Ancient Trading

LESSON appropriate for both Middle and High School grades.

Early European explorers had no idea of how huge - or how busy - the western hemisphere was because they only saw a tiny part. When London, England was just a village, Native American people had already created civilizations, communities and trade centers, as well as trails and roads to connect them.

The earliest people traded with their near neighbors. As time went on, more and more things and ideas became available for trade. Some things were not available locally and came from very far away. People traded tools like drills, axes and knife blades made from obsidian (natural glass), copper, and shell; tourquoise, salt, iron from meteorites, silver, gold and other materials; waterproof baskets and pots to protect seed from animals and weather; foods, cloth, clothes, jewelry, feathers, household items, animal hides. And equally important, intangible things like ideas, songs, inventions and medical procedures were distributed throughout the Americas by ancient merchants and travelers. The exchange of ideas is called cultural diffusion.

Some ancient trade routes followed rivers and the coastlines, and many Native American people were excellent navigators and boat builders. Today’s archeologists find ancient Great Lakes copper tools in places very far away like Cahokia (Illinois), where shells from the Gulf of Mexico were brought by people traveling trails and waterways. The Dalles (Oregon), Poverty Point (Louisianna), Chaco Canyon (Arizona) and many other trade centers thrived in the Americas long before Europeans arrived.

See the Ancient Trading map. Notice what was traded from where and how far it had to be carried. Find Cahokia, the Dalles, Poverty Point and Chaco Canyon.

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