The global millennium: how the year AD 1000 was more globalised than we might think

Globalisation is a phenomenon that defines and challenges the modern world – and the roots of this global connectedness stretch back much further than we might imagine. Writing for BBC World Histories magazine, Valerie Hansen examines the year AD 1000, and how it may offer lessons for today’s interconnected world…

A 10th-century silver coin minted in a Danish settlement

Globalisation is a phenomenon that defines and challenges the modern world. Trade, technology, culture, conflict: today, all span continents and hemispheres. And the roots of this global connectedness stretch back much further than we might imagine.

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A new system of global pathways formed in the year 1000, following the arrival of Vikings in what’s now north-eastern Canada. Trade goods, people and ideas moved along these newly discovered routes. Globalisation affected both those who went to new places (traders, explorers, slaves) and those who stayed at home (who experienced religious change, riots, and onerous labour conditions to produce goods for overseas markets).

There’s no single historiographical view of when globalisation began but, rather, two dominant paradigms: one locates the start of globalisation in the late 1970s, the other much earlier, around 1500. The seventies witnessed the full flowering of globalisation, notably in terms of the outsourcing of manufacturing and the ease of travel. And around the turn of the 16th century, Columbus and da Gama (and, a little later, Magellan) tied together the world in a way that hadn’t occurred before.


Listen: On this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, Valerie Hansen surveys the state of the world a millennium ago and argues that this was a crucial moment in the story of globalisation


Yet it was events five centuries earlier that made the changes of 1500 possible – events that are too often neglected in Eurocentric narratives. If you focus your gaze only on the mid-Atlantic, then of course 1492 seems to mark the beginning of Europe’s contact with other parts of the world. But a global view reveals that such contacts started much earlier – in fact, around the year 1000.

The world of a millennium ago was, of course, very different from our own. Transport involved walking or riding or sailing or rowing. Communication was slow. Yet while there were no factories that produced goods with powered machines, mass manufacturing was far more prevalent than we might imagine possible. In China, at that time the world’s leading manufacturer, factories were capable of producing several thousand ceramic pots in a single firing in kilns fuelled by wood or sometimes coal or coke. With a total population of 100 million, or 40% of the global population, China had a vast labour force.

Mass manufacturing was far more prevalent than we might imagine possible

This world was not capitalist in any sense that we understand today. Then, merchants, who made and sold things, were among the wealthiest groups in society, and no stock market yet existed. Also, whereas after 1500 power was concentrated in Europe, which was beginning to explore and exploit other regions, in 1000 there were multiple power centres around the planet. Before the boom in European economic and political power beginning with the era of the Crusades, around 1100, the continent lagged far behind the Islamic world and China in terms of knowledge, influence and commerce. The peoples of different regions were much more balanced in their technology and wealth, so in that sense it was much more like our world today than the world of five centuries later. Of course, human beings are all similar. People then were like us today, and reacted in the same ways: some were frightened by unfamiliar things, while some were curious about new opportunities.

A reconstructed Norse building at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Newfoundland
A reconstructed Norse building at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Newfoundland, where Viking expeditions made a small encampment around AD 1000. (Image by Alamy)

In the late 10th century, Vikings crossed the north Atlantic from Scandinavia, sailing to Iceland, on to Greenland and then to North America – to the island that is now Newfoundland, and possibly to what today is Quebec province in Canada and the state of Maine in the US.

Two types of sources provide information about these voyages. The first takes the form of oral narratives written down in Icelandic in the 13th and 14th centuries – accounts passed down through families from one generation to the next, about ancestors’ accomplishments. Many historians are sceptical about the accuracy of those accounts, and some hold them to be entirely fictitious, with no basis in actual historic events. I believe that they contain useful historical information about the north Atlantic voyages, not least because, in 1960, the Icelandic Sagas enabled the Norwegian researchers Anna Stine and Helge Ingstad to locate the places to which the Vikings had sailed.

The second type of source takes the form of archaeological materials. The archaeological site discovered by the Ingstads at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, proves that the Norse crossing of the north Atlantic occurred around the year 1000 – part of a pivotal wave of globalisation.

Around the year 1000, then, people were on the move. But why?

When the global population reached 250 million, around the 10th century, the world reached a tipping point that prompted people to leave their home regions and go to new places. Developments in agriculture played a part, fuelling population growth and freeing a portion of the populace from having to work the land. In the agricultural centres of western Europe, in southern China and in the Islamic world, particularly the area around modern Iraq, innovation increased agricultural productivity; the same was probably true in the Maya heartland in what’s now Mexico.

