Christianity and Globalization in the Year 1000

Brothers Cyril and Methodius bring Christianity to the Slavic peoples / Wikimedia Commons

Their mission was not only to convert people but especially kings and rulers, thereby making the people more amenable.

By Dr. James Cuno
President and CEO
J. Paul Getty Trust

In the year 1000 CE, complex trade networks were taking shape, stimulating unprecedented cultural interactions. The Vikings reached the shores of North America, trade routes connected China with Europe and Africa, and in the Americas, cities like Chichén Itzá underwent explosive growth that attracted people and goods from afar. These are just a few of the world-changing phenomena of this transformative era.

Valerie Hansen explores these early economic and cultural exchanges and their long-term impact in her new book The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World―and Globalization Began, which originated as a college course co-taught with Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute. In this episode, Hansen and Miller discuss the state of the world around the year 1000.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

VALERRIE HANSEN: Historians debate when globalization began. Some people say 1492; some people go to the 1970s or the 1980s; I’m hoping the people will think about the year 1000.

CUNO: In this episode, I speak with historian Valerie Hansen and Getty Research Institute Director Mary Miller about Valarie’s new book, The Year 1000.

Halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong, on the China coast, the smell of foreign incense filled the air. The street was packed with customers buying pearl necklaces from Sri Lanka, ornaments carved with African ivory, and perfumes preserved with stabilizers from Tibet and Somalia. Depending on the holiday, Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist worshipers joined the throngs of people. This is what the city of Quanzhou was like in the year 1000, and it’s how Valerie Hansen opens her new book, The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began.

Listeners to this podcast may have heard my conversation with Valerie four years ago, on the occasion of the publication of her then new book, The Silk Road: A New History. Valerie is the Stanley Woodword Professor of History at Yale, where she teaches Chinese and world history.

Joining Valerie and me on this episode of the podcast is Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute. Mary is a former professor and colleague of Valerie’s at Yale, and a specialist in the history of the Maya.

So Welcome, Valerie and Mary. It’s great to have you both on this podcast.

Now, Valerie, your new book comes in the middle of a global pandemic, fueled and facilitated by the instruments of globalization. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about that coincidence, and if it’s made you rethink your book in any way.

HANSEN: Yes, it definitely has. When I was writing the book, I tended to think that what was happening in the year 1000 was just a difference in degree than what is happening today. But the events of the past few months have made me rethink my position

Historians debate when globalization began. Some people say 1492; some people go to the 1970s or the 1980s; I’m hoping the people will think about the year 1000. But there were some checks on the effects of globalization for the first 900 years of globalization, I think we could say. That no country was ever able to export enough goods to supply an entire market abroad.

And something else I’ve been thinking a lot about is that in my book, I looked very hard for evidence of epidemics or movement of disease when people came into contact with each other for the first time. Because it’s well known to historians, that when the Spanish first arrived in the Americas, that they brought, we used to say smallpox, but now people think it might just have been the flu or the common cold with them, and then there were mass death among the Amerindians at the time. And in the year 1000, where of course, the historic record is not complete, I didn’t find any examples of that kind of transmission of disease.

Which puzzles me. It stills puzzles me. And the only explanation I have is that in the very beginning, maybe people just weren’t in contact with each other for sustained periods of time. That’s one explanation. Another explanation may be that our sources just don’t tell us about it.

CUNO: Well, tell us how you came to choose the date 1000 as the marker for the beginnings of globalization.

HANSEN: When I was finishing the Silk Road book, I noticed that there were two dates right around the year 1000 that marked, really, the beginning of a new era. One of them is when the— there’s an oasis city in west China named Khotan, and it falls to the Karakhanids, one of the Islamic dynasties that gets going around the year 1000 in Central Asia. And there’s also a famous treaty between the Sung Dynasty and the dynasty to the north, the Liao Dynasty. And so those two dates were in my mind. And then I knew about the year 1000 as the moment when the Vikings landed in Canada, in today’s northeastern Canada.

Once I noticed that these three dates were so close, I began to think about all the connections that might’ve existed in the world at that time. And now I think that they are related, because we have a pattern of regions expanding all over the world, and those three incidents I just mentioned are examples of when people living in one place expanded and encountered people living in another place.

And I was very lucky to have the chance to teach a seminar with Mary Miller, who’s here today, and with Anders Winroth, my former colleague at Yale who’s now gone to the University of Oslo, entitled Circa 1000. And I was able to learn so much from them about Mary’s expertise in the Americas and Anders’ expertise about the Vikings.

