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READ: Regional Trade Networks, 1000 BCE–1 CE

Three millennia ago, complex societies connected in regional trade networks. In Afro-Eurasia and Mesoamerica, these networks moved goods, ideas, and people over vast distances.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What was the largest and most active regional trade network in this era? Why was it so active?
  2. What are some items that were traded across the Afro-Eurasian trade network?
  3. In what direction did Mesoamerican networks go and why? How were goods and people moved across these routes?
  4. What do obsidian, jade, and pottery have to do with hierarchy in Olmec society?
  5. How did states affect regional trade? Provide two examples of state interaction with regional trade.

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How would a history of long-distance trade look differently when viewed from each of the three frames used in this course—community, networks, and production and distribution? What questions might be asked through each frame?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Regional Trade Networks, 1000 BCE–1 CE

Detailed map image
By Nicole Magie
Three millennia ago, complex societies were already interacting in two large regional trade networks. Then, 500 years ago they connected as one global network that still exists today.

Where’d you get that shirt?

We don't think much about trade today. The shirt you're wearing and the food you eat for lunch probably traveled thousands of miles. Today, the things we use circulate thousands of miles around the globe, and we rarely think about it. But during Era 3, if you bought clothing made far away or ate exotic spices like cinnamon or pepper, you'd be the talk of the town. Merchants in ancient Afro-Eurasia and Mesoamerica went to great lengths to move trade goods around the world. During Era 3, thousands of years ago, long before our current global economy, complex regional networks were emerging around the world.
Why was there trade? In a word, cities. People moved to cities as new agricultural technologies created surplus food. Not everyone needed to farm anymore. People became artisans. They mined. They worked metal. They made wine, silk, and ceramics. Yet people still wanted or needed things that they couldn't grow or make themselves. As cities grew, some people became very wealthy. To show off how wealthy and powerful they were, they sought out luxury goods that could only be bought from far away at great expense. And so, ancient trade networks developed, often to satisfy the wishes of the wealthy, but also to bring necessary food and tools for non-elites.

