, precise record keepers, bankers, coin and seal makers, gold and silver smiths, and specialists in the drying, preservation, and warehousing of food, around them, in order to expand trade.

Merchants developed uniform weights and measurements, and learned to predict weather cycles and ocean currents and to navigate to more distant lands. This way, the ancient nomadic paths became a vast network of roads and sea routes connecting the cities of Sumer –Ur, Umma, and Kish –then northward along the Fertile Crescent into the surrounding deserts, and northeast over the Zagros Mountains to Susiana.

From Susiana, northwest to Anatolia and Urartu and the Caucasus Mountains, then southwest across the Levant to the trading cities along the Mediterranean coast, Arvad, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Nabataea, west to Hellas or south to Kemet and Pademe, then east across the Red Sea to Jeddah, south to Awsan across Arabia to the ancient port of Dilmun.

Dilmun was crowded with trading ships from which the prosperous merchants of Dilmun linked to the major foreign trading ports of West Asia via the Persian Sea along the Arabian Sea to Qahtan and Axum, out to the Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean and Mohenjo-daro, through Khotan and Dunhuang over the Himalayas to Chang’an, or from Aaryavart, Siam, Kambuja, and Lhasa, over the Himalayas to Pu-erh, Zhangye, and Chang’an.

The migratory patterns of ancient nomadic people and how they survived reveals the mystery and allegory of the origins of human life as it was subject to the mysterious and inexplicable workings of fate, and how over thousands of years generations of farming and artisan and merchant families relied on those time worn nomadic ancestral routes to establish long-distance trade relationships.

For the original nomadic people, trade was an instinctive response to the essential human need for social bonding, ritual gifting, cultural and economic prosperity. The ancient trade routes represented diverse geographic locations and a complex worldview that drew energy from nature through art and design, and was grounded in the nomadic ability to adapt to dramatic change and survive and prosper.

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