“Ansgar Preaches the Christian Doctrine in Sweden” by Hugo Hamilton (1830) / Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: I think it would come as a surprise to most people that you begin the book with the Vikings. Tell us more about that.

HANSEN: The book, when I was writing the book, the order of the chapters kept changing. And there were many versions where there was a different order of the chapters. But the Vikings are, I think, a good place to start because they’re familiar to people. We all know who the Vikings are. That is not true of many of the other people I write about.

And there’s very strong archaeological at the archaeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows of their presence is from about the year 1000 to about ten years later.

And then the Vikings have another advantage, which is that the Islandic sagas give us a source where they talk about these explorations. A lot of the peoples coming into contact with each other around the year 1000 haven’t left us any documentary record or have left us only an indirect documentary record, so we don’t really know what their impressions of each other were. Where with the Vikings, we know at least how their descendants said that they said what the Native Americans looked like, or the Native Canadians looked like when they encountered them in the year 1000. And that really isn’t true of any of the other places that I write about.

CUNO: I wanna hear more about the sagas, but first I wanna ask you about the peoples that resided in the northeastern coast of North America in the year 1000, about the time of the Norse voyages. These are people by names I hadn’t heard of before. The Dorset, the Thule, and the ancestral Innu. Tell us about them.

HANSEN: There’s always the problem with names of peoples and linking them to archaeological evidence. The Innu are the people who are living in the areas of L’Anse aux Meadows in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That’s when those names are first written down. And they’re a local people. The Dorset are far to the north in the Canadian Arctic. And they have a distinctive trade good, which is translucent chert. We know a lot about the Dorset from multiple archaeological sites.

The Thule, I think, they’re very interesting, ’cause they start in Alaska. And around 1000, they migrate across northern Canada and end up getting all the way to Greenland. And they have a very special skillset, that they know how to hunt baby seals year round, because they dig holes in the ice and hold a feather above the hole in the ice and wait to see the feather move, and then they know there’s a seal underneath it. And they harpoon the seal, with a toggle harpoon, so the tip comes off. The seal can swim away. But when it dies, they can pull in the rope and have the seal. And that allowed them to hunt year round. And that technology allowed them to launch this huge migration, and ultimately, to displace the Vikings from Greenland.

CUNO: You tell us about three different possible locations of Vinland, the island, the great island Vinland. And why is it, identifying that location, why is that important? Why does it matter in the history of globalization?

HANSEN: I don’t think there’s any real significance, ’cause the three locations are all close to each other. One is a Canadian island of Newfoundland. One is on Nova Scotia, near Chaleur Bay. And one is on the Maine-Canada border. They’re all close to each other.

I think this is just something about wanting the satisfaction of knowing where they landed. In terms of significance. But the key thing is that they landed. That the Vikings incontrovertibly arrive in North America around 1000.

CUNO: And what do the sagas tell us about that or about the presence of the peoples in the northeastern part of the country

HANSEN: These are legends that were recounted by families, about the noble deeds of their ancestors. Many very serious historians of Iceland don’t believe very much that’s in the sagas. They think that they’re written down 2- or 300 years after the year 1000 and they’re not reliable. But the archaeologists who found L’Anse aux Meadows found it using the descriptions in the sagas, so that’s one measure of their reliability.

And Jacques Cartier gets to this part of Canada in 1534, and he encounters people who sound a lot like the people who are described in the sagas. And the sagas call the people living in Canada the Skraelings. And it’s a word meaning the wretched ones. And they describe them as a people who have skin canoes, as opposed to a birch-bark canoe. And when the Vikings first encounter them, they’re very eager to trade. And the sagas have parallel accounts of the same episodes in different orders. And the trading episodes, in one of the sagas, they trade red cloth that the Amerindians are very excited to be able to trade for, and trade so long that the Vikings run out of their supply of red cloth and they start trading smaller and smaller pieces, but still the Skraelings are trading them the same amount of fur to get these scraps of red cloth. In the other account, the Vikings are trading milk goods, which is interesting.

So the encounter, in the sagas, it starts off in a friendly way; there’s trade. But then there’s an attack. And the Skraelings come and they throw a giant rock, like a ballista, a bag full of rocks, on the village where the Vikings are living. And that’s one of the incidents that prompts the Vikings to leave.