Roads, Winds, and Camels: The Afro-Eurasian Network

If you paid attention to the paragraphs above, you may have noticed an unfamiliar word: Afro-Eurasia. Just eleven letters and (sometimes) a hyphen. The word might seem small and innocent, but it contains multitudes. Three continents (Africa, Europe, and Asia), over half of the land on Earth, and 80 to 90 percent of all human population, to be exact. That's a lot. Why do historians lump so much stuff into a single word? Why does it make sense to talk about it as one supercontinent? One reason is trade. Long before airplanes and the Internet, vast webs of merchant networks linked different regions of these three continents together. Goods traveled from merchant to merchant across thousands of miles of ocean, desert, and mountain in a sort of relay race.
Photo of a camel, with two large humps on its back and a long, furry neck
This handsome creature is known as the Bactrian camel. They have two humps and can carry heavy loads for long distances in most climates. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.
The regional exchange networks of Afro-Eurasia were much more extensive and active than those that developed in other parts of the world. But why? This region included many of world's oldest agricultural societies. It included expansive plains, navigable rivers, and mountain ranges that could be traversed. All of this geography and history helped trade grow. In addition, Afro-Eurasia had pack animals to carry goods over long distances, including horses, cattle, elephants, and Bactrian camels. These impressive, two-humped camels could carry heavy loads through bitterly cold winters and blazing desert heat. Camels are sometimes called the "ship of the desert". But Afro-Eurasian trade also expanded because of actual ships. The Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean made maritime trade relatively easy, predictable, and safe. So, the Afro-Eurasian trade networks have been around the longest, but geography, lots of pack animals, and sailing technology also helps explain the great scale of the Afro-Eurasian networks.
All sorts of trade goods mingled along these routes, and many goods were made in more than one region, but many regions were known for certain goods. Silk originally came only from China and made its way across the vastness of Asia to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. Indeed, silk was so important that we call the complex routes that stretched overland from Egypt to China the "Silk Road". But more than silk moved along these routes. India was known for cotton and spices like nutmeg and pepper. Arabia was a source of luxuries like frankincense and spices like cinnamon and cloves. Ivory and gold were traded from the coast of East Africa, grain from Egypt, and iron from Nubia and the upper Nile. Lapis lazuli came only from Central Asia. On the other side of Afro-Eurasia, Greek and Roman wine and glassware was coveted by the Chinese. Thanks to new metalworking technology, iron tools became very valuable during this era. These iron tools and the technologies to make them spread across Afro-Eurasian trade routes. Many of these goods and the routes along which they moved depended on pastoralists, such as the Scythians and Xiongnu. And the pastoralists had their own valuable trade good: horses. Finally, in every region of this ancient system, enslaved people were also bought and sold.
Map of the trade routes through Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea, through Egypt, around India, and over to China
Afro-Eurasian trade routes, first century CE (c. 150 CE). By WHP, CC BY-NC 4.0.
We have evidence that regional trade networks existed in Afro-Eurasia both at the beginning and end of Era 3. Take a look at the picture below. This is the Standard of Ur. It was created in the Mesopotamian city of Ur (in present-day Iraq) around 2400 BCE. But it is made from materials not found in Mesopotamia. The blue rock is lapis lazuli from Bactria (in present-day Afghanistan). The figures are made of white shells from the Persian Gulf. And the red stone is marble from India. The trade networks that made the Standard of Ur possible existed over 4,400 years ago, and they continued to expand during Era 3.
Paneled artwork depicting a journey. There are domesticated animals and people carrying large packs.
The Standard of Ur, war side. Public domain.
The Standard of Ur is a historical artifact, but we also have written evidence from later in Era 3 that indicates trade networks extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a first-century CE sailing guide written in Greek. It describes how merchants should sail between ports in the Indian Ocean and what times of year to do so. It also provides some idea of the sorts of goods that were traded in different parts of the world. Here's how it describes one port in western India:
"There are imported into this market-town, wine, Italian preferred, also Laodicean and Arabian; copper, tin, and lead; coral and topaz; thin clothing and inferior sorts of all kinds; bright-colored girdles a cubit wide…sweet clover, flint glass…gold and silver coin, on which there is a profit when exchanged for the money of the country; and ointment, but not very costly and not much. And for the King there are brought into those places very costly vessels of silver, singing boys, beautiful maidens for the harem, fine wines, thin clothing of the finest weaves, and the choicest ointments. There are exported from these places…ivory, agate and carnelian, lycium, cotton cloth of all kinds, silk cloth, mallow cloth, yarn, long pepper and such other things as are brought here from the various market-towns. Those bound for this market-town from Egypt make the voyage favorably about the month of July."
India sat at the center of the Indian Ocean, and many different goods flowed through the ports of India, on their way west to the Mediterranean and on their way east to China and every point in between.
The trade across land and sea changed communities across Afro-Eurasia. World historian Craig Benjamin says that virtually every community, "in this vast world zone were now connected into a single exchange network for the first time in history." Large cities thrived on extensive trade and merchants in these areas became wealthy. As trade brought new ideas and new people gained new wealth, social hierarchies and communities were forever changed.

