Long-distance trade is not a new invention. For proof, look no further than the fact that long-distance trade routes had come into existence by the Copper Age, which was the period of time when copper was the most common metal used in metalworking. In fact, one can make the argument that civilization couldn’t have transitioned from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age without long-distance trade, seeing as how the production of bronze needs both tin and copper. This is important because tin is a rather rare resource, meaning that most Bronze Age cultures needed to trade for it.
In any case, trade routes in the pre-modern world could cross both land and water. Generally speaking, the latter was more popular than the former. Yes, the water could be dangerous. However, the reverse was true as well. Furthermore, what was most important was that waterborne vessels could transport more goods at a faster speed as well as a lower cost than landbound caravans, thus making them the superior option. Still, there were plenty of trade routes that were landbound by necessity, with an excellent example being the Silk Road.
Like a lot of other trade routes, the Silk Road was named for its most important good. For those who are unfamiliar, people have been known to collect wild silk in a wide range of places in a wide range of times. However, wild silk has a number of serious drawbacks that make it difficult to produce usable products on a massive scale. One, wild silk has to be found. Two, most wild silk comes in the form of cocoons from which the pupae have already emerged, meaning that their silk threads have been broken up into shorter lengths. Three, most of these cocoons come covered in a mineral layer, thus making them that much more difficult to work with. Combined, it is no wonder that cultivated silk proved to be the superior product, which in turn, ensured that the Silk Road would start in China.
The start of silk use in China is unknown. There is evidence of silk from about 8,500 years ago. Furthermore, there is a surviving example of silk from about 5,630 years ago. In any case, what is important is that China started producing silk on a massive scale by rearing silk worms, boiling the eventual cocoons, and then retrieving the unraveled silk threads for further processing. The resulting fabric proved to be very popular with a wide range of cultures, so much so that we have surviving works from Roman writers in which they complained about the Roman elite spending exorbitant sums of money for what were apparently very immodest clothing.
Of course, crossing the distance between China and the Mediterranean was much easier said than done. In the case of the Silk Road, the most notable route started up in China, passed through Central Asia to reach Palmyra, and then separated into two branches with the northern branch terminating in what is now Istanbul and the southern branch terminating in Egypt. Most of the people who moved upon the Silk Road didn’t cover the entire length. Instead, the route consisted of a series of middlemen, thus limiting each participant’s risk while still providing them with plenty of opportunities to become very, very rich. Naturally, silk wasn’t the only good to be moved along the Silk Road. Moreover, it is important to note that the trade was a very efficient disseminator of ideas as well, so much so that it played an important role in the spread of more than one major religion.
As mentioned earlier, sea routes have an advantage over land routes. Due to this, the importance of the Silk Road faded in the early modern era when European explorers uncovered new routes to connect Europe with East Asia, thus enabling them to bypass Central Asia and the Middle East. On top of this, there were political issues in some of the polities that held the Silk Road, which further contributed to its eventual end.
What Was Found on the Silk Road?
Regardless, it should come as no surprise to learn that there is a lot of interest in sites on the Silk Road, which turn up new discoveries on a regular basis. For instance, a recent find in what is now southern Kazakhstan suggests that there were locals who treated their cats as pets more than a thousand years ago. In short, much of the regions that the Silk Road passed through were inhabited by nomads and semi-nomads rather than agriculturalists. This is unsurprising because not every place can support agriculture on a permanent basis, thus resulting in different ways of living in response to different circumstances. The people in relation to the finding are believed to have been the Oghuz, who were a western Turkic people spread out in Central Asia. They did have a capital city called Dhzankent, but for the most part, they were nomads reliant on their herds of goats, sheep, and cattle.
As such, it makes sense that the remains of a cat were discovered in Dhzankent. After all, nomads tend to have less use for cats compared to dogs, meaning that the chances of finding cat remains with nomads aren’t very high. However, what was particularly unusual about these remains was that they showed signs of considerable trauma over the course of a lifetime, so much so that it had lost even its canines plus some of its other teeth by the end. That might sound rather depressing. However, that should be interpreted in a more positive light because that trauma implies that the cat couldn’t have survived the implied injuries unless there was someone caring for it. Something that is further supported by how it was still enjoying a high-protein diet, which suggests that someone was feeding it expensive meat on a regular basis. In other words, as pre-modern cats go, this one was pretty pampered.
Having said that, the discovery of the cat provides a number of interesting insights. One, it is one of the earliest examples of cat ownership in Central Asia, which is not a very well-studied topic. Two, it is a strong sign of the cultural exchanges that happened along the Silk Road because cat ownership was rare among nomadic societies. In fact, even evidence of pet ownership among nomadic societies isn’t very common, meaning that this particular finding could be talked about for years and years to come.