Tag Archives: Trade

What is globalization: how goods and people move across an ever-smaller world

Today, mentioning ‘globalization’ is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, we all intuitively understand that we wouldn’t have access to cheap consumer goods, varied and exotic cultural items, or faraway vacation spots without it. On the other, we’ve all heard of, or seen, the economic hardship it can bring on communities as jobs and opportunities are exported to the lowest bidder.

Image via Pixabay.

But one thing most people will agree on is that globalization is a new thing, relatively speaking. Something that’s really only started taking root in the last couple of decades or so. Granted, some of the most visible elements of globalization (such as job outsourcing or the abundance of international trade) have been creeping up since the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and its internal market. And, credit where credit is due: the process of globalization definitely did pick up steam all over the world in the last two to three decades.

The earliest steps of this process, however, have been around for much longer — thousands of years already. And, lucky you, we’re going to go through all of it here.

The basics

‘Globalization’, in general, refers to the process of individual groups, countries, or companies becoming integrated into a global whole, with all the upsides and downsides that entails. The term is most commonly used to refer to economic globalization, i.e. the integration of local markets or economies into the global one. However, one can argue that the process is in no way limited to money or jobs; the flow of data and information around the world is a major facet of globalization. As a non-American, I can also attest to how efficient entities like Coca-Cola and Hollywood were (and sometimes still are) in globalizing American culture, as well.

Still, the concept is closely intertwined with that of trade. One way to define trade is as an exchange of goods, services, or money between two or more parties. Another way to define it, one that’s a bit more useful for us right now, is that trade involves a good or service being produced in one place and consumed or used in another.

Demand — for raw materials, consumer goods, experiences, or services — is what fuels globalization. Practically speaking, not everything is available, can be produced, or can be produced for an affordable price in a single place. But everyone, everywhere, wants as high a standard of living as possible — so things need to be moved around, sometimes across the world.

And here we see what opposes globalization, the force that acts as its brakes: technology. Or rather, the lack of it. Our ability to quickly and reliably take one item from one place to another, whether it’s consumer goods, information, or whatever else is desired, acts as a hard cap on the process of globalization. Arguably, this is what kept trade local for most of human history, and what prevented globalization processes for the most part until the industrial era.

Now that we have a basic idea of what it is and why it appears, let’s take a look at how.

The stages of globalization

A souk or bazaar in Bern, Switzerland. Image via Pixabay.

In general, the process of globalization is separated into individual ‘stages’ to make it easier to conceptualize. Now, do be advised that while there is actual science being done on globalization, the stages we’ll be discussing right now are more ‘teaching aides’ than ‘rigorously defined concepts’. They can and will vary depending on your source, and where the focus of the discussion falls. Typically, however, most models include 3 to 5 stages of globalization.

One approach analyzes it through the relationship between where a given good (or service, etc, you know the drill) is produced, and where it is consumed. In this model, there are four distinct phases of globalization:

  • Phase 1 is what we’d consider hunter-gatherer societies. Here, demand or consumption (people that need to eat) follow production (natural resources of food that can be exploited).
  • Phase 2 are early agrarian societies. Here, production (farming) follows demand (people), but trade remains confined to relatively narrow areas due to difficulties in moving goods around.
  • Phase 3 started with the early industrialization of the 19th century. Mechanical energy made it economically viable to transport goods over large distances, so it became economically viable to consume items produced far away.
  • Phase 4, in which we currently live, involves the fracturing of the production process across different areas of the world to reduce costs. This only became possible due to very reliable shipping technology and safe trade lanes, as well as computers to keep everything delivered on time.

This 4-step model is the most commonly used, but I personally prefer the 5-step model, with a ‘Phase 2.5’ thrown in — more on that in a bit.

For now, however, these models provide an important tidbit of wisdom. While the particular ways societies or individual actors react to globalization can have good or bad outcomes for us personally, our communities, or our countries, the process itself isn’t willingly driven by any one of us. No government or cabal of central banks came together and decided the world was going to globalize. The process is the natural and quite obvious product of human nature and human ability: we all want stuff, and while we’re over here, some of the stuff we want is over there. Once we become able to go and carry it back, we’ll start trading with the people there in order to satisfy our needs.

Eventually, if you scale this process up, trade networks become global. Given enough time and reliability, new industries spring up that are completely dependent on these trade networks to survive (either by importing necessities such as raw materials and knowledge or for exporting their product).

Once that happens, a single ship can wipe out billions in trade value in just a few days. Image taken on 11 November 2009, via Wikimedia.

Most of us here today, probably all of us, live in societies that are more or less integrated into the global markets. That’s why you’re reading this article (written in Europe) on a device whose code was written in the US, with chipsets manufactured in Vietnam or some other South-Asian country using rare minerals mined in Africa, while wearing “made in China” clothing, and drinking or eating something likely from South America, such as a steak, coffee, or avocado toast.

