Lessons From A Map of 12th Century Eurasia

The following map was doing the rounds on Twitter a couple of months ago. Its detail and accuracy are pretty stunning. See source here.

Trade Routes

What is particularly interesting is that, despite the changes that have taken place in the world since the 12th century, especially the colonization of the Americas, most of the world’s most important population centers and trade routes are still the same.

As noted in the book War in Human Civilization:

[T]he world’s most advanced historical civilizations emerged along the crescent-shaped belt that spanned eastern, southern, and western Eurasia stretching almost continuously all the way from Japan to Europe. Along this belt temperatures were sufficiently high and water abundant enough to produce densely populate agricultural societies that, in AD 1500, comprised an estimated 70 percent of the world’s population.

Even today, around 70 percent of the world’s population lives in Eurasia. Most of the world’s economic and political activity occurs in the crescent-shaped belt along the rim of Eurasia, leading to a number of geopolitical theories about how control of the rimland or the heartland (central Eurasia) abetting the rimland is the key to dominance.

But the most interesting aspect of this map is how trade routes and population centers are still very much in similar locations today as they were hundreds of years ago. And for much of the same reasons. Here are some observations:

East Asia is actually more mountainous than would seem the case, because of its reputation for populated agricultural communities. However, this is explained by two factors: rice can be grown on hills through terrace farming, and much of the region’s population is concentrated in densely populated river valleys. River valleys have always supported large populations, but density is more evenly distributed in India and Europe.

The northern Indian plains are actually the largest concentrations of fertile land and open plains among the historical Eurasian civilizations. Combined with a tropical climate, river valleys, and good soil, it is no surprise that the entirety of the Indus-Ganges river valley is chock full of people, more evenly spread than in East Asia.

The Middle East, on the other hand, is rather sparsely populated, relative to the other major population centers of the world. Nonetheless, it does have a because it contains some of the world’s oldest agricultural communities in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. However, the region is characterized by arid terrain, and low population densities for the most part.

Europe, on the other hand, has a temperate climate, and even rainfall patterns, enabling its population to be more evenly spread. As a result, despite the reputation of medieval Europe being poor and backward relative to other civilizations, it was a highly populated, economically thriving area, as it is not punctuated by uninhabited spaces.

These demographic and geographic aspects continue to influence these regions to this day, as they did a millennium ago.

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