Map Monday: global trade is an ancient tradition

For some reason, we talk about the global economy and its advantages and disadvantages as if it’s some revolutionary idea we’ve come up since WWII. Not at all. And now that relationships and economies around the world are feeling somewhat fragile, we’re thinking that the global economy may shrink to a former shadow of its former self. Perhaps in the short term, but history would suggest that people around the world have always seen many benefits in trading what they have to offer for what others have to offer, regardless if it’s been by sailing ships, camels, mules, horses, container ships, airplanes, or over the Internet. Let’s take a look.

The Silk Road. 130 BC – 1453 AD

The Chinese sold silk (for a very long time they were the only ones who knew how to make it and it was in high demand), but they also traded teas, salt, sugar, porcelain, and spices. It was a long trip, and merchants didn’t have a lot of spare room for questionable  goods, so most of what they traded was high-end stuff. They brought back things like cotton, ivory, wool, gold, and silver.

For more detail, click on image. Image credit:

Spice Route (aka Maritime Silk Road). 2000 BC – 1498 AD

Traders on the sea-based Spice Route bought and sold goods from port to port. The principal and most profitable goods they traded in were spices – surprise, surprise. As early as 2000 BC, spices such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China found their way along the Spice Route to the Middle East. Non-spice goods included ivory, silk, porcelain, metals and gemstones. But along with precious goods they also exchanged knowledge: knowledge of new peoples and their religions, languages, expertise, artistic and scientific skills. The ports along the Spice Route (Maritime Silk Road) acted as melting pots for ideas and information, from one port to the next.

The lines in red are the Spice Route.  For more details, click on image.


Incense Route. 7th century BC – 3rd century AD

The Incense Route, a path spanning more than 1,200 miles, was used by traders and their camel caravans to carry frankincense and myrrh, collected in Ethiopia, Somalia, and southern Arabia and dispatched from Yemen and Oman, through the Negev desert, to the Mediterranean port in Gaza. The route took about 62 days to traverse, according to the notable Roman author Pliny the Elder, with around 65 stops along the way where traders and their camel caravans could rest, recharge and sell their goods.

A local population called the Nabateans primarily controlled this route, operating four major cities along the way—Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta—as well as multiple fortresses protecting the route from robbers. The overland incense route transitioned to a primarily maritime route beginning around the last century BC.

Incense Route. Image credits:


Amber Road. 1900 BC – 300 BC

These roads were the earliest in Europe, probably used between 1900 BC and 300 BC by Etruscan and Greek traders to transport amber and tin from northern Europe to points on the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas. Like frankincense and myrrh, amber was held in somewhat higher regard then than now! The breast ornament of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen (c. 1333–1324 BC) contains large Baltic amber beads.  Baltic amber beads were found at Mycenae when the site was uncovered in Greece after thousands of years. The quantity of amber in the Royal Tomb of Qatna, Syria, is unrivalled in ancient BC sites in the Levant and the Ancient Near East. Amber was sent from the North Sea to the temple of Apollo at Delphi as an offering. Clearly a valued commodity. From the Black Sea, trade in amber could continue to Asia along the Silk Road.


Tea Horse Road. 6th century AD – 20th century AD

The Ancient Tea Horse Road within China was a trade route mainly through Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet. From the 6th century all the way to the 20th century, people in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces traveled by foot and horseback with pack horses to exchange tea for horses with people in Tibet — and thus the pathway was called the Tea Horse Road. But the broader Tea Horse Road linked Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet, stretched across Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and India, and then reached the Middle East, and even the Red Sea coast of Egypt.

The broad Ancient Tea Horse Road rivaled the Silk Road trade routes for importance, and as the longest ancient trade road in the world, at more than 10,000 kilometers in length, and including traversing the forests and rivers of the Himalayas, it was definitely the toughest to travel. It gives new meaning to the notion of going the distance for a good cup of tea!


Ancient Tin Route. Approx. 1400 BC – 1200 BC

Little is known about this Bronze Age route. There had been speculation that the Phoenicians had traveled as far as Cornwall in what’s now the UK to mine their tin, but the latest speculation seems to be that it was the Mycenaeans who sailed out of the Mediterranean and up to the coast of Britain to acquire the tin needed to mix with copper to get the bronze they craved. Tin ingots recently found in shipwrecks off the coasts of Israel and Turkey have been determined to be Cornish tin, dating from the 13th and 12th centuries BC.