In theory, the process of globalization is, quite ironically, not limited to the globe. Taken to its logical conclusion, the process of globalization could one day mean that someone on Earth can be telecommuting to a job in the Andromeda galaxy while listening to music made in some far-off system. The limitations to this integration process for any one item is whether we can reliably transport it, cheaply, over the distances required, and in the quantities needed.

But that’s talking about the far future. Let’s instead look at the past and see how globalization evolved throughout time.

The early days

Stone-age societies were very limited in their ability to change the environment to suit their needs. They didn’t have modern engines, they didn’t have modern materials, and very little finesse in their processing techniques. Another very important factor to keep in mind here is that they also lacked the numbers. We estimate that stone-age groups typically had 20 to 25 members.

Faced with these limitations, it simply made more sense for them to move demand (the people) to production (wild food). Even just tilling soil for crops is backbreaking labor if all you have are simple tools. What’s more, natural resources such as herds of prey or berry bushes tend to be quite limited up-front, but regenerate over time — so it made complete sense for groups to exploit one area then move to greener pastures.

At this time demand was quite modest, in both size and scope. Local resources were enough to keep these groups fed, and whenever the going got tough, they could just move away. Technology was still very limited, and for the most part, relied on raw materials that are present pretty much everywhere, like bones, wood, stones, pelts, special plants. The combination of small-scale demand that could be satisfied with local materials, the very poor technological background of the time, and the absence of money, meant that different groups wouldn’t need to engage in large-scale trade — and that they pretty much couldn’t, even if they did.

We also have pretty reliable evidence that early people had a different concept of ‘wealth’ than we do. They didn’t really accumulate it, or passed it down to their children. For hunter-gatherers, inheritance usually meant a sturdy, quality tool, and some skills. Possessions weren’t that common beyond practical items.

That being said, we do have evidence that trade did happen, even during this time, although quite limited in scope by today’s standards. Early traders seem to have dealt in technological goods such as grindstones and other tools, and it’s easy to see why all communities of the day would consider these valuable possessions. Whether or not they also traded in perishables we don’t know, as these wouldn’t really stand the test of time. Ideas were also very likely carried across these early stone-age trade networks, kind of like a very slow internet. It’s possible that people also took advantage of traders to move in-between groups.

An interesting idea is that these early traders served to unite different groups culturally through the ideas and people they carried along their routes. This can be seen as a very early, small-scale globalization of the disparate groups living in the same region.

Over time, populations grew and hardier tools were developed. The advent of metals such as copper for use in tools and weapons, in particular, had a profound effect on humanity. Crucially, it made cutting down trees, clearing out boulders, rocks, and digging, much easier and more reliable. Which was very handy since agriculture was putting its roots down, and people needed to clear land for it.

Agriculture

A particularly striking change for people living during these times was the transition from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle. Hunter-gatherers need to move around because they eventually exhaust the resources of any particular area. Farmers, in contrast, need to stay put. In fact, the more they stay put, the more food / wealth / stuff they can gain, since agriculture relies on fields being cleared, granaries being constructed, and infrastructure such as irrigation ditches — all of which take time to build. At the same time, food could be produced exactly where it was needed. For the first time in human history, production would follow demand, not the other way around.

Replica of a Bronze Age house, at the An Creagán Centre, Ireland. Image credits Kenneth Allen / geograph.ie

Yet, we know trade was picking up even during the very early days of the copper age. Our ability to transport goods over long distances didn’t massively improve compared to the stone age. So why were people trading more if farming was so great? Well, behind it was the proliferation of goods in this period to a much wider degree than previously seen.

Stone-age groups didn’t have access to many items. There was food, clothing, and medicine that everyone typically just produced for themselves. More advanced products, like tools, would be traded for — but they were generally also produced by the ones who would use them, if possible. By the copper age, however, agriculture allowed for food surpluses, which then freed up some people to specialize in professions other than ‘getting food’. Craftsmen, priests, scribes, and varied services would become available as a result.

Unlike before, it was not feasible to produce all of this in a single place any longer. Some natural resources like metals, silk, incense, and livestock were quite rare. The know-how and infrastructure required to process various resources weren’t necessarily available (even firing pottery is a complicated process that can easily fail), or there simply weren’t enough people available to do the work. So different groups and individuals within those groups would produce what they could and then trade for whatever else they needed or wanted. This turned communities that were previously cut off into intertwined (although, not yet interdependent) economies — a ‘localization’ process, similar to globalization on a more reduced scale.

The majority of transactions occurring worldwide at this time likely still took the form of barter. Coinage was an emerging concept, allowing for more complex and complicated trading networks to form where available. We have archeological evidence of pretty sophisticated trade mechanisms being used as early as three millennia ago. The infamous complaint letter to Ea-nasir is one example, mentioning contract-like agreements settling on a deal of copper “of good quality” to be carried out through middlemen at a later date, and people being dispatched “to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you [Ea-Nasir])” when the copper proved of poorer quality.

The complaint tablet. Image credits The Trustees of the British Museum.

