The Bronze Age: Trade & Trade Routes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Bronze Age was, obviously, defined by the emergence of bronze. However, this change impacted societies in more ways than you might think. In this lesson, we'll see how trade changed in this era, as well as how that set the stage for changes to come.

Trading in the Bronze Age

Global trade is a huge part of the world today. It's practically impossible for a country to function economically without participating in an international degree of buying and selling. This is very much understood as a product of modern societies, but that doesn't mean it's an entirely modern phenomenon. In fact, the origins of this trade are pretty ancient.

Way back, around 3,000 BCE, ancient innovators started smelting copper with tin in order to create a stronger metal called bronze. As the Bronze Age began, other innovations developed, including more advanced societies, stronger political structures, and improved sailing technology. Societies around the world grew faster than ever before. At the center of this growth was trade. Societies were in greater contact, and they exchanged products with each other on a greater scale. It was a changing world, and trade was at the center of it all.

Local Trade

Trade became a big part of life in the Bronze Age, but then again, human societies have always exchanged goods. So, what makes the Bronze Age so special? Trade increased in both size and scale during this era, and to see that we need to look at trade in a few different ways. Let's start with trade on the local scale.

By the Bronze Age, most societies were settled, agricultural, and had established political structures. Farmers spent their time producing crops for themselves, along with extra crops to sell. Artisans made their crafts, sold them, and used the money to purchase food. People within a society were already trading on a large scale by the Bronze Age, but improved technologies by the 3rd millennium BCE let them start producing more and selling it farther away. People traded between cities, and then started trading within limited regions.

Minoan fresco of Bronze-Age boats and a coastal village
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These were some of the first substantial trade routes of the Bronze Age, many of them based around water systems like the Nile River or the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Boat technology let merchants sail along river systems and coastlines, connecting limited regions within trade networks. The domestication of pack animals like camels also helped facilitate increased interaction between communities over land.

Long-Distance Trade

Before long, some of these regional trade routes began stretching even farther. As they did, new settlements emerged along the trade routes as places for merchants to meet and exchange goods. With these trading settlements, merchants could deal in products from farther distances and travel farther themselves. By the end of the Bronze Age, merchants were dealing in large-scale regional trade. The entire Mediterranean was connected by trade routes, as was the Middle East, Central Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia. These large-scale regions were formed by people sharing products and ideas on a larger scale than ever before.

Bronze-Age bell from China
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Trade of this scale was generally motivated by the demand for rare, often luxury items that were not available on a local level. A Mesopotamian city didn't need to important grains from across the Mediterranean; they had plenty of that. Instead they needed things they couldn't easily get their hands on. Spices and minerals were major parts of these trade routes, but being the Bronze Age, you may be able to guess what materials were in the highest demand: those for making bronze.

Bronze is created from mixing copper with tin. As the demand for bronze increased, so did the demand for copper, and the copper trade was a major industry of the era that dominated regional trade routes. However, it was tin that really defined the need for more expansive trade. Tin is pretty rare, and most tin mines available to Bronze-Age people were relatively small. So, in order to make bronze, societies often had to import tin from far away, and constantly be on the lookout for new trade partners with access to the rare material.

Tin was pretty rare. This map shows some of the important sources of tin used by Bronze-Age people.
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