Probably this happened several times and maybe even failed and broke up in different regions. What hints and proofs do we have of the earliest succesful intercontinental trade relations? I assume there didn't yet exist a common currency system and it was pure barter trade.


I will not interpret intercontinental in modern terms but rather view it as trade among distinct civilisations. Such trade dates back to Ancient Egyptian civilisations, Babylonians and Indus Valley Civilisation.

Proofs exists in form of archeological excavations of, for example, potteries of Indus Civilisation in Iran and other parts of central Asia.

The following articles may be of help:

The British Museums's website has a very descriptive timeline of ancient trade. (It is flash based, cannot directly link. Navigate your way starting here.)

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    I think lapis lazuli is the prototypical example of this, as it is only found in Afghanistan, was important for making blue dyes, and thus was found all over the old world as obvious proof of some kind of trade (directly or indirectly) with central Asia. Some of it was found in Egypt dating back to 3,000ish BCE, which I believe is about a millineum older than the pots that paper refers to. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lapis_lazuli#Historical_usage – T.E.D. Nov 9 '12 at 19:08

There is direct evidence of truly intercontinental trade dating back to approximately 1700 BC. Jack Turner, in his book Spice: The History of a Temptation, writes that a handful of cloves were found in a charred vessel in Syria. The find was remarkable in that, until modern times, cloves only grew on five tiny islands that are part of the Moluccas in Indonesia. Clay tablets located at the same archeological site reference a specific king, allowing the tablets and the cloves to be dated to approximately 1721 BC.

  • Not downvoting, but it should be pointed out somewhere (and I'm picking here) that rare items can travel great distances just because they are more common close to their source, and thus more valuable further away. This could just be the result of hundreds of small transactions, rather than something worthy of being called a "trade route". – T.E.D. Nov 9 '12 at 19:19

According to the Wikipedia, Egypt traded with Canaan at the time of the first dynasty and probably even before that, that's about 3000 BCE.

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    Good call. I bet this is indeed one of the earliest intercontinental trade routes. Egypt and Sumeria would also have traded from a very early date. – Noldorin Oct 12 '11 at 14:36

Obsidian was exported during the Stone Age (Neolithic) from Melos (an island in Europe) to the Near East (Asia) and Egypt (Africa). Blades, cutting tools, piercing tools, arrow heads, mirrors and artwork are made from obsidian. The trade started 13000 years ago, before the discovery of agriculture.

  • What evidence is there for this? – American Luke Nov 11 '12 at 13:41
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    Good answer; I'd love to see a source/cite, and I'd love to know how they determined the origin of the obsidian. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 15 '12 at 18:58
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    This link seems to give some source : Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 38, Issue 9, September 2011, Pages 2475-2479. – Frédéric Grosshans Jun 14 '13 at 13:14

To further detail Lev's example -- there is some evidence of cultural exchange between the Maadi culture of the Nile delta region in Lower Egypt somewhere during the middle of the Naqada period of predynastic Egyptian history, in the neighborhood of 3900-3500 BCE.

Some of the evidence for this in the archaeological record is a type of blade (referred to as the "Canaanite Blade") that shows some Palestinian influences, as well as an apparently simultaneous shift to the usage of certain copper tools rather than their stone counterparts in both this Maadi region as well as in Palestine.

Source: The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt 2003 Edition, pp54-55


I know this question is old, but the previous answers did not touch on truly intercontinental trade.

The first example of intercontinental trade has to be during the Age of Discovery. From the 15th-17th century the European nations explored beyond their borders in search of trade, and subsequently subjugation. The interaction between them and other cultures is the world's first example of intercontinental trade. The Vikings may have traded with people far beyond their borders, and even the Carthaginians may have reached the New World, but in terms of sustained trade the Age of Discovery has to be paramount.

The exploration missions of the "discoverers" from Europe were all prefaced upon finding a quicker route to the silk trade routes of Asia that Marco Polo originally discovered with his overland route. This was the impetus for European exploration and would lead to the wide spread European colonization and the development of intercontinental trade in goods previously non-existent in mainland Europe such as spices, and chocolates.

These trade routes, and the driving force behind them have to be the first examples of intercontinental trade because they actually endured and influenced history. The previous routes were short lived.

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    Well, technically Asia, Europe, and Africa are all different contients and the Phonecians (1200-1000 BC) had trading posts on all of them. – T.E.D. Apr 24 '12 at 13:53
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    The silk road and the associated spice road cannot be described as short lived ! And they connected China, India, Indonesia, East Africa (down to Zanzibar, or even further South), and Europe (Al-Andalus, but also Christian Europe) through the Islamic Empire through the middle ages. – Frédéric Grosshans Jun 14 '13 at 13:09

Bronze age: Troy and Greece: one is in Europe, the other in Asia. The Greek states did balk at the tolls of Troy, or at least that is one of the reasons given for the war by Herodotus in The Histories.


Tin from Britain was used in bronze found in the middle east. And it's likely the Phoenicians were getting copper from across the Atlantic during the same time period.

Humans didn't start using iron for everything because it was better than bronze. Civilizations collapsed and the trade networks for bronze alloy materials fell apart so people switched to iron because it was readily available locally. This was around the "Fall of Troy," invasion of the Sea Peoples, roughly 1200 bc. Which is the same time that ancient copper mines in Michigan were abandoned.

Humans were originally nomadic so intercontinental trade has been going pretty much as long as we've existed. It might just stop sometimes because we get stupid every few thousand years.

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    Welcome to History:SE. Sources to support your assertions would greatly improve this answer – sempaiscuba Aug 24 '19 at 7:44
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    I'm not sure that nomadism actually has that much of an impact on intercontinental trade, as they happen on very different time spans. – Steve Bird Aug 24 '19 at 7:44
  • You seem to be implying that the ancient Mediterranean civilizations got their copper from North America, and not well-known European sources such as Cyprus (the name "copper" itself is derived from "Cyprus"). – Mark Aug 27 '19 at 1:38

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