300 BCE – 600 CE
Networks of Communication
and Exchange
Tracy Rosselle, M.A.T.
Newsome High School, Lithia, FL
The Silk Road
The Indian Ocean Maritime System
Routes Across the Sahara
The Spread of Ideas
The Silk Road
The first of several periods of
heavy trade along the Silk Road
began around 100 BCE, but
archaeologists and linguists
studying peoples across Central
Asia think they engaged in longdistance movement and exchange
from at least 1500 BCE.
Although most people did not travel the entire length of the Silk Road, caravans
took more than four months to traverse the 2,500 miles between the western part of
Central Asia (say Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan, east of the Caspian Sea) and
the capital cities along the Yellow River in northeastern China. It was a social system
as well as a trading network: ideas spread east and west just as agricultural products
and manufactured goods. The goods were meant primarily for the wealthy elite …
but sometimes the ideas and customs affected entire societies.
The Silk Road
From Iran to China …
from China to Iran, and
well beyond
 Cities such as Samarkand and
Who traveled
the routes?
monks and
musicians …
dancing girls
and camel
Bukhara grew and flourished in
Central Asia, often under local
 The Chinese were especially
interested in the better breed of
horses from the west, but they
also brought in new plants and
trees, and food items such as
alfalfa, wine grapes, pistachios,
walnuts, sesame, coriander and
 Traders heading west from
China brought peaches, apricots,
cinnamon, ginger and other
spices … and of course silk.
The Silk Road
The Sasanid Empire, 224-600
Cities in Iran during the Sasanid Empire were essentially military
installations meant to secure the safety of long-distance trade.
Farmers in the Middle East began experimenting with new items
from India and China that would significantly gain in importance
over the coming years: cotton, sugar cane, rice, citrus trees,
eggplants and more.
Religion became politicized when Sasanids intolerantly made
Zoroastrianism their official religion and the rival Byzantines
declared Nestorian Christians heretics (Nestorians believed
Mary was not the mother of god but of the human Jesus, who had
a dual human-divine nature)  Nestorians sought refuge under
the Sasanid shah and became missionaries along the Silk Road,
where they competed for converts with Manichaean missionaries
(Manichaeism is derived from Zoroastrianism and emphasized
the struggle between Good and Evil).
The impact of the Silk Road
The peoples living along the Silk Road
were influenced by the dynamic interplay
of missionaries seeking converts to
Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity,
Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.
Steppe customs, meanwhile, spread to
foreign lands. The saddle and later the
stirrup – most likely Central Asian
inventions – made mounted warriors very
effective  led later to armored knights in
medieval Europe and superior Tang
cavalry in China.
Although it’s an
invention often credited
to the Chinese, Bulliet
says the earliest
evidence of the stirrup
comes from the Kushan
people, who ruled
northern Afghanistan in
the 1st century CE.
The Indian Ocean Maritime System
A multilingual, multiethnic society of seafarers
established economic and social ties extending from
East Africa to southern China and all the lands in
Trade took place in three
distinct regions: 1) Chinese
and Malays dominated in
South China Sea; 2) Malays
and Indians dominated from
Southeast Asia to east coast of
India; and 3) Persians and
Arabs dominated from west
coast of India to the Persian
Gulf and east coast of Africa.
The Indian Ocean Maritime System
In contrast to Mediterranean sailors:
used triangular (lateen) sails and normally did
without oars.
could cover long distances entirely at sea thanks to
monsoon winds.
did not establish colonies that maintained contact
with their home cities  distances were greater and
contacts less frequent, so trading outposts were
rarely independent of local political powers but
sometimes socially distinctive.
The Indian Ocean Maritime System
Migration to Madagascar
An early chapter in Indian Ocean
history was discovered by modern
linguists: an Indonesian people
migrated to Madagascar about
two thousand years ago (probably
in several legs, not straight across
the intervening 6,000 miles of
Indian Ocean). In the 400s,
Africans crossed the 250 miles of
the Mozambique Channel, and the
two peoples began interacting.
Important food crops brought
from Southeast Asia and
eventually introduced to Africa
include the banana and the yam.
Madagascar is the fourth-largest
island in the world, and about 75
percent of its native animal species –
including various types of lemurs –
live nowhere else on the planet.
The Indian Ocean Maritime System
Freaking over frankincense
Products in demand from Africa
included exotic animals, wood,
ivory and the aromatic resins
valued as frankincense and
Pearls came from the Persian
Gulf, copper from southeastern
Arabia, spices and manufactured
goods from India and Southeast
Asia (including pottery
transshipped from China).
Despite the diversity of the
highly valued items, the overall
level of trade would not have
approached that of the more
compact Mediterranean.
Scrubby trees like this
frankincense tree, grown in
northern Somalia and southern
Arabia, produce a resin that was
prized for its uses in religious
ceremonies, medicine and
aroma therapy. It was also used
to mask the smell of rot.
The Indian Ocean Maritime System
Distance and cultural diversity
Identifying specific mariners as Persian, Arab,
Indian or Malay obscures the fact that they were
often of a richer cultural mix.
Coastal areas often became home to a more
cosmopolitan reality as seafarers and merchants took
wives in port cities, where their families became
bilingual and bicultural.
Gone for long stretches, these men then carried the
influence of the various cultures to which they were
exposed to other ports throughout the region.
Routes across the Sahara
The Sahara Desert isolated
sub-Saharan Africa from the
Mediterranean world.
It used to be much less dry,
becoming the vast desert it is
today from about 5000 BCE
to 2500 BCE.
Travel between the shrinking
number of grassy areas
became more and more
difficult, so that by 300 BCE
it became the province only
of desert nomads who could
negotiate the difficult routes.