And Vikings, we know where they settled because they leave Denmark and they go to Iceland and they go to Greenland. Both Iceland and Greenland are unoccupied when they go there. And I think that’s probably why they leave what’s now Canada.

Hvalsey Church in Greenland / Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: So since this is a book about globalization, which is about people in contact with each other, and the consequence of that contact, what is the consequence of the contact between the Vikings and the Amerindian natives of North America?

HANSEN: The long-term consequence is that the Vikings leave, but trade continues. There’s still trade across the North Atlantic. And we know this from some very interesting archaeological evidence. There’s some furs that were found in Greenland and they’re from bison, so the furs have to be from North America. They can’t be from Greenland.

And so the main significance is that when people had these first encounters in the year 1000, one option was that they would continue and develop a more robust relationship and trade would take off. But another option was that both parties or one party would decide it wasn’t worth it and they would stop trading.

CUNO: Now let’s bring Mary Miller into the conversation. Mary, Valerie writes that of all the agrarian empires of the world in the year 1000, scholars know the least about the Maya in Mesoamerica. Why is that?

MILLER: Well, it’s a complicated time for the Maya. If you were to ask about, say, the eighth century, we would have day-by-day fine-grained accounts that would be through the historical inscriptions. But when we hit the period after the collapse of the great Maya tropical rainforest cities in the southern part of Yucatán and all across Guatemala, after that our inscriptions are really quite hit and miss, even though the Maya continued to make them. But they do not have the same attention to time.

And the excavations of the great Maya city of Chichén Itzá, really the most important city of the New World of the year 1000, the archaeology took place at Chichén Itzá before the Second World War, in an era before radio carbon dating. And there were a number of pieces of very bad luck: hurricanes striking, all the excavated materials being destroyed in certain kinds of natural disasters. So there are so many reasons why our information about Chichén Itzá is quite flawed.

CUNO: Mary, Valerie started her book with the Vikings, and then followed the Vikings with the Maya. What’s the connection between the Vikings and the Maya?

MILLER: Well, it’s a great question, Jim, because in fact, there are these vexing and extremely interesting paintings that were made at Chichén Itzá that show blonde individuals with strangely rendered ears, in highly naturalistic paintings. And they sure don’t look Maya.

When they were found in the 1930s, no one even raised the possibility that they were Vikings. But of course, we didn’t know about L’Anse aux Meadows. And if you think about it rationally, if you the Vikings were following foodstuffs south, you would have landed in every possible place where modern development would leave no trace of a possible Viking touchdown on land, making landfall somewhere between Yucatán and L’Anse aux Meadows. Every bit of it would have major development since that time. So I think no one really wanted to think about the Vikings in Yucatán.

But it was long a great interest of one of my mentors, Michael Coe. And he and I often talked about whether the Vikings reached Yucatán.

CUNO: So you raise the matter of environmental issues that may have attracted the Vikings south toward Yucatán. Why did they come all the way to Yucatán?

HANSEN: It’s funny. My answer is not that they were deliberately exploring, but that they could’ve been blown off course. And we have the great example, nineteenth century example of a fishing boat in Japan that is just going from Tokyo to a nearby port. And it gets caught in a storm and sixteen months later, it ends up in Washington state. It’s been blown across the entire Pacific. And I think when we think about crossing the oceans— We live in the modern world; so few of us have any kind of experience like this.

Mike Coe, who very sadly died, well, between the time the book was done and it came out. And he was very interested and told me about this example of, also on the Yucatán Peninsula, of a town where people reported that it had been founded by people who may have come from Africa.

So, maybe they were blown off course. But I don’t think we have to envision the Vikings systematically going down the East Coast of the US and going from Florida to Yucatán. I think we could also imagine them sailing to somewhere in the Atlantic and just being blown off course and ending up adrift on the Yucatán Peninsula, on the coast.

MILLER: And what they would have discovered in any ability that they gained to communicate with indigenous peoples was that Chichén Itzá was the place. It was the place that was a beacon for peoples from all the way from northern South America, from Colombia; from southern Central America, from Panama, from Costa Rica; from the Pacific Coast of Mexico; and that there are materials at Chichén Itzá that come all the way from what is modern day New Mexico. So that there was long distance trade, traffic, and pilgrimage. And to a certain degree, the Vikings might’ve also gotten caught up in that.

