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
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

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little