Northern Africa is sometimes referred to as part
of Afro-Eurasia, because its history and culture
are much more closely aligned with the
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations
than with sub-Saharan Africa.
From a trickle to a stream
Trade over the trans-Saharan caravan routes went
from a trickle to a significant stream after
domesticated camels were introduced from Arabia.
The routes through the sprawling sand dunes, sandy
plains and exposed rock of the desert linked two
different trading systems:
In the south, traders focused on taking mined salt to the
peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, while items like edible pal
oil and kola nuts were brought from the equatorial forest
zone to trading centers along the desert’s southern edge
… while the farmers of the Sahel – the desert’s southern
borderlands – played a key “middleman” role.
The way of the Romans
In the north, Roman colonists supplied Italy with wheat and olives …
and adopted the culture and manufactured goods of the Romans …
until trade declined dramatically after the third century CE (along
with the Roman Empire itself) and farms were abandoned for the
nomadic lifestyle.
The most important African network of cultural exchange from 300
BCE to about 1100 CE had less to do with trade, however, than it did
with migration.
Some time around 1500 BCE, farmers in the Niger and Benue River
valleys in sub-Saharan West Africa began migrating south and east,
probably to escape a population explosion as people to the north of
them moved out of the Sahara Desert, which was becoming drier.
Bantu (“people”)
These early African peoples shared certain cultural
characteristics and spoke the Bantu family of languages.
They farmed, fished, had domesticated goats and dogs, and
crafted pottery and cloth.
The Bantu migration proceeded for 2,000 years or so as these
people moved farther and farther south into areas of Africa
formerly occupied by nomads.
Around 1000 BCE they began producing iron tools, and they
used these in conjunction with their slash-and-burn farming
technique, in which a patch of forest is cut down and burned
so that the ashes are mixed with the soil to create a fertile
garden area. This technique, though, leads to only short-term
land fertility … and thus necessitates further migration within
a few years.
Bantus bring cultural unity
Around 500 BCE the Bantus were aided in their migration
pattern by the introduction of banana cultivation (brought to
Africa via the Indian Ocean trading network), which enabled
them to expand into heavily forested areas.
The Bantu migrations from 400 BCE to 1000 CE took
Africa’s population from about 3.5 million to 22 million.
They spread agriculture throughout much of Africa. Today,
more than 500 distinct but related languages can be traced
back to the Bantus.
Thus, the Bantu migrations and their intermingling with
preexisting societies produced the evolution of Pan-African
traditions and practices – a broad cultural unity called
“Africanity” by anthropologist Jacques Maquet.
A “small traditions” culture
This cultural unity, however, was masked by great diversity
among the heritage of local peoples.
In large part because of its isolation from the rest of the world
and the challenges of its geography (from semiarid steppes to
savannas covered by long grasses and scattered forest .. from
tropical rain forest to raging rivers with many cataracts), a
“great traditions” culture did not emerge (i.e., no common
written language [Africa has more than two thousand distinct
languages!], legal system, religion, ethical code or
Instead, sub-Saharan Africa developed a “small traditions”
heritage based on local customs and beliefs … shaped by the
broad sweep of the Bantu migrations.
The spread of ideas
Ideas as well as goods can travel via trade and folk migration
… but in the absence of written records, historians often don’t
know for sure how (or whether) a specific idea got from one
place to another or if it was independently hit upon in more
than one location (e.g., domesticating pigs, coins in China,
African iron).
Two ideas we can trace: the spread of Buddhism and
These two religions (along with Islam, which arose later)
remain to this day important belief systems for much of the
planet … but in neither case did the diffusion rely on a single
ethnic or kinship group.
Buddha or bust
Buddhist caves near Turpan,
China, reveal the spread and
influence of Buddhism beyond its
birthplace of India.
Although the Mauryan ruler Ashoka
promoted Buddhism early on, the
Buddha’s teachings reached China,
Southeast Asia, Korea and ultimately
Japan as merchants, monks,
missionaries and pilgrims crisscrossed
India, followed the Silk Road or hopped
on ships cruising the Indian Ocean.
Different lands preserved or adapted
Buddhism in different ways: Sri Lanka
and large parts of Southeast Asia
neighboring India embraced Theravada
Buddhism, while the Mahayana school
was preserved most everywhere else
from Central Asia to China and East
Christianity, trade and politics
We’ll tackle the post-Roman development of
Christianity in Europe in a couple of weeks, but it
also spread in the crosscurrents of trade and politics
to places like Armenia and Ethiopia.
In Armenia, which is in eastern Anatolia where imperial
powers vied for control of a place where Silk Road traders
linked up with Mediterranean counterparts, Christianity
superseded Zoroastrianism after the invention of a written
Armenian alphabet – which helped facilitate the wider
spread of Christianity in the early fifth century.
The merchants of Axum
In what came to be named Ethiopia, merchants in the
kingdom of Axum traded from the port of Adulis on
the Red Sea, strategically located to become a key part
of the India  Mediterranean economy.
Exports: ivory, frankincense, myrrh, slaves.
Imports: textiles, metal goods, wine, olive oil.
In the fourth century, Axumite rulers adopted
Christianity, possibly from the Egyptians … and
remained committed to the Egyptian form of
Christianity (often called Coptic, from the local
language of the day) even after it was surrounded by
Islamic influence and cut off from the heart of
Christianity in the Mediterranean.
Later Europeans
identified Ethiopia as
the “hermit kingdom”
and the home of Prestor
John, the legendary
Christian king said to
rule in the Orient
amidst Muslims and
The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History
(Bulliet et al.)
Traditions & Encounters: A Global
Perspective on the Past (Bentley & Ziegler)
World History (Duiker & Spielvogel)