Yet there were no technological breakthroughs sparking this age of exploration. The Vikings crossed the Atlantic in sailboats with oars, and there’s no evidence that they had the benefit of any navigational instruments: they would have used stars and tides to plot their course, and realised that the presence of birds indicates proximity to land. The same would have been true for the ancestors of the modern inhabitants of Malaysia – the Malayo-Polynesians – who crossed the Pacific, and for Chinese navigators sailing the Indian Ocean (though they began to use magnetic compasses around this time).

Around the year 1000, then, people were on the move. But why?

Sea travel, though, was only one aspect of the integration of different regions. Overland routes were opening up across Africa and Eurasia, and also in the Americas. We have no written documents from the Maya from the year 1000 – the last Maya inscriptions are from around 900. But archaeological evidence indicates contact around that time between the great Mayan cities on the Yucatán peninsula and peoples of the American south-west, in what’s now New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The Maya had figured out how to process cacao beans to produce a rather bitter unsweetened chocolate drink consumed as a stimulant; archaeological evidence suggests that Maya chocolate reached New Mexico, and that turquoise from that region was exported to the Maya heartlands.

What’s clear, then, is that the Europeans of the late 15th and 16th centuries didn’t create the great trade networks from scratch, but instead plugged into and connected existing networks. Already in 1000, trade routes spanned North America, some connecting to the Andean region in South America. When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean on his fourth voyage in 1502, his expedition encountered a huge Maya trade canoe, described by his son as being as big as a galley (perhaps 20 metres long), loaded with goods that were circulating between Mexico and the Caribbean islands.

At around the same time, the Portuguese accessed a similar network that was already functioning in west Africa. The 11th-century scholar Al-Bakri, based in Al-Andalus (what’s now Andalucía, southern Spain), wrote a detailed account of African trade routes and the conversion of local rulers to Islam. Importantly, he outlined a triangular trade demonstrating the complex networks. European goods such as textiles and beads were traded for gold and slaves in the Mediterranean ports of north Africa, then carried overland to salt mines in the Sahara, where they were traded for salt. Caravans carried the salt south to exchange for gold and slaves, which they transported to the Mediterranean to complete the triangle. So Africa was connected by trade to the Mediterranean, and also to the Islamic world east of Africa.

Along with trade goods, ideologies and faiths were travelling between continents at a time when what we now call the ‘world religions’ gained traction. Islam, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Hinduism and Buddhism variously appealed to the rulers of smaller countries aiming to consolidate power, having dispatched rivals and won key battles. Information about great powers reached these rulers, whose people may have worshipped local deities; they frequently chose to adopt one or other of the large religions in order to ally with a leader of a foreign power.

The example of Grand Prince Vladimir, ruler of the Kievan Rus’ – a realm spanning much of eastern Europe and stretching into modern Russia – makes the point particularly well. By 987, he was ruling a Slavic people who followed pagan beliefs, worshipping at shrines to local deities. Having come to power through a complicated series of events (including killing a half-brother), he recognised the need to find a glue to hold his people together, and sent fact-finding missions to his neighbours to learn about Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam. Weighing the pros and cons of each, he decided to adopt Eastern Orthodoxy – reportedly in response to his envoys’ description of a monumental building, probably the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul), a technological marvel comparable to today’s architectural wonders. In fact, Vladimir’s decision showed that he recognised the strength of the Byzantine empire, his most powerful neighbour. That kind of pragmatic, rather than spiritual, decision based on a need to consolidate power was the norm, with long-lasting and far-reaching consequences.

Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul)
Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul). In the late 10th century, Prince Vladimir of the Kievan Rus’ converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, reputedly in response to descriptions of this great basilica. (Photo by: VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

One exception, which highlights the rationale behind the decisions taken by other rulers, was that of the Khazars. This central Asian people adopted Judaism in the eighth century; the question of why they chose that faith is much debated, and indeed we’re not absolutely sure that they did. We know that some Khazar rulers minted copies of Islamic coins declaring that Allah is the sole God – but reworded the language on the coins to say that Moses, not Muhammad, was his messenger. They probably made this decision to avoid having to choose either Eastern Orthodoxy – the religion of their neighbours to the west, the Byzantine empire – or Islam, thereby avoiding siding with one great power and antagonising the other.

