“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.

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