Corridors of power

by Edward Pegler on 29 June, 2010

Histories invaders and imperial expansions, such as those of the Han dynasty in China, give strong clues to where prehistoric trade routes are.

Han dynasty watchtower overlooking the Taklamakan desert in western Gansu province

Han dynasty watchtower on the Silk Road

Around 1050BC the Shang dynasty of China fell, brought down by a western clan, the Zhou, from beyond the empire.

In the years around 100 BC the Han dynasty invaded west, expanding it’s control well over one thousand miles along the narrow Gansu (Hexi) Corridor into the Tarim basin.

So What?

The ‘what’ is two patterns repeated in different cultures at different times around the world:

1) the appearance of a group of people in strength, apparently from nowhere

2) the highly directed expansions of empires.

These two factors are related.

New players on the historical stage

Historical events have some of the characteristics of a badly written play. You’re presented with a few actors who spend most of the play setting up some situation. Then, five minutes before the end a new actor is introduced from stage left who, for example by randomly shooting one of the main characters, changes everything. Any good storyteller will try to avoid this because it makes for a very unsatisfying ending. Historians are forced, begrudgingly, to make an exception.

Many traditional historians of the twentieth century (and many modern archaeologists too, surprisingly) took a peculiarly nationalist view of history. History, to them, was about a particular people, their growing pains, insecurities and flowering to become the regional power that they had, of course, become. This made it difficult for the historians to give much credit to people from outside the nation. They were generally seen as a bunch of heathens needing a damn good civilizing.

But introduce characters from off-stage and this narrative could take some surprising turns. In England we had the Romans and Normans to deal with. So we had a choice: either we considered ourselves well and truly of Roman/Norman descent, benevolently coming to civilise the hopeless inhabitants of England; or, conversely, the Romans/Normans were a horrible blip in our glorious country’s progress to greatness.

Even now the Romans are generally seen as benefactors, the Normans as tyrants.

The reality here, of course, is that the Normans and Romans were just people, getting on with their own lives and having their own plans. Their decisions to invade England were for sound economic and political reasons, those reasons now only to be guessed at.

This must have been the case for the Zhou invaders of ancient China. Because Chinese history has little to say about their origins it doesn’t mean that they weren’t significant or powerful in their own right. They probably had their own economic agenda, such as expanding their power and controlling their supply lines. The fact that some of them became emperors of China was a nice bonus.

Territorial expansion

As stated before, territorial expansions don’t tend to form nice circles like expanding ripples. Usually they are more linear. Conquests run along particular axes – what you could almost call the grain of the landscape.

For example, think of how Egypt’s kingdoms were united along the Nile, and of Egypt’s later annexation of Kush in the south. Think of Sargon of Akkad’s campaigns from the Persian Gulf to the Taurus Mountains. Think, of course, of Alexander the Great’s extraordinary grand tour across southern Asia.

In the case of the Nile, the desert was a prime limiting factor. Why conquer the desert either side of the Nile? But there’s no reason why Sargon couldn’t have thought “bugger it!” and headed off north into the Caucasus instead of choosing the route he chose.

Sargon’s prime reason was simple. The people he aimed to conquer lived along the Euphrates trade route crossing the Middle East. They had grown rich off the proceeds of that trade. They also controlled the flow of goods to Akkad. Sargon probably didn’t want to destroy that trade. He just wanted a cut, through taxation, and a smooth and cheap supply of goods.

This reason for conquest is true for almost all of history. Empires expand along trade routes. I say almost all of history because the largely pointless nineteenth century colonial land grab completely bucked this trend and has caused us imperial confusion ever since.

Controlling the Silk Road to China

Map of China, showing the area of the Shang empire and the gains achieved by the Qin and Han dynasties.

Expansion of the Chinese empire between 1000BC and 100 BC

It has often been supposed that the Han dynasty, by its conquest of the peoples of the Tarim Basin around 100 BC, opened up the Silk Road. This is not really true. The Silk Road was a trade route long before the Han invasions.

Ideas and technology (such as the chariot, the smelting of copper and the making of bronze) had been coming through the Tarim basin, down the Gansu corridor and into old China’s Yellow River heartland for thousands of years before the Han invasion. Chinese silk in Afghanistan, dated to 2000 BC, shows evidence of the kind of thing going the other way.

Glimpses of the peoples living along these trade routes are rarely seen in history. However, occasionally they are there. The arrival of the powerful Zhou from the Gansu corridor, part of the Silk Road, is an example of some of these already successful people emerging into written history.

And when the Han dynasty did strike out west along the Gansu corridor into the Tarim Basin their reasons were simple: to control and stabilise trade along the route. It had the desired effect. Chinese luxuries started to appear in such numbers in the west that they finally had the chance of being found by modern archaeologists.

Lost trade routes

So are these rules true equally for the lost histories of the Americas? Was the Inca empire’s northern expansion along the Andes a way of controlling north-south trade routes along the mountain chain? Or was the appearance of Mesoamerican ballcourts in first millennium AD Arizona the result of ancient Mesoamericans intervening to control their supplies of turquoise and, perhaps, copper ore* from an unpredictable source? I suspect so.

And extending this sort of logic, is the peculiarly linear expansion Early Neolithic of “LBK peoples” west across the North European Plain simply to control the trade routes there?

Well why not?


Bahn, P.G. (ed) 2000. The Atlas of World Archaeology, Checkmark/Sandcastle, pp208.

Photograph by The Real Bear


*I’m well aware that copper bells are thought to have been imported into the SW United States from Mesoamerica. It’s just that no-one ever seems to have commented on the fact that the SW United States is one of the biggest sources of copper ore in North America. Mesoamerica, on the other hand, has very little copper ore itself.

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