Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History

Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History

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Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History

Christian, David

Journal of World History, 11, no. 1 (2000)


The Silk Roads have normally been treated as a system of exchanges linking the major regions of agrarian civilization in Afro-Eurasia, and as originating in the classical era. This paper focuses on the many trans- ecological exchanges that occurred along the Silk Roads, which linked the agrarian worlds to the pastoralist world of the Inner Eurasian steppes and the woodland cultures to the north. It argues that these trans-ecological exchanges have been as important to the history of the Silk Roads as the more familiar trans-civilizational exchanges. A clear understanding of these trans- ecological exchanges suggests that the Silk Roads should be seen as a complex network of exchanges that linked different ecological zones of the Afro-Eurasian landmass into a single system. It also suggests that the Silk Roads were much older than is usually recognized, that their real origins lie in the emergence of Inner Eurasian pastoralism from the fourth millennium B.C.E. The paper explores the prehistory of the Silk Roads; reexamines their structure and history in the classical era; and explores shifts in their geography in the last thousand years. It concludes that a revised understanding of the role and history of the Silk Roads shows the extent to which the entire Afro-Eurasian landmass has been linked by complex networks of exchange since at least the Bronze Age. It reminds us that Afro-Eurasia has a common history despite the ecological and cultural variety of its many different regions.