El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan) dominates the center of the archaeological site at Chichén Itzá. / Photo by Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: Yeah. I may be wrong about this, but I think I remember that Valerie describes the consequences of a prolonged drought in Central America between the year 1000 and 1100, and it causing a sharp decline in the population, as well the mass migration now to the northern Yucatán and rise of the city of Chichén Itzá, which is probably, it’s said, the largest city in the Americas in the year 1000. So this consequence of environmental change is an important part of your book, Valerie, that you come back to from time to time, that provokes migration of peoples.

HANSEN: All of the climate information, I think, is tentative. And it’s one of the reasons in the book that I— Whenever, you know, I encountered climatic explanations, I always put them in. But our understanding of the world’s climate in the year 1000, I think, is still in its preliminary stages.

So we know that the Maya heartland earlier on is in these tropical forests of Mesoamerica. And the largest Maya cities are flourishing in around 700 and 800. Something happens. Maybe it’s climate change. They were planting maize, planting corn, and they may have depleted all the nutrients in the soil. We’re not really sure what causes the collapse of these big Maya cities. We just know that people move west to Chichén Itzá, and the peak period of the city is maybe between, like, starting 950, 1000, going up to 1100.

CUNO: How do we know what happens after the year 1000, with regard to the Maya? Because I think I read in your book that the written record of the Maya stops before the year 1000.

HANSEN: Right. The main reason we know is that we just see the Maya moving, and we see other cities growing. And I think that’s one of the challenges for archaeologists, not just of the Maya, but of any society, that a site is suddenly empty and you don’t know why people leave. Chichén Itzá, we think the population was around 40,000 people at its peak. And then later on, there’s just many fewer people there.

CUNO: Mary, describe Chichén Itzá for us.

MILLER: Sure. So Chichén Itzá is really a great thriving enterprise by the year 900. The great Maya cities in southern Mesoamerica of the deep tropical rainforest—and there were dozens of them—are all abandoned by shortly after the year 800, in all likelihood. And so the population is much, much smaller by the year 900.

And that population is centered at Chichén Itzá. And they bring many of the characteristics, particularly in the beginning, of the great Maya cities to the south. But after the year 900, or perhaps right around it, they’re also bringing all of the characteristics of the cities to the north, around Mexico City. And it’s clear that this is the largest place in that world, in the Mesoamerican world, and it’s also a place that is heterogeneous, in that there are peoples from all over those worlds.

And they bring their treasures, their valuables, whether it’s gold or turquoise. Chichén Itzá will build what is the single largest plaza in all of the Maya world, in which there’s so much space for people to be present and to gather, suggesting huge temporary populations that come both to its remarkable place of offering— It has this incredibly cool, nearly round, large sinkhole, where offerings were thrown, were tossed, were made, most of them burned, into this deep sinkhole full of water, ice cold, coming out of underground rivers.

And the presence of this sinkhole was clearly what was drawing people. And its miraculous properties was what was drawing people from around the world. And it’s also why we have any knowledge of Chichén Itzá and the offerings from these far distance places. Otherwise, we simply wouldn’t know.

CUNO: Well, tell us about the importance of Cahokia, which we know as a settlement east of Saint Louis in North America. And I understand from reading the book that it was the largest urban complex in the continental US before 1492. Tell us about its connection with the Maya.

HANSEN: The whole section of the book about the Americas, is looking at the archaeological evidence of connections between two different places, and deciding whether or not there’s sufficient evidence to assert that trade existed.

Some of those connections are much easier to demonstrate. So the connection between Chichén Itzá and Chaco Canyon. And in Chaco Canyon, there are vessels that were made there that have traces of theobromine. And that’s the sign, the chemical signature of chocolate. There are also brightly-colored feathers from macaw birds. There are also macaw skeletons. And then we have, on the Chichén Itzá side of the trade, we have the turquoise coming from Chaco Canyon. Everyone accepts that there was trade. And that trade is interesting ’cause it also peaks around the year 1000.

The question of ties between Cahokia, which is, as you say, the largest settlement in the US, the modern-day US, before 1492, with maybe 20,000 people, there’s no direct evidence of the Maya.

But there’s some interesting teeth evidence, skeletons found with notched teeth. And the notching on the teeth is characteristic of Chichén Itzá.

