“Black Paths” and Trade Routes

In Barry Cunnelif’s Desert, Steppe, and Ocean, he makes the observation that trade routes never disappeared completely. Even if something had not been available for generations, as long as a sample remained, someone would say, “You know, I wonder if we/I can get more of that,” whatever that happened to be—lapis lazuli, fancy weavings, spices, unusual metal alloys, odd pottery. Movement of food also seems to have followed a similar pattern, although there were other complications, most notably the question of bulk transport of a perishable good.

I just finished reading a rather different book entitled Oceans of Grain. I’ll do a full review later, because I need some time to chew on the author’s ideas, pun intended, and decide what I think about them. The book is fascinating, and useful. One thing the author points out over and over is that the “black paths,” the trade routes for grain from the Russian and Ukrainian steppes to other places never went away. Come plant disease, come Black Death, the trade routes might fade from use, or be avoided, but they always came back. Just like the older routes across Central Asia, and I suspect in other places as well. People remembered that something good or useful came from “over that way,” and once demand returned, then transportation also restarted.

People always seem to want what we don’t have. Some thing different, something Odd, catches our eye and we dig it up, or trade for it, or (a very few per generation) go to see where it came from and if we can get more. Doing that for food is obvious, and appears over and over in history. Mesopotamian records, Chinese records, the Books of Genesis and Ruth, the decline of “Old Europe” and the arrival of the Proto-Indo-European speakers, the end of the Anasazi and the rise of the Rio Grande Valley peoples, they are all part of the constant story of finding food and bringing it home, or going to where the food is. But what purpose does lapis lazuli serve, or raw copper that is not made into tools? Obsidian made excellent sharp arrowheads and knives, although it is a bit more fragile than flint, and passed from hand to hand across continents, or at least across regions. But what about carpets and cloth? Apparently a market has always existed for “like what we make but different,” even if it is the same material? It seems to be part of being human to want unusual things, either for status, or just because they are “not like what we make.”

German highways overlay Roman roads, which often used or paralleled older routes, some of which might be animal trails to salt or good grazing or shelter. English roads follow Roman roads, but not always, because the Roman used roads to show power as well as to get there from here the fastest way possible. Ancient routes across the steppe connected grain-consumers to grain growers, and later railroads ran along the foot paths and cart-roads. To the east, old, old ways ran from oasis to spring to sheltered valley, from the Black Sea or even the Balkans east to China. Other routes branched off to the south, to Mesopotamia, the Oxus and Indus Rivers, and the Amur. Trading cities rose and fell with climate and culture, but despite multiple interruptions over the centuries, ideas and things passed back and forth. Domesticated horses, wheeled chariots, bronze technology, barley and other grains, silk and gems and spices, back and forth they went.

Perhaps, instead of Homo ludens or homo faber, we should use homo commercium. Man the trader instead of “man who plays” or “man the maker.” Because we swap everything and anything, and do it over the same paths for thousands of years.


6 thoughts on ““Black Paths” and Trade Routes

  1. Boredom is an underrated factor in human progress. Bored people look for things to do. Novelty relieves boredom.
    Once a people pass the bare survival threshold (and sometimes before then), avoiding boredom can become a driving force. Boredom with the usual foods counts triple. (LTC Kratman had a story from Panama about canned peaches, if memory serves.)

    • That seems to be oddly limited as motivation. The Indo-Europeans, yes, but other cultures don’t seem to have tolerated or developed as much curiosity about other places and peoples. I say “seem” because there’s a lot we just don’t know, or have no way of knowing at present.

  2. Trade helps in spread of new ideas as well.

    If “you” think “those people” have some goods that you want/need, “you” will send traders (or go “yourself”) to get those goods and perhaps will find some interesting idea.

    I’ve heard that one of the reasons that the Islamic world fell behind Europe was that few Muslim traders regularly visited Europe so were not exposed to new ideas from Europe.

  3. The other thing the ‘early’ trade routes were based on was availability of water, hence following the game trails (which, by and large, chose the ‘easiest’ path to water and forage).

  4. Asia had lots of trade routes and lots of curious people traveling around.

    The difference is that it was never “respectable” for most realms. They wanted the stuff, they wanted somebody presenting tribute, but they didn’t want to really go there or have other people come.

    Our friend Crossover Queen reviewed a book about how Japan and China elaborately pretended that Japan hadn’t taken over Okinawa/Ryukyu, because it was a Chinese vassal and the Chinese didn’t want to do anything about it, or get punished for it having happened.

    So they invented an imaginary country with imaginary passports, so that Japan could sell stuff from Ryukyu to China. And the Chinese officials kept traveling to Ryukyu and picking up the reports, and pretending it wasn’t being run by Japan.

    She had another book all about the trouble that Korean kingdoms had, because you can grow ginseng up in the Korean mountains and everybody wanted it. To the point that they cut off bits of their own country from public access, and got rid of the towns there.

    • The idea that merchants/traders didn’t “really” contribute to society seems to have lasted longer, and been stronger, in Asia than in Europe. In part it came from Confucius, but I suspect he and his followers only codified what had already been general custom. I just don’t know.

      In Europe, the demand for Just Price ran parallel to the idea that trade and commerce were not bad. Europeans seem to have found a way to balance the two that didn’t develop in China and Japan. I’m not enough of a historian of trade or historian of religion to be able to go farther than that, or to poke too deeply into “why,” although my gut says Christianity had something to do with it. Given that certain medieval theologians were still ambivalent at best about commerce (based on excerpts from their writings), I’m not sure when the shift to “commerce isn’t bad as long as certain limits are respected” started. (Note, I’m thinking about the government/upper economic classes level. The local focus on fairness and just price lasted far longer, for good reasons.)

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