Historical Notes: Round the world in one millennium

IT IS often said that the year 1000 has no "real" importance, that it acquires it only from our obsession with birthdays and big numbers. Far from it: the time has a real historical significance, rooted in the way human society developed, from scattered diversity to today's "one world". Its significance is this: by pure coincidence, the year 1000, or thereabouts, marked the first time in human history that it was possible to pass an object, or a message, right around the world.

This had, of course, been almost possible for thousands of years. Messages and artefacts passed between neighbours had long been the stuff of cultural diffusion. But there were gaps. Even in AD 900, no human being had visited New Zealand, or crossed from Europe to the Americas. No one was yet commuting to Australia across the Torres Strait.

A hundred years later, however, these gaps were tenuously bridged, inviting a thought-experiment. Imagine a vital piece of information despatched by word of mouth from, say, the heart of the Islamic world, being passed across cultural borders from messenger to messenger. Ignore practical problems. Assume peaceful progress, perfect translation, a steady pace.

In AD 1000, Islam derives slaves and gold from sub- Saharan Africa. The message heads quickly south, across the Sahara and down the Nile, being carried on the length of the continent by Bantu farmers and herders, until it reaches the Khoisan in the Kalahari Desert. Islam also trades with Byzantium, which is in close touch with proto-Russia, whose people are just now adopting Byzantium's Orthodox Christianity.

The Rus, dominating the north-south trade routes along the major rivers, still have close dealings with their ancestral Viking culture. The Vikings are not only everywhere around Europe's coasts, but also commute regularly to Iceland. Icelanders have recently colonised Greenland. Greenland Vikings are at this moment doing their best to establish a colony in Newfoundland, and are trading, as well as fighting, with Inuit from northern Canada.

Here the message divides. One route heads south, through the eastern woodlands and the arid south-west to central America, and thence to the Andes and down the Amazon. In the north, the Inuit of the Thule culture, who are spread across the Canadian Arctic, pass the word along to relatives in Alaska, who paddle it across the Bering Strait to Siberia. Inuit there obtain iron from the borders between Siberia and China. From China, following Silk Road routes, the message flows to Central Asia, then down through India, where the expansive Chola empire transmits it to Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, messengers are advancing southward through South-East Asia, via the Khmer empire of ancient Cambodia. Offshore, three local trade kingdoms, create alternative routes through the Indonesian archipelago. The word passes along Pacific island chains to the Polynesian frontier, even being carried with the very first settlers to the virgin land of New Zealand. Back to the north and west, on the coast of north Australia, traders are just beginning to exploit sausage-like marine creatures, beches- de-mer (sea cucumbers, or trepang) much prized as a delicacy in China, then as now. From sea-cucumber gatherers in Arnhem Land, Australian Aborigines carry the message across the continent. Back north of the Hindu Kush, where we left one of our Silk Road messengers, it is a small step through Muslim Afghanistan back to the heart of Islam.

Imagine all this to have occurred at walking pace, 24 hours a day. Our message has covered 35,000 miles in one year, right around the world plus 10,000 miles for the twists and turns. Minor cultures - Amazonian tribesmen, Easter Islanders - will remain untouched. But it does not seem too fanciful to look for the roots of today's "one world" in the world of 1,000 years ago.

John Man is the author of `The Atlas of the Year 1000' (Penguin, pounds 10.99)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links