Ancient Trade Route: Cross Cultural Influence and Exchange in Distant Lands
by Myranda Grecinger
According to Bentley, Ziegler and Streets in their book, Traditions and Encounters, in ancient times, prior to the year 1500, a great deal of trade took place, along with the trade of goods and services came immense cultural exchange. Cultural exchange is a term that describes the transference of ideas, values, traditions and belief systems that takes place when two or more separate civilizations come in contact with one another. In this ancient world these instances may have happened for a multitude of reasons including marriage, war, but most notably, commerce and trade. The fact is, of any explanation one could give as to the how and why of cultural exchange, the answer will always, without question, lead back to commerce and trade in some form or fashion.
Today we still experience a form of these same exchanges every day. Living in a sort of melting pot society means that we can hardly make a trip to the supermarket without coming into contact with someone who’s culture or traditions or beliefs differ from our own. In ancient times, however, these exchanges were at times even vital to the survival and growth of many civilizations.
Many things were exchanged along the trade routes when civilizations came together, everything from goods and services to belief systems and traditions. The results of the exchanges most often had a positive overall impact on society, but now and again there were consequences of a far more negative nature. All in all, it is the effect of these early cultural exchanges brought on by travel and trade that have inadvertently made our world what it is today and given us an example to learn from in the areas regarding cultural transformation brought on by exchange.
Although according to Encounters in World History by Sanders, Nelson, Morillo and Ellenberger, the origins of things that we associate with culture or that have cultural significance such as ritual, religion and art originated around forty thousand years ago, early civilizations only began establishing sedentary encampments and experimenting with agriculture a mere six to twelve thousand years ago, The establishment of these agriculturally based encampments enabled the development of mercantile trading. Merchants would travel from one society to another bringing with him new foods and crops that the local people had previously had no knowledge of. These early traders brought more with them than just goods though, they also brought knowledge of how they were planted or cared for or even prepared and used in other areas as well as information regarding the people and places they came from. This was an early taste of the exchange boom that was soon to come.
The early civilizations, being sedentary in nature and able to produce and store their own food and goods as well as trade with others, allowed for intense population growth. From lands once sprinkled with tiny family dwellings grew massive, lavishly adorned trade cities that were built to accommodate thousands. These cities were a bustle of activity, drawing in travelers to purchase goods and merchants to trade them as well as craftsmen and farmers to produce them. People from all over began for the first time to blend together in one place, bringing with them their culture to share and often absorbing the new cultures they were coming into contact with. A prime example of this blending of culture and people is the Semitics and Sumerians. Once nomadic herders, the Semitics began migrating to the cultural epicenter of Sumer and once there would often settle in and marry locals and taking on their traditions and practices.
It was during this emergence of early complex societies, when large groups of people began congregating in cities to share and gain knowledge and goods that the interest in these exchanges grew to new levels. Around 3500 C.E. the people of Sumer had built a boat and a wheeled cart that would enable them to travel greater distances and reach new lands and new populations with their goods. Traveling greater distances meant more than more customers, it also meant coming in contact with strange new customs and mingling with fresh, new populations. “The more advanced cultures of the Mediterranean influenced the barbarian north through ports of trade along the coast: this market zone operated as a gateway to a periphery composed of tribal societies who used the prestige goods acquired by gift trades to establish power and influence in their own societies.”(Cunliffe, 1990) From that point the growth in the spread of trading goods and services could only continue to influence the growth and spread of culture as it became easier and easier for one society to touch another.
Cultural exchange was just as necessary to the survival of early civilizations as the introduction of agriculture, which is the very reason it seemed to happen at every turn. Societies who were once dependant on a single source of commerce or food now had almost endless possibilities of how to fill their needs. People now had a choice as to what to believe spiritually, how to explain the world around them, and even an opportunity to improve academically as interest in scholarship increased and they had a desire to share what they had learned with others. Interestingly enough, early agriculture and trade leading to cities and population growth as well as travel which promoted stronger opportunities for culture and trade are all interconnected and are all the very things that lead to the introduction of formal government and military. The introduction of government and military of course could only lead to takeovers, wars and more opportunity for cultural exchange and trade.
Sometimes the connections took another route. Trade routes influenced the spread of religion, which is, in essence a part of culture. The spread of religion often lead to war, for instance, the crusades, which then lead to soldiers spreading a great deal of time in a new area and trading with the locals. Soldiers would learn the ways of the people who in habited the invaded territory and take them back home when they left to share with their own people, or they may stay and share their own ways and goods from their home lands with the locals. Once again, cultural exchanges influenced by trade as well as trade influence by cultural exchanges prove to be a vital part in all major civilization developments.
