UNIT CONTENT OVERVIEW
The lore of sea travel — sagas of sudden storms and mysterious wrecks, of pirates and mutinies, of sea battles and ghost ships bearing only the dried husks of the men who had sailed them — illustrates the dangers of the seas. Yet despite the hazards, the seas have long been a lure to humans.
Some historians theorize that the invention of canoes and other types of boats predated the discovery of the wheel. We can only speculate about these matters; the origins of water travel lie in a past currently beyond the reach of archaeology. We do know that forms of nautical transportation were around before the invention of pottery, and that people were using boats to travel from place to place long before they settled down and took up farming.
This unit explores the emergence of water-based trading networks. These emerged gradually — first along river systems, and then later across large bodies of water. Navigating the seas can be even more hazardous than trudging along bandit-infested mountain trails or following stars across desert wastelands.
No doubt, the first aquatic voyagers determinedly stayed within sight of the shoreline, but there were occasional surprises, such as sudden winds arising to send them off course into the open seas. With increasing experience in star-based navigation, brave souls began venturing greater distances from the shores.
There are many motives for sea travel, but the desire for commercial connections is probably the most common. To put it simply, societies that were able to produce more than they needed to support themselves often tried to find other communities interested in trading for the surpluses.
However, the cultural and religious ties that formed across waterways survived long after material commodities disappeared. Indeed, the comforts of philosophy and religion often traveled by water; Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all sailed in ships. Over the centuries, the great sailing ships linked humanity into an all-encompassing network — a web of communication into which all could enter, but from which few could escape.
GLOBAL HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Time Period: 200 BCE-1500 CE
Waterways have connected peoples and places for thousands of years. Yet, water-based trading routes have not received as much historical attention as land-based trading routes — such as the Silk Roads that connected China to the Mediterranean, or the Gold Roads that linked North and West Africa. At the same time that peoples were traveling across Eurasia on the Silk Roads, however, sailors from Persia, India, Africa, and China were plying the waters of the Indian Ocean. Just after the Gold Roads of Africa efficiently connected North Africans to West Africans across the Sahara desert, Viking raiders and traders sailed the rivers and seas of Europe and West Asia, linking Europe more firmly to the Islamic world. Finally, as Mesoamerican peoples connected with the Anasazi to their north across land, Mississippians in North America developed a rich and vibrant culture based on trade and communication through the river network of the Mississippi river.
- Examines interactions in economies and politics by exploring water-based trade networks between societies.
- Explores technology, demography, and environment because technological innovation and environmental conditions were important to the development of water-based trade. In addition, water-based trade helped diffuse disease across large regions of the world.
- Discusses cultural and intellectual developments because water-based trade facilitated the transmission of religious, cultural, and ideological traditions across frontiers.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- Question 1: What role did water-based trade play in the development of connections between the world's peoples?
- Question 2: What kinds of evidence do historians use to follow the transmission of religion, disease, commodities, and the movements of peoples across sea routes or by riverine networks?
- Question 3: Why have water-based trade routes that developed prior to 1500 tended to receive less historical attention than land-based trade routes of the same period?
- Question 4: How were water-based trade routes and land-based trade routes connected?
THE BIG PICTURE
How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?
Connections made by water routes have helped integrate distant peoples through trade, contact, and cultural influences for thousands of years.
How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?
As in land-based trade, the contacts made through water-based trade also caused people to become more aware of cultural differences.
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