MILLER: We have tantalizing other bits of evidence, as well. Valerie, you point to the notched teeth. And the teeth that we have that are notched by and large come from earlier periods of the great Maya cities. And when you have notched teeth, it means that you make lordly speech. It’s a critical part of a kind of young male adulthood ceremony. So it also speaks not just to a physical outcome, but some kind of ritual practice that might be at play.

For me, one of the most exciting pieces of the connection between Chaco Canyon and the Maya region is not just the signature residue of chocolate, but it is that the very pots that they make in Chaco Canyon have so much to do with the aesthetic preference of Maya vases.

Great kiva of Chetro Ketl at Chaco Culture National Historical Park / National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: So Valerie, we— in the story that you’ve been telling us, we’ve got now the suggestion of massive migration from the western part of the northwest territories of the Western Hemisphere across to the northeast territories, with the arrival of the Vikings. And then we have the suggestion that the Vikings may have come south, all the way down to Central America, and into contact with the Maya. So we have this great movement of people.

All of a sudden now you introduce us to the Rus’ people, through the Russian Primary Chronicle, and the ruler Prince Vladimir. Tell us about that and if there’s any connection between the peoples in the Western Hemisphere and the peoples in the Eastern Hemisphere.

HANSEN: There is a connection, because the Rus’ are— they’re also a Viking group. The word Rus’, of course, is the root of the modern name Russia. And the sources we have describe people coming from the region of modern Scandinavia into Eastern Europe. And so at the same time that the Vikings are traveling west to the Americas, they’re also traveling east into Eastern Europe.

And they have a much greater impact. They stay in Eastern Europe. They marry the women who are— Marry is maybe a romanticization. They mate with the local women and they have a profound impact on Eastern Europe. And the first polities, the first small governments that take shape in the region are organized by the Rus’, by different Rus’ leaders. And Vladimir is the most famous because he succeeds in unifying the region of what’s the modern Ukraine and some of modern Russian around— Well in 985 is when he comes to power.

CUNO: I mean, what about the Russian Primary Chronicle? What was that?

HANSEN: The Russian Primary Chronicle is a source that is, in its way, as problematic as the Icelandic Sagas. It’s written down a little bit earlier. It’s about 1100. And it’s written from a very strong Christian point of view. So it describes things that happened in the region of Eastern Europe, and it describes the conversion of Prince Vladimir to Christianity. But there’s often an attempt to first understand what the Chronicle says, and then to explain what might actually have happened.

CUNO: You raise the question about conversions. And there were so many different conversions around the year 1000, and particularly in this part of the globe. But it was all the way from the Khazars to the Ghanaians. So tell us about that phenomenon of conversion. Why did it occur at that time?

HANSEN: It happens then because a lot of rulers— I mean, Vladimir has maybe the largest territory that he’s in this category, that rulers succeed in conquering, taking control, I would say by the classic techniques of fighting and organizing strong war bands. They take control of a given region. And then once they’ve unified a place, then many of these peoples were worshiping local deities. A Christian might call them pagans. The rulers are often— Like Vladimir. We know when he comes to power, that he’s worshiping some local deities. And he puts up statues to them in Kiev; that’s his capital.

And then the rulers look around and they seem to think, you know, this— I will have better luck keeping my kingdom unified if I don’t use one local deity, because a rival to me can arise who urges people to worship another local deity. But if I change to a religion that has just one god, or a religion that has a huge following or a lot of prestige, it will be much harder for my rivals to overthrow me.

The Russian Primary Chronicle tells us a lot about Vladimir’s attempts to learn about the religions of his neighbors. Also the attempts of his neighbors to teach him about their religions. And so he weighs the pros and cons of Christianity as it’s practiced in Rome, Christianity as practiced in Constantinople, modern Istanbul, of Islam, and of Judaism, and he decides to go with the Christianity of Byzantium in Constantinople, modern Russian Orthodoxy.

And the stated reason is that his envoys go to Constantinople, and they think that the church, the cathedral of Hagia Sophia is so beautiful. And that’s what changes his mind, makes him choose the Christianity of Byzantines. The unstated reason is that the Byzantines are a very powerful kingdom. They actually, at that moment, they need military assistance, which Vladimir can offer. And so it was a very good alliance for him to enter into.

But all over Afro-Eurasia, rulers are making this same kind of decision and calculation about converting to a new religion.

CUNO: Well, tell us about the conversion of the leader of Ghana. How does it make its way to West Africa?