People traveled in the ancient world for many reasons. Perhaps a person is on their religious pilgrimage, or maybe they are looking for land to cultivate and settle for their families, or simply wish to explore, whatever the reason for the travel, people in the ancient world needed to trade goods and services along the way in order to make a living and survive. The fact is that the bringing goods or services to an area that had not yet been exposed to them is in a sense, exchanging culture. These goods or services were not part of their traditions or ways prior to this even though they were a part of the travelers, but it would become so now that they have whatever it is in their possession, so in this way a piece of one culture has been passed to another, and as Major said, “Good ideas and innovation will travel easily and far” (Major, 2008)
Art was a large point in which culture and trade converged, “From early times the Romans had felt the artistic influence of Greece. In 146 BC, when Greece was conquered by Rome, Greek art became inseparably interwoven with that of Rome. To a large extent the art of the Romans was a development of that of their predecessors in Italy, the Etruscans, who, to be sure, had learned much from the Greeks.” (Guisepi, 2010) Even from another standpoint, not so much in teaching or directly influencing one another’s art, but at times being interested enough in the cultures and people of other societies indirectly influenced art “When portraying members of his own race, the eye of the Greek was extremely blinkered, but when his subject was a foreigner, he was moved to much closer observation.” (Smith, 1981)
Cultural exchange via trade had many positive effects on ancient society. Writing was adopted from the Sumerians by several cultures. Many new governments were influenced by the systems put in place by other governments. Because of trade opportunities, cities were built and both education and art were funded. Boats were constructed and utilized which made it possible to reach new civilizations that otherwise were unreachable and possibly unknown about. The renaissance age was built on cultural influences spreading from other ages and places such as classic Rome. Due to travel and trade, ideas such as irrigation and architecture spread and living conditions and production as well as the global economy improved. Not a single area of societal living was left untouched by the long reach of the spread of culture through the trade routes. Some of the things that cultural exchanges via trade routes affected had far more sinister results.
The use of trade routes to travel to far off places is one of the strongest causes of the spread of some of the most deadly plagues in history. The epidemic spread of the plague can be partially attributed to the trade routes themselves; they carried sick people to healthy towns and poor ideas to infected ones. “It is perhaps worth noting that long distance travel can have unexpectedly bad side effect, such as the case with the Black Death.” (Major, 2008) The very cultural influences traveling along those routes that were responsible for the spread of such positive changes became the very death of tens of millions of people. The practice of gathering for prayer in a crisis and bleeding patients to get rid of the poisons were two ideas that spread like wildfire and were two of the worst ideas to come out of the plague, and ironically the spread of the disease along the trade routes and the spread of the bad ideas to treat it that came off of the trade routes leading to such an epidemic actually caused people not to travel or trade as openly as before for a while.
Another negative after effect of cultural exchange is that some traditions and practices were lost when a population would convert to another faith or absorb the practices and traditions of another civilization. Many post war territories would begin to absorb the culture and traditions of the occupying people, inadvertently giving up their own. Also, often a foreigner would marry a local and effectively lose their native culture and traditions to take on that of their new family.
Up until the year 1500, the trading of goods and services was a necessary part of life, and in reality, still is today. This trade and commerce often leads to friendly exchanges that allow us to share a part of ourselves or our past with another person or other people. In the ancient world, that meant an opportunity to teach someone or learn from someone a new way of doing things or a new way of looking at things. It meant being exposed to things you otherwise never would have. People went to great lengths to establish new opportunities for trade to happen and it was more than just the physical goods they were receiving. People are simply built for contact, and the more we receive, the more we crave. With each new civilization reached, more knowledge was gained and thus more possibilities uncovered. It has been said that knowledge is power, and certainly in ancient times it must have been highly valued for so much was accomplished in hopes of gaining more.
The constant transference of ideas, values, traditions and belief systems that takes place when two or more separate civilizations come in contact with one another helps to ensure the survival, maturity and growth of our species, without it, perhaps some of our families would still be living in caves or migrating with the hunt. The causes of these exchanges are, for the most part unimportant, aside from the fact that it gives us a clue as to the origin of an idea or belief or skill or practice, the most important thing is that it happened, and that it continues to happen, because once a civilization become so wrapped up in its own achievements that it begins to assume it has nothing to learn or gain from another, that is exactly the time when that civilization is in danger of becoming stagnant and that is when empires fall, when they can no longer evolve or grow or support their people. The fact that cultural exchange is directly linked to commerce and trade from all sides and vice versa should be a clear indicator of its central role to civilization.
1. Trade and TransformationOswyn Murray, Reviewed work(s): Greeks, Romans and Barbarians: Spheres of Interaction by Barry Cunliffe, The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 40, No. 2 (1990), pp. 343-345 Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association
2.Greeks, Foriegners and the Roman portrait, R. R. R. Smith, The Journal of Roman StudiesVol. 71, (1981), pp. 24-38 Published by: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies
3.Silk Road: Spreading Ideas and Innovations, John Major, (Aug, 2008) Asia Society. http://asiasociety.org
4.GREEK AND ROMAN ART, R. A. Guisepi, History World International, (2010)
5.Bentley, J., Ziegler, H., & Streets, H. (2008). Traditions & encounters: A brief global history. New York: McGraw Hill.
6.Sanders, T., Nelson, S., Morillo, S., & Ellenberger, N. (2006). Encounters in world history: Sources and themes from the global post volume one: to 1500 (1st ed.) New York: McGraw Hill.
© 2011 Myranda Grecinger