With international trade came competition, of the kind we today associate with globalisation. Archaeological evidence from shipwrecks shows that Chinese ceramics, which were being produced in the thousands in great manufacturing centres, were also being shipped overseas in huge quantities. Two pots excavated in the Iranian town of Shush, the site of ancient Susa, demonstrate the impact of this trade. By examining the colour of the clay and the glaze used, art historians have determined that one of the pieces is a Chinese export, the other a local copy. The locally produced example is nowhere near as advanced as the Chinese piece.

Such Chinese celadon pottery pieces can be almost translucent, ranging in colour from a bright white to blue-green, and were the iPhones of their day: high-tech and desired by all. Fired at an extremely high temperature, they were very hard, with glaze that melted to glass, and were very easy to clean. Comparison of those two vessels shows that potters in China and the Middle East were competing for market share, and that the Middle Eastern potters didn’t have as good a product. Despite efforts to emulate the Chinese techniques, they never figured out how to fire at the high temperatures the Chinese had achieved. As a result, a surprising number of Chinese ceramics have been found as far away as the east African coast. You would expect to find mostly pots from the Middle East, because that region was so much closer to Africa than China – but the presence of Chinese ceramics shows that the Chinese retained significant market share in Africa.

As traders carried ceramics huge distances, they also transported slaves. The ongoing demand for slaves in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Baghdad, Cairo and other cities resulted in the forced movement of more than ten million people from Africa, eastern Europe and central Asia, hundreds of years before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began. Indeed, so many slaves were transported from eastern Europe that the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav.

In the world of 1000, then, differences between regions were relatively small – so even minor advances in technology could have a significant impact, as the Vikings in Greenland discovered. The Norse who settled southern Greenland from the 10th century may not have realised that the Thule people, who had arrived in northern Greenland having slowly moved east from Alaska across what’s now northern Canada, were pushing into southern Greenland. The development that enabled this expansion was a technological breakthrough that allowed the Thule to hunt seals year round, and so to outcompete the Norse.

The Thule people’s seal-hunting technique was simple: dig a hole in the ice, hold a feather above the water and wait till the feather moves, indicating a seal breathing under the water. At this point, technology came into play: a harpoon with a detachable tip. A speared animal such as a seal could escape at a faster speed than the people hunting it could follow. But by using a detachable harpoon tip tethered to a float, the hunters could follow the wounded animal until it died, then locate and retrieve it. It was a groundbreaking innovation – yet one that the Norse, who were competing with the Thule in southern Greenland, didn’t adopt. The result was that during the 14th century the Norse colonies failed, and by the early 15th century the Norse had pulled out of Greenland, leaving it to be occupied entirely by the Thule – the ancestors of today’s Inuit peoples.

In the world of 1000, differences between regions were relatively small – so even minor advances in technology could have a significant impact

By then, the technological differences among regions, which hadn’t been that obvious in 1000, became more pronounced. By 1500, because of the invention of the cannon and the musket, conflicts between the Europeans and other peoples became vastly one-sided, with an impact still felt today.

Technology, too, is reshaping our understanding of history today, not least in improving our knowledge of the world beyond Europe in the past. We know about the export of chocolate from the Maya to Chaco Canyon in modern New Mexico from chemical analysis of residues in ceramics – a kind of analysis that wasn’t possible 50 years ago. And we have a sense of the huge scale of Angkor in Cambodia from the use of Lidar technology, an aerial surveying technique using lasers that enables archaeologists to reconstruct settlements and identify buildings on the ground without having to excavate. In this way, we’re learning how globalisation has evolved, and realising that the world has been dealing with these kinds of issues for much longer than previously thought.

Today, anti-globalisation movements are active in various parts of the world – but resentment against foreign traders profiting at the expense of local people is not new. In the late ninth century, foreign merchants in Guangzhou, China were targeted, with tens of thousands of Arabs and Persians massacred. In 996, Cairo residents rioted in protest at Italian traders, a phenomenon repeated in Constantinople with the ‘massacre of the Latins’ (Italians) in 1182.

What lessons can we draw from this novel view of the year 1000? Certainly, the consequences of various actions are instructive. Accounts tell of some Norse explorers who, encountering the local people in today’s Canada at that time, killed them without even talking to them. Others tried to communicate, despite not sharing a common language, and attempted to trade. There’s no question that those who tried to learn about others and reach some accommodation with them prospered, compared with those who acted defensively or aggressively. True, globalisation didn’t benefit everyone who experienced it. But those who remained open to the unfamiliar did much better than those who rejected anything new. That was true in the year 1000 – and it’s just as true today.

Valerie Hansen is Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University, where she teaches Chinese and world history. Her latest book is The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalization Began (Viking, 2020)

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This article was first published in issue 22 of BBC World Histories Magazine, on sale now