American exchange routes

A Roman mosaic from the 500s-600s AD showing an African person leading a zebra, from Edessa (now Urfa) in modern Turkey




I’m getting going on Book 3: I’ll Trade You, making lists of who trades what where. It’s pretty easy for places like Constantinople or Kolkata, but it’s a lot harder in the Americas. The prevailing narrative for the Americas tends to run “oh, Native people just wandered around in the forest, I guess they ate dirt or leaves or something, acorns maybe, and then they weren’t really using the land, and they all died anyway, so it’s okay that we took it from them.”

But that’s not really true. Native people, like everyone else, had specialists who made things, from flint-knappers to miners, weavers, basket-makers, farmers, hunters, fishers, and so on. And, like other people, they found that some places had (for example) turquoise while other places had (for example) salt, or good flint, or attractive seashells. They traded back and forth. There were big trading centers, usually where two rivers came together or at another convenient location.

Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 8.24.14 AMBecause this doesn’t fit in to the story we like to tell ourselves, we keep forgetting it. We don’t like to tell each other about the trading centers. So it’s easy to find information about the houses Native people lived in, and the stories they told, and the way they cooked their food. But it’s hard to find anything about their trading centers and the things they sold or bought (they didn’t have money, so you could also say they bartered things, but I think they probably had more complex systems than a straight barter, probably involving credit, like other people do.)

Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 8.26.36 AM

Anyway, that’s how I spent today, struggling through dig reports and academic papers where you can find those trading centers, and trying to repackage that in a way that is accessible to ordinary people – to children – for the book. In the end, I’m hoping to shift the narrative – the story we tell about Native people so that it does show them as people just like Eurasians, who specialized and traded corn for furs, flint for soapstone, turkey feathers for pumpkins.

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