HANSEN: Well, Islam is—Both traders and missionaries are coming from, we think, probably Oman. But there’s lots of people coming from the Middle East and going into Africa and going west, and also going south and going through the Sahara to the sub-Saharan Africa.

And the account we have is, it’s like the Russian Primary Chronicle. It’s written from a strongly Muslim point of view and it tells us about a king who meets a missionary. And rain hasn’t come to his kingdom in a long time and he complains to the missionary. The missionary says, “If you convert to Islam, your problems will be solved.” So the king converts and rain comes. The story tells us that the king converts, King of Malal converts, because of the greater power of the Islamic god, the same god, the god of the Christians and the god of the Jews. But we can also see that there’re advantages to converting for the king who converts. Strategic, pragmatic advantages for him.

Migration of early Slavs in Europe between the 5th and 10th centuries / Fphilibert, Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: So we have this phenomenon of mass migrations of people, all around the same time, around the year 1000.

HANSEN: Yeah, it’s funny. The one thing I would say is, I wouldn’t say mass migrations. I would just say migrations. We know people are moving, but we don’t necessarily know how many people are moving. It may not be that many people; it may be small groups. Sometimes the documented groups that we know about are not that large.

CUNO: But consequential, nevertheless.

HANSEN: But consequential, right.

CUNO: What about the Khazars?

HANSEN: They’re interesting. The Russian Primary Chronicle tells us that they were Jews and that they had converted, actually, before 1000, around 900. Their conversion is much debated. If you Google the Khazars and Judaism, you’ll see there are some very serious scholars who are very skeptical that they converted ever to Judaism. But we have some coins that they minted. These are from like the 830s. And it’s a coin that’s a copy of a Islamic coin. And the Islamic coin has the classic expression of faith “There is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” And the Khazar coins say, “There’s only one God, and Moses is his prophet.” I mean, it’s a direct copy of the Islamic coins, but they’ve replaced the word Muhammad with the word Moses. I think those coins show us that at least some of the Khazar rulers converted to Judaism. Perhaps the whole population didn’t. It’s a vexed issue.vOne of the reasons people doubt the Khazar conversion is that there’s no archaeological evidence. And so that’s one of the reasons people doubt this conversion.

CUNO: By raising the question of Muslim traders and trading particularly across Africa and down to the central part of Africa, you introduce us to the question of trade in slaves and gold. Give us a sense of the scale of the African slave trade and its various partner centers.

HANSEN: Well, the trade from sub-Saharan Africa to the north— And this is, again, very hard to get hard, reliable numbers. But a scholar named Ralph Austen did some very careful calculations, and he thinks that there may have been as many— nearly 12 million slaves were forced to move to the north. And that’s in a period from about 600 to 1600. That’s a little bit less than the estimates we have, which are much more reliable for the transatlantic slave trade, where the total estimates are around 12 and a half million.

But it gives us a sense that there’s considerable slave trade very early on. And the slave trade is, as I said, is moving north across the Sahara. And from there, the main place that the slaves are going is into the Islamic world, into the main slave markets in Baghdad, in Cairo. And there’s also a big slave market in Constantinople, which is a Christian city, not a Muslim city.

But what we know about the Islamic slave trade, it seems that the number of female slaves seems to have been higher than the male slaves. So I think more than labor, it may be reproductive power. That the women slaves are joining households and giving birth to children. And there’re many different legal traditions in the Islamic world, but as a group, they tend to concur that the children born to slave women and her master, they’re born free. And then the master, it is hoped, will free the mother of his free children. But if he doesn’t and he dies, then she’s freed on his death. And that means that the Islamic world is constantly replenishing its supply of slaves.

CUNO: Well, tell us about Mansa Musa, who’s the king of Mali in the early 1300s. Who was he, and how did he ride the gold trade, as you call it, to the top?

HANSEN: We know about Mansa Musa becomes he goes on the hajj in the early 1300s. And when he gets to Cairo, modern historians think he may be traveling with between thirteen and eighteen tons of gold. It’s a huge amount of gold. It’s so much gold that the price of gold declines in Cairo. That the gold he’s carrying brings the price of gold down in Cairo.

The gold, the mining of the gold is a major source of revenue for his kingdom. We know that—this is true in the Roman world, too—that mining is very difficult and hazardous work, and often involves slaves. And Mansa Musa, when he’s talking to people in Cairo— I don’t know if he gave different interpretations or they heard different things and record different things; that might be more likely. But they have very contorted explanations for how a Muslim king can have so much gold mined by non-Muslims.

