Just a month before the release of Valerie Hansen’s brief but sprawling account of what she presents as humanity’s “first” globalization, COVID-19 reminded us that infectious disease is as much a part of global interconnectedness as commerce, trade, and ideas. One can readily imagine Hansen kicking herself as her book went to print without any consideration of global pandemics, especially since Hansen, the Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale, is a China specialist. Nevertheless, The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World and Globalization Began has no shortage of stimulating material to encourage thought about how the world became global.
Hansen’s argument is that what we know as “globalization” today is no new phenomenon. She maintains instead that it has been a consistent part of the human experience for at least a thousand years, dating back to a time when we can prove that traded commodities could traverse the entire known world, and that people could go nearly as far. The comparison is not quite precise because, except for the relatively minor Norse settlements, the Americas were left out, but Hansen does an excellent job building on contemporary arguments that the geographic scope of human activity far exceeded that which we used to believe. She incorporates a fascinating array of archeological evidence to support that conclusion. Some of the more outré examples, like those Norse settlements in Newfoundland, have been known for decades. More recent work on pre-Columbian America (if one may still call it that) indicates that trading patterns connected Mesoamerican civilizations with Native Americans inhabiting the valley of the Mississippi, and that there was at least an exchange of technical know-how between these civilizations and South America’s Andean cultures.
The vast Eurasian landmass, centered around a sprawling inner Asian plain and skirted by navigable waters on every side but its Arctic northern edge, was a version of a superhighway that serviced far-flung markets for luxury products, natural resources, and slaves, a commonplace commodity in a world that depended on the reliable physical labor that compulsion provided. Many of the advantages and dilemmas we recognize as the product of globalization today had analogues a thousand years ago. Technological innovation played a huge role in competitiveness and stimulated determined efforts to protect what we would call “intellectual property.” Trade deficits and market access were driving factors in international relations, causing wars and gelling alliances. International commercial centers like Cairo, Constantinople, and Guangzhou experienced civil unrest caused by economic change in what Hansen aptly describes as the “globalization riots” of their time.
Along with the goods and people, ideas also began to spread readily. It was around the year 1000 when the world’s major religions, already well established in historic core regions and cultures, quickly found new converts among new peoples, whose elites were economically incentivized to adopt their trading partners’ system of values and beliefs. The first known written inscription in West Africa, for example, is a profession of the Islamic faith written in Arabic characters in 1011. Islam competed with Buddhism to replace the spiritism of Central Asian nomads at around the same, just as the pagan peoples of Eastern Europe adopted Western or Eastern Christianity (Kievan Rus’s conversion occurred in 988). It also happened to be at about this time that similar religious practices seem to have spread among various Native American cultures.
Just how did the astonishing coincidences allowing for this early phase of globalization occur? The meteorological data suggest that they arose from a warming trend in the earth’s climate, which suddenly allowed for improved agricultural techniques, greater yields, and, at an unprecedented rate in human history, a substantial increase in the populations that benefited from them. This warming trend lasted long enough for medieval populations to build up the surpluses they needed to stop worrying about mere survival and start involving themselves in commerce, finance, and other risk-taking ventures across great distances.
Hansen’s argument is convincing, and there seems to be no other plausible explanation as to why, in the space of only a few years or decades, an enormous part of the human race suddenly became mobile and initiated large-scale interactions with neighbors of whom they had scarcely ever been aware before. Hansen resists antagonizing the climate change crowd by refusing to observe explicitly that the earth naturally experiences warming and cooling trends without pernicious human activity, but this is a natural conclusion to be drawn from her evidence.
Because of the dramatic inroads carved out during this first round of globalization, by the time of the Age of Exploration, Europeans were not forging new trade routes but merely taking over existing ones. To cite one example, the African slave trade—for which all white Americans are meant now to do penance—had already existed for centuries before the first Europeans got involved and, according to the best estimates, sent roughly the same number of people in bondage to the Middle East as it did across the Atlantic.
Hansen’s book is not without weaknesses. She hardly mentions the now widely available DNA evidence of earlier human population movement, an indelible biological record that would support much of her argument about the mobility of those populations. Her conclusion also radiates a misplaced optimism in the idea of “openness as a strength,” arguing that a society’s success was directly proportional to its propensity for lowering its barriers. “Those who remained open to the unfamiliar,” she moralizes, “did much better than those who rejected anything new.” Nevertheless, the relatively cosmopolitan civilizations who fit the description of being “open” in her analysis—the rival Song and Liao states of China, the Islamic Caliphates, the pre-Columbian American empires, and the early Slavic peoples—all fell victim to ruthless and militarized outsiders who had little devotion to what we would now call multiculturalism.