Ancient Tin Route. Image credit:


Quite remarkable what people knew and what they did, way back then.

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19 Responses to Map Monday: global trade is an ancient tradition

  1. Maybe once you have had your shoulder fixed you can walk some of these routes virtually with Howard?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Virtual walking, now there’s an interesting concept, Tim. That’s something Sheila and I could try!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Anne Rimmer says:

      I like that idea! Now retired from sailing, I virtually sail routes I know around Pacific islands like Vanuatu & Tonga. One watery route I’d recommend is the old Gota Canal which goes across Sweden.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jane Fritz says:

        Virtual sailing is a grand idea, Anne. I do something similar with virtual running, but it’s always somewhere I’ve run – when I could. I clearly need to expand those horizons! I’ll check out your Gota Canal suggestion. Thanks. Stay safe.


  2. K E Garland says:

    I know I’ve said this before, but these maps are always so interesting to me. Because history doesn’t seem to be valued very much, we forget there’s literally nothing new under the sun.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m glad you’re a fellow history buff, Kathy. As I may have said before, I am especially drawn to the message that there’s all kinds of history we aren’t (or at least weren’t) taught because it isn’t/wasn’t European-centred (aka white male-centric) history. Like new lands being “discovered” as if the indigenous people living there for thousands of years didn’t know about their own lands. Or scientific principles being “discovered” that Chinese or Arabic scholars had known previously. At least now kids in Canada are starting to learn some indigenous history, but it’s baby steps. Anyway, thanks for the encouragement!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jean says:

    China in last few years has been implementing its massive One Belt Road Initiative. It’s for them to gain total global economic power. It’s very serious and the U.S. is stumbling now.

    It has seriously meant Chinese govn’t approaches especially poorer countries to beef up their ports, transportation infrastructure and make themselves the 21st colonial power to ie. some forever fiscally indebted African nations, Greece, etc. It’s actually…..shocking and quite ruthless what is going on. And now with the pandemic, people aren’t paying attention…but we’ve seen tips of the iceberg involving PPE production in China and other countries at the mercy of the supply chain.

    Are you familiar with B.C.’s public tv, knowledge network? There was series hosted by Anthony Morse Hopefully they will run it agan….ask the network when. I was deeplyshocked /disturbed. We’re quite innocent in the West.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Yes, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been underway for a few years now. I don’t know if people in the west are innocent or just trying to get by in their own lives. Before it was the US and Russia vying for which one could gain more favour from African and other countries through similar investments. There’s never any altruism involved. Now the US govt keeps withdrawing funding from international organizations like the UN, gets out of international treaties, including climate change and now the nuclear testing moratorium. The US isn’t stumbling, it’s extricating itself from any leadership role on the world stage either financially or morally. A new world order is unfolding, but it seems as if the Trump administration is letting it happen. Look at how he’s been supportive of Putin all this time.


      • Jean says:

        All your comments valid, Jane. Russia has lost its credibility and strength. Anyway…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jane Fritz says:

          And the fact that my comments are valid doesn’t take away from the validity of your comment about all of this being things we should all be concerned about. I think the EU, UK, Canada, South Korea, and Japan are all concerned about these shifts in power, but it’s a delicate balancing act. 😥


  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    Ah, you somehow overlooked the ancient Kerry Butter Road, 70 miles from Castleisland to the Butter Market in Cork (Ireland) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. somekindof50 says:

    What an interesting post! My degree is in history so I find anything like this fascinating. Its always amazing to me how they got round the logistics of moving anything, without modern transport, the internet, and everything we take for granted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Aha, not only another history buff but one with a history degree to back it up! Yes, it’s remarkable, and it’s such a long history. I have to admit that sometimes I go out of my way to look for maps that tell stories to remind westerners that we’re the new kids on the block in the annals of history. And that empires mightier than the current ones have fallen! 😏😲


  7. boblorentson says:

    Fantastic. Interesting bits of history tied together with maps. Makes me almost feel like I’m there.

    Liked by 1 person

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