CUNO: Now, at this point in your book, you begin to move us to central Asia. So we’re moving now eastward again. And you say at the time that it had only one resource that mattered. Not slaves, but mounted warriors, who were more skilled than any in all of Europe or Asia. Tell us about that and what contribution they made.

HANSEN: Well, actually, they were slaves. Some of them are free, but some of them are slave. And the reason that they’re so valuable is that the peoples living in central Asia, in the grasslands of central Asia, grow up hunting in the grasslands, and all of the skills that they acquire as children, as hunters, make them very valuable warrior slaves.

And so we have some rulers who buy slaves. This is true in Egypt. One of the Egyptian dynasties, the Mamluks, is actually— originates with these slave warriors. Some of the rulers recruit their own armies of these mounted warriors by offering them a share of plunder. And the reason they’re so important is that they’re such an effective military tool. When an army of mounted warriors is shooting bows and arrows, that’s the most effective weapon in the premodern world. This is before the introduction of cannon, and there are no guns.

This yellow-glazed pottery horse from the Tang Dynasty includes a carefully sculpted saddle, which is decorated with leather straps and ornamental fastenings featuring eight-petalled flowers and apricot leaves. / Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: Now, we know that the horse is extremely important, as you’ve just described to us. And it is a phenomenon of the central plains of Asia, the cultivation of the horse. But there’s also at that time in central Asia what was a state-of-the-art expertise in science, mathematics and calendar science in particular. Tell us about this and about the role that science played, and why calendar science was the most prized of all the sciences.

HANSEN: Calendar science is important because if you’re— There are various celestial phenomena that if you don’t know about them, are absolutely terrifying—like an eclipse. And if you do know about them because you can predict eclipses accurately, then as a ruler, you can take advantage of that knowledge and claim to control these mysterious forces.

I mean, calendars are important anyway, just in terms of when to plant. So many things in the premodern world hinged on having an accurate sense of the seasons and when seasons were starting.

I think the eclipses were so terrifying to people and to subjects, and that rulers who had good astronomical advisors could gain the trust of their subjects because of that advice.

The person who knows the most about calendars in the year 1000 is a Muslim scientist named Al-Biruni.Everyone always calls him a polymath. He knows about so many different things. He’s also a geographer, which is another field that’s blooming at this time.

But there are astronomers all over Afro-Eurasia. In east Asia, we know that the Japanese ruler who hears from his court astronomers that an eclipse is coming, and he sends his minions to Korea and China, to try to get hold of up-to-date almanacs, ’cause he wants to know when that eclipse is gonna fall. And so the calendar science is not limited to any part of Afro-Eurasia. The interest in the skies is shared by everybody.

CUNO: It’s about this time we see the development in central Asia of its being split into two, as you describe it. Tell us about that.

HANSEN: We’ve talked about this already, that there were a lot of conversions around the year 1000. And we see that pattern continuing in central Asia. So we have the spread of Islam and the conversion of several rulers, including Mahmud of Ghazni, who’s based in Afghanistan, to Islam. And so the western part of central Asia forms an Islamic bloc. And then the eastern part, which includes China—so the Soong Dynasty, the Liao Dynasty in north China; it also includes Japan and Korea. Those are all Buddhist areas. And so we see this split between the Buddhist and the Islamic halves of central Asia.

CUNO: And while this is going on in the central part of Asia, on a great land mass of land masses, there is, in their ocean, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea, a lot of maritime trade going on. Tell us about that.

HANSEN: Absolutely. The shipping route that is in greatest use at this time is the route that connects the Chinese ports of Guangzhou and Quanzhou with the Basra, which is the port for Baghdad. And the route goes south from China through Singapore, around Southeast Asia, around India, all the way across the Indian Ocean to the Islamic world. The route extends down the east African coast.

And we can find archaeological evidence of this trade. There are shipwrecks. Chinese ceramics are often the telltale sign of the trade, because the ceramics last in so many different kinds of circumstances.

CUNO: So we’ve already talked about the development of great cities in Central America, Chichén Itzá being the greatest example of one. But we see these great cultural structures being developed in Borobudor and Angkor. Tell us about those developments and those situations.