That’s not to say foreign trade wasn’t taking place. The Harappans — an ancient civilization that flourished around the Indus river (today’s Afghanistan) between 5000 and 3000 years ago — were already building roads (for their newly-invented wheel), canals, and trade ports. Their wares were found as far as the Arabian Gulf, Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq-Kuwait-Syria area), and Central Asia. Interestingly, they managed this despite functioning as a barter economy entirely, although they did have fancy “standardized” weights.

Old-fashioned trade

Despite the limitations of the day, trade networks could grow to impressive sizes. But this relied on having a little luck or paying a spicy extra for your goods. This is that “Phase 2.5” I mentioned earlier: an in-between phase where mechanical solutions were not yet available, but some trade networks grew to sizes comparable to those of today.

The main reason our modern lives are so comfortable and goods so abundant is that we can use a lot of energy to alter the world around us. In essence, because we can perform a lot of physical work, quickly. Physical work is defined as the use of energy to apply a force to a particle over a certain distance — physics-speak for “moving things”, or for “doing something”. But for the majority of history, people were mostly limited to muscle power (theirs or their animals’) to do work.

In order to make a bagel, you need to clear a field, till it, plant and harvest the grain, mill it, sieve the dirt out, cut firewood, get water, mix the dough, and bake it. Every step requires physical work — the removal of trees and stumps, the grinding of grain, pumping water through pipes. Today we have machines totaling millions in horsepower doing that for us. In the Copper Age, it was just Ea-nasir, his ox, and a few slaves, at best, doing all of that.

It took exponentially longer. Image credits IFPRI / Flickr.

Trade suffered from the same limitation. You can’t sell something to those strange barbarians in the north if you can’t take it to them in the first place. You could take it there in small amounts or very slowly, but that’s not very good business. Especially when you can get robbed on the way.

One workaround for this, one which made people living along the Mediterranean coast very wealthy, was to trade by sea. Large cargo can be more easily and reliably transported over long distances on a ship, and sails can harvest the wind for free power. Not everybody could take advantage of the seas, however, as technology at this time was still limited and navigation, as well as the ships’ structural integrity, limited how much they could carry, where, and when. But the Mediterranean is pretty, relatively calm, and easily navigable. Peoples inhabiting its shores would be connected in one of the largest and most complex trading networks of antiquity, and the area remains a hotbed of trade to this day.

This area would eventually spawn the closest thing to interdependent markets ever seen until the modern age: at one point, the city of Rome, capital of the Roman empire, was completely dependent on imported grain to feed its population. The whole empire simply couldn’t produce and transport enough food to its capital, not until they annexed Egypt, which later served the city of Rome specifically as a breadbasket. This is a great example of why trade is such an important part of economies even to this day. Apart, Rome and Egypt suffered: one couldn’t feed itself, the other had too much grain and nowhere to put it. Together, however, they worked splendidly.

Rivers could serve the same purpose. Ancient Egypt is a great example. The civilization was quite literally dependent on the Nile for their food and water, and could not have existed without it. But the Nile also represented a reliable and safe trade route that connected the whole of Egypt. Blocks of stone, food, travelers, ideas, the Nile bore them all, on wicker ships. Their empire lasted thousands of years, and the Nile was what gave it cultural, political, and economic unity.

But the best example of globalized trade in ancient history is the Silk Road. This was a trade route including both overland and sea routes, which connected the ancient empires of China (Han) to Europe (Rome). Silk was one of the main items being traded along the route, hence its name. Due to its sheer length, trade over the Silk Road was done in steps. Each merchant would buy their items and take them part of the way, sell them in trade cities, and return. From there, a new trader would take them over another stretch of the road, and so on. Naturally, each one would slap their own premium on the price, so only luxury goods meant for very rich people were traded along the route.

We have evidence of silk being known to Romans since the first century BC, which they were exposed to by Parthian soldiers (that Roman soldiers killed and looted). This suggests that the Silk Road was already well established by this time, since only China really had the ability to produce meaningful quantities of silk back in the day. However, it never led to the Chinese and Roman empires actually meeting. Despite both making an effort to do so, the Parthians meddled with the whole affair, spreading disinformation to both — they wanted to keep acting like middlemen between the two, making bank in the process.

Map of the Route of the Silk Road. Image credits Patrick Gray / Flickr.

Trade along the Silk Road really picked up, ironically, under the Mongols. Despite being infamous as conquerors and bloodthirsty raiders, the Mongol empire was actually a pretty well-run place. Traders along the Silk Road were given seals that assured their protection across the route — for a fee, of course. Somewhat unbelievably for that time, the seals really did ensure that a merchant could travel as long as they pleased across the route and never have to fear bandits or thieves.

The Age of Discovery (between the 15th to the 18th century) was the closest we’ve got to globalization before the Industrial Revolution. During this time, ships would sail, laden with goods, between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It also saw the Colombian Exchange, the single largest transfer of people, animals, and plant species in history. Since transporting goods over long distances was still quite hard and took a long