Sharp Black Rocks: The Mesoamerican Network

The Afro-Eurasian trade system was huge, but other regional trade networks existed outside of it. In the Western Hemisphere, unknown to anyone living on the other half of the globe, long-distance trade networks flourished. The most extensive of these was in Mesoamerica—in what is today Mexico and Central America.
Long-distance trade in the Americas faced significant barriers. Mesoamerica didn't have pack animals, and its rivers were not good for transportation. Though some sea-based trade took place in the Caribbean Sea and on the Pacific coast, American societies didn't develop sailing technology. Instead, huge canoes carried merchants long distances. Afro-Eurasian merchants could transport goods on a large scale thanks to pack animals and sailing ships, but in Mesoamerica, humans had to carry most loads. The development of long-distance trade networks in this region, beginning around 3,000 years ago is pretty impressive, considering it was mainly done on foot.
Carrying goods on their backs, merchants moved between the large urban centers that emerged in Mesoamerica. Beginning around 1200 BCE, the Olmec and Zapotec peoples built major cities and trade routes in what is now southern Mexico. Around the same time, Maya cities expanded in the Yucatan Peninsula. By around 150 BCE, the great city of Teotihuacan emerged further north, on the plateau of central Mexico. Teotihuacan grew into the most important center of trade in Mesoamerica by 300 CE. At its height, Teotihuacan had over 100,000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest cities in the world and the largest city in the Americas.
Birds-eye photo of complex and impressive leveled structures that made up Teotihuacan
In Teotihuacan, impressive buildings like the Pyramid of the Sun on the far left and those surrounding it, demonstrate the complexity of these societies that were located along these Mesoamerican trade networks. By Rene Trohs - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
In Mesoamerica, many cities grew powerful because they were near valuable resources, such as obsidian and jade. Jade was used in religious rituals, making the cities that distributed it especially powerful. The same was true of obsidian. Mesoamerican societies did not use metal for weapons and tools; they used obsidian instead. Teotihuacan controlled two important obsidian mines. As long as it dominated the obsidian trade, Teotihuacan remained a regional powerhouse.
Images showing obsidian in various forms: in its raw form, sharpened to a point for use as a tool, and carved into a detailed snake
Obsidian sample collected near Monte Pilato, Lipari Island Aeolian Islands, Sicily. By Ji-ElleIt, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Images showing obsidian in various forms: in its raw form, sharpened to a point for use as a tool, and carved into a detailed snake
Obsidian arrowhead, public domain.
Jadestien, by Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Jade sculpture, by David Mateos García, CC BY 2.0.
Many other luxury materials circulated in the Mesoamerican network. Just like in Afro-Eurasia, many of these goods were produced in more than one place, and they mingled in large marketplaces across the region. But some regions were known for specific goods. Mayan merchants carried cacao, jade, salt, and quetzal feathers up and down the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Zapotec merchants on the Pacific coast were known for their cotton cloth and pottery. Further south, smaller societies in the highlands of what is now Guatemala traded jade and obsidian with their neighbors to the north. While the Mesoamerican networks were not as large as those in Afro-Eurasia, they also moved ideas. Many Mesoamerican societies shared religious and cultural symbols, which were adopted by new societies as they spread across trade routes.

The impact of networks on communities

Long-distance trade was difficult, slow, and expensive. So, the majority of the items traded along these networks were those that merchants could transport easily and make a large profit from—luxuries like jade, silk, spices, porcelain, and feathers as well as light-weight goods like paper, textiles, dried fruit, and nuts. Individual merchants typically traveled the same route back and forth, moving goods from one trade center to another, forming a chain of many merchants across trade routes, passing goods from one market to the next. Each merchant needed to make a profit. As a result, items became more expensive the farther they traveled. As people moved from one city to the next sharing goods and ideas, they forged new relationships between communities.
The rulers of cities and states wanted trade to thrive because these networks brought in the wealth and resources needed to maintain complex societies. Cities and empires were not cheap. So, rulers often built roads and used their armies to protect trade routes from bandits. In some places, states and merchants developed common systems of weights, measures, and coinage to make trade easier and more efficient.
Map shows Alexander the Great’s empire and the route he took on his journey to conquer and grow his empire. Towns founded by Alexander and places where battles took place are shown on the map.
Alexander the Great’s empire and route. By Generic Mapping Tools, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Author bio
Nicole Magie is an Assistant Professor at Olivet College in Michigan. She is also a long-time member of the World History Association and the Midwest World History Association, and an associate editor for World History Connected.

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