HANSEN: Well, Borobudor is— really reaches its peak around 800. And it’s a major Buddhist pilgrimage center. It’s interesting ’cause very close to Borobudor is another site that is actually Hindu. And Borobudor, and also Angkor Wat, these are rulers who are deriving most of their wealth from rice agriculture. And that’s allowing them— They form temple states in— And we can see these temple states also in India, where the rulers are tapping the agrarian wealth of their societies, and they’re patronizing Buddhism or Hinduism, or sometimes both, and their subjects connect their human rulers with the divine power of the gods that they worship.

Angkor Wat has a much longer run. It’s about 600 years, where it’s a major religious center. And when you visit Angkor Wat that makes perfect sense, ’cause there are so many different temples that you can see. And some of them are Buddhist and some of them are Hindu, and some of them switch. Angkor Wat, for most of its existence was a Hindu temple, and it only became a Buddhist temple after 1400.

A Qing-era portrait of the Grotto of the Five Immortals, the Taoist temple around the five stones which gave Guangzhou its nickname “The City of Rams”. / Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: Now we come to the final chapter in your book. And you bring us back to Guangzhou and China, which you describe as having the most extensive trade ties in foreign countries than any other people in the world in the year 1000. You say that the route connecting China with Africa was the longest and most heavily sea route before 1492. After 1492, it was the transatlantic route from Europe to the Americas. What made China so open to trade?

HANSEN: Well, China, then as now, was a manufacturing powerhouse. There were no factories yet. There’s no electricity, there’s no steam power. But the Chinese have huge kilns that go up the sides of hillsides, and they’re called dragon kilns ’cause the kiln curves up the side of the hill like a dragon. They can attain very high temperatures. And so the Chinese are making ceramics that are fired to a higher temperature than anyplace else in the world at the time.

And these goods are extremely popular everywhere. They’re also exporting metal goods. There’re things like metal vases or woks, some utilitarian goods. They’re also exporting textiles.

CUNO: Well, this inclination to great trade takes us back to the Americas, which we left with the decline of the Maya. So let’s bring Mary back into the conversation at this point. And let me ask you both, what made the Americas so attractive to the Europeans, the Europeans so capable of dominating the Americans? And after 1500, I’m thinking not only of the Maya, but the Inca and the Aztecs, too. That sort of marks the end of your story.

MILLER: Well, when globalization is truly global and complete. Of course, the thing that is most attractive to Europeans is the extraction of mineral wealth. And the notion that gold, and to a lesser degree, silver cannot be devalued. But of course, this is going to be the great economic discovery of the 16th and seventeenth centuries. That in fact, precious metals turn out to be only as good as their investment and their development is in capital. So the discovery of the Americas and the fantastic wealth that is generated through the ability to harvest so much gold and silver; and simultaneously, for indigenous populations to suffer depredations that perhaps go as high as 90 or 95% of indigenous populations across the Americas—Aztec, Inca, Iroquois, upper Mississippian peoples—that people die from European contact, European diseases at such alarming rates, the greatest devastation of population that we know of in the history of the world.

That the Spanish seaborne economy will eventually collapse, as they’s not enough possibility to even have a market in the New World; and that all the gold in the world can’t save you, if you do not develop it into other goods and through other opportunities for populations to grow and thrive. 1492 is the beginning of an absolutely terrible hundred years for New World peoples, and traumatic and disruptive years for Europeans. But it is the foundation of the global world today.

CUNO: And Valerie, what about you?

HANSEN: The one thing I would add is that when Columbus arrives in the Americas, there’s already a trading system that’s intact and far-reaching and highly developed. He runs into a Maya trading canoe that offers him a snapshot of all of the trade that is taking place in— And at this point, it’s in the Maya territory in Mexico. But also, it’s trade with the Caribbean. It’s a sea trade. This canoe is carrying goods.

I think that’s something when we think about 1492, that we tend to imagine that there was a blank slate in the Americas and that the Europeans arrive and trade and the economy develops after they arrive. And I think one of the things that I liked so much about writing this book was learning about how many different peoples there are in the Americas and how evolved the trade relations were in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.

CUNO: Well, Valerie, it’s a fantastic book and it serves to remind us that globalization is not new. Globalization has been around for as long as people were making contact with other people in the world and changing the world in the process. For the good sometimes, for the bad other times. So thank you very much for joining me on this podcast, and thank you, Mary, for joining Valerie on this podcast with me.

HANSEN: Thank you so much for having me.

MILLER: A pleasure to be here, Jim.

CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

Originally published by The Iris, 06.24.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.