Maritime and inland transportation networks over time

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Cunliffe_cover_bannerTransportation networks, and the potential for social connectivity across landmasses and via waterways and along coastlines is worth pondering as part of reconstructing an understanding of our human past that emphasizes continuity—social, political, technological, etc.—rather than a series of major events. Barry Cunliffe’s Europe between the Oceans: 9000 BC to AD 1000 (Yale University Press, 2008) is not inexpensive—due in part to its wonderful visuals—but it is worth tracking down as an example of this approach. Cunliffe makes the point repeatedly as he traces Europe’s past that this was not a large area, nor was it trackless. He views Europe’s landmass as a peninsula, which could be crossed, despite a few mountainous zones, by following river systems, or by circumnavigating the landmass. Cunliffe writes:

In Europe, distances are not great and knowledge could spread rapidly. The networks of communication pulsated with the flow of information—stories of exotic lands and people, technological know-how, systems of values and beliefs. At the notes where the exchanges took place…, the excitement of the new would have been palpable. Even the most remote communities would not have been totally immune from the flow of information. So it was that the disparate peoples of Europe, from the most innovative to the most conservative, became enmeshed in networks of contact that inexorably drove change. (page 29)

As reviewer Benjamin Schwarz noted in The Atlantic:

Geography forms the essential basis of Cunliffe’s history. The waters encircling Europe, the transpeninsular rivers that penetrated it, and its topography, currents, tides, and seasonal wind patterns all determined millennia-old sailing routes, and thus the goods and beliefs transported along them. From Cunliffe’s perspective, even the Roman Empire was just an interlude, and perhaps its main achievement was to institutionalize through its ports, roads, and market centers Europe-wide networks of exchange that had been operating since the Middle Stone Age.

By stressing historical continuity and adroitly employing a wide-ranging archaeological record to highlight mobility and interconnectedness, Cunliffe draws a startling picture. Europe, he demonstrates, was geographically and culturally merely “the western excrescence of the continent of Asia.” His archaeological and topographic analysis shows how for thousands of years the steppe lands linked central Asia to the Great Hungarian Plain, thus providing “easy access” from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Here was a corridor for trade and migration, starting with nomadic groups deep in prehistory and continuing through the preclassical, classical, medieval, and early modern eras with great hordes of Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, Moguls, and Tatars. Knowledge of, for example, the chariot seems to have moved from the Russian forest steppe (the earliest known examples date to 2800 B.C.) to the Carpathian basin in Hungary and, by the 16th century B.C., to Mycenaean Greece and Sweden. Sarmatian horsemen, originally from central Asia, served in northern England as mercenaries in the Roman army.


The core of the European peninsula, without northern Scandinavia.


The Caribbean area, including southern North America and Central America.

These two satellite views are screen-grabs from Google Earth (downloadable for free), and are at the same scale; north is “up” on both. Note how the maritime edges of Europe provide a different transportation scenario compared to continental North America. Clearly, the Arctic, the Great Lakes region, and the circum-Caribbean area are the only parts of North America with the topographic potential for similar maritime transportation networks.

Yet, summaries of the prehistory of the Southeast rarely mention much about circum-Caribbean transportation and exchange networks. Is this because data for them are scanty? Is it due to the fractured modern political boundaries of the region? Is it because such exchange networks just didn’t exist? Or…?

Click here to read The Atlantic review by Benjamin Schwarz, published in December 2008.

Click here to read about Sir Barry Cunliffe on Wikipedia.