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Ancient Trade Routes Develop

Written for the KidsKnowIt Network by:
Debora Dyess

As the ancient world began to settle into organized communities, people began to trade. At first, trading was made with nearby villages. Two things led to the growth and development of trade with people groups from farther away. The domestication (training and control) of animals such as camels, donkeys and other beasts of burden made it possible to travel longer distances. People also learned to portage watercraft. Portage of these vessels (carrying the craft and its cargo over dry land) expanded where merchants (traders) could travel through waterways. These two developments allowed people to travel to new and exciting places, bringing strange new products home to their families and villages.

Some of the early trade routes

Slowly, longer and longer trade routes were developed. Major routes had several smaller routes branching off of them, creating a network of roadways. Beginning in 1000 BC, several societies had established trade with other countries or areas. The earliest routes known to us at this point include Arabia, Southeast Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.







The importance of some goods - such as frankincense and myrrh, only available in Arabia – made kingdoms strong. As their trade grew, so did their power in regions far beyond their boundaries. In the case of Arabia and their precious resins, not a temple or wealthy household existed in the ancient world that did not trade to gain frankincense and myrrh. Cyprus prospered from their production of copper, Egypt traded valuable papyrus and wool. Cedar and dyes produced by Phoenicia became important trade goods, and China gained power by their trade of jade, spices and silk. Even Britain, hundreds or thousands of miles from its trade partners, became important for their production of tin.

Spices were common items on the ancient trade routes

But areas rich in resources were not the only ones to grow rich. Merchants kept a great amount of the profit to cover the cost of their caravans and the danger they undertook along the way. Towns sprang up along the routes, providing these men with shelter and food for them and their pack animals. Cities and towns that did not participate in trading soon fell by the wayside and turned to ghost towns.


A caravan traveling across the desert

Long-range trading was saved for expensive and unusual items. No one was willing to go to the time and expense of transporting goods that could be found locally. Because routes were created for trade with specific places to gain specific goods, the trade routes often had the name of the item they supplied. The Silk Route ran from China to Western Asia and the Mediterranean area. The Spice Route brought rare and wonderful spices form South Asia. Many of these routes became roads and allowed the spread of ideas, religions and culture. Armies also used these routes to conquer what started as trade partners.


Trading was not easy. Camels, the primary animal used to transport goods, average 25 miles (40km) per day at a leisurely walking speed. The Silk Road was 2485 miles (4000km) long. If a caravan was formed to travel from one end of the Silk Road to the other, it would take just over a year to complete the journey. Along the way, merchants faced bad weather, injury or illness and robbers. Even with all of the dangers, trading was worth it. It created a network of roads, spread culture and religion and created prosperous cities. Trade routes changed the face of the world forever.

       


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