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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 1-26

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

David Christian

Modern historiography has not fully appreciated the ecological complexity of the Silk Roads. As a result, it has failed to understand their antiquity, or to grasp their full importance in Eurasian history. The role played by the Silk Roads in exchanging goods, technologies, and ideas between regions of agrarian civilization is well understood. Less well understood is the trans-ecological role of the Silk Roads--the fact that they also exchanged goods and ideas between the pastoralist and agrarian worlds. The second of these systems of exchange, though less well known, predated the more familiar "trans-civilizational" exchanges, and was equally integral to the functioning of the entire system. A clear awareness of this system of trans-ecological exchanges should force us to revise our understanding of the age, the significance, and the geography of the Silk Roads.

Further, an appreciation of the double role of the Silk Roads affects our understanding of the history of the entire Afro-Eurasian region. The many trans-ecological exchanges mediated by the Silk Roads linked all regions of the Afro-Eurasian landmass, from its agrarian civilizations to its many stateless communities of woodland foragers and steppe pastoralists, into a single system of exchanges that is several millennia old. As a result, despite its great diversity, the history of Afro-Eurasia has always preserved an underlying unity, which was expressed in common technologies, styles, cultures, and religions, even disease patterns. The extent of this unity can best be appreciated by contrasting the history of Afro-Eurasia with that of pre-Columbian America.

World historians are becoming increasingly aware of the underlying unity of Afro-Eurasian history. Andre Gunder Frank and Barry [End Page 1] Gills have argued that the entire Afro-Eurasian region belonged to a single "world-system" from perhaps as early as 2000 B.C.E. 1 And William McNeill and Jerry Bentley have recently restated the case for a unified Afro-Eurasian history. 2 But Marshall Hodgson had made the same point as early as the 1950s, when he argued that "historical life, from early times at least till two or three centuries ago, was continuous across the Afro-Eurasian zone of civilization; that zone was ultimately indivisible....The whole of the Afro-Eurasian zone is the only context large enough to provide a framework for answering the more general and more basic historical questions that can arise." 3

This paper argues that the Silk Roads played a fundamental role in creating and sustaining the unity of Afro-Eurasian history. It counts as one more attempt by a historian interested in "world history" to tease out the larger historical significance of the Silk Roads. 4


The German phrase Die Seidenstrassen seems first to have been used late in the nineteenth century by a German geographer, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905). 5 He used it to describe the trade routes linking China, India, and the Mediterranean world, through central Asia. The plural form is important because the Silk Roads consisted of a constantly shifting network of pathways for many different types of exchanges. Silk was one of the most important goods carried on the Silk Roads because it combined great beauty, light weight, and high value. But they also carried many other goods, including ceramics, glass, precious metals, gems, and livestock. Material goods, in turn, [End Page 2] were just one element in the varied traffic of the Silk Roads. They also transported disease vectors, languages, technologies, styles, religions, and genes. The term Silk Roads is sometimes extended to include the sea routes that linked the Mediterranean, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, and China. These routes were certainly as important as the land routes in maintaining the underlying unity of Afro-Eurasian history, but here, purely for the sake of simplicity, I focus only on the land routes. Equally arbitrarily, I also exclude all discussion of sub-Saharan Africa. However, I will argue for...