Smuggling has been one of the most common economic activities of all time, yet it is all but absent from the historical record. Smuggling has fed the poor and provided a half-decent living to the workers of the world when they faced no other choice but grinding poverty. It was the one way to get affordable goods.
Smuggling was the one and only ‘discount store’ at nearly every place and in every period of history. It made life bearable. One of the very few historians to acknowledge smuggling writes this:
“Smugglers and their customers probably outnumber legal traders in many societies around the world; this is nothing new, they always have.”
Most of the products that have been smuggled were not the usual fear-inducing things like drugs, weapons and slaves. In most cases, the forbidden commerce involved salt, wool, fabric, tea and brandy.
Cooperation: Humanity’s Norm
Humans cooperate. This has been true as far back as we can see and it remains true. Left to their own devices, most people tend to get along. One of the great proofs of this – and one that I’ve never seen presented – is the fact of ancient trade.
Like smuggling, long-distance trade is also mostly absent from the history books. Some references do exist, of course, but grossly out of proportion to trade’s importance.
Humans always trade – at all periods of history and with every reachable group. People trade without ceasing, reaching out to distant peoples who look different, speak differently, live differently and worship different deities. And they have done this since long before the dawn of history.
Cooperative trading began thousands of years before there were states, treaties, or any other such institutions to “protect property rights.” For as long as humans were humans, they gathered up valuable goods, figured out how to transport them, and took off to find far-off strangers to trade with. On the other end, strangers were welcomed. They were not routinely robbed (though that did sometimes occur). The people on the far end took their goods, asked about other goods that could be obtained, and made deals to exchange their surplus goods in return. Soon enough, young men were making the trek in reverse. Trade flourished and life on both ends improved.
This is ubiquitous in the archaeological record. These traders are the real heroes of history. Their lives and work contributed to human happiness far more than that of any king or prince. No one told the traders that they should go and seek others and no one authorized them; they simply went and traded because it was beneficial and natural to do so.
The Forbidden History of Smuggling: The Obsidian Traders
Let me establish this point with the case of obsidian, a naturally-occurring volcanic glass. Here is a photo of obsidian:
When broken, obsidian leaves a very sharp edge; so sharp, in fact, that obsidian is still used for surgical scalpels. This characteristic made it highly useful for knives, scrapers and arrowheads.
The great thing about obsidian, from an archaeological standpoint, is that its source can be determined by its chemical makeup. By sampling the hardened lava from ancient volcanoes, the point of origin for obsidian can be clearly determined. So, we know where it comes from, and, of course, we know where we find it.
Obsidian tools can also be very accurately dated by a hydration process. That is, by measuring the absorption of water into its cut surfaces. This can be done with a simple light microscope, and the process has been refined with multiple experiments.
So, we can tell where obsidian came from, where it ended up, and how long ago it was cut or broken for use as a tool. In combination, these things allow us to map and date ancient trade routes.
The resulting maps of ancient trade are so surprising that they still have not made their way into the common mind. For example, the map below shows the near-East obsidian trade routes of approximately 8000 BC, and there are others going back to 14,000 BC.
As you look at this map, consider this: This trade was conducted five or six thousand years before the Great Pyramid was built. There was no Egypt, no Sumer, no Babylon or any of the other famous “first civilizations.” Egypt and the rest are closer in time to us than to these obsidian traders.
And, of course, these maps show only the ancient obsidian tools that have been found so far. There remains much more to be discovered.
This obsidian trade – which covered modern-day Cyprus, Turkey, Armenia, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, an arc of approximately two thousand miles – was conducted by individuals who simply loaded up, went out and found ways to cooperate with strange and distant peoples.
If you refer back to Freeman’s Perspective Issue #6, you’ll find a detailed report on Ötzi the Iceman, an experienced trader who lived in the Alps in about 3,300 BC. He also came before Sumer, Egypt, and the rest.
Another example: Even though trade was looked down upon by the agricultural Romans, the trade in and out of Rome was immense. As Professor Lionel Casson reports:
The Roman man in the street ate bread baked with wheat grown in North Africa or Egypt, and fish that had been caught and dried near Gibraltar. He cooked with North African oil in pots and pans of copper mined in Spain, ate off dishes fired in French kilns, drank wine from Spain or France… The Roman of wealth dressed in garments of wool from Miletus or linen from Egypt; his wife wore silks from China, adorned herself with diamonds and pearls from India, and made up with cosmetics from South Arabia… He lived in a house whose walls were covered with colored marble veneer quarried in Asia Minor; his furniture was of Indian ebony or teak inlaid with African ivory…
Everywhere we look in history – if we are capable of gaining an unobstructed view – we find traders improving human lives: motivated by their own desires and cooperating with strange people, far from home, and with no powerful organization threatening to punish those who might mistreat them. Again, these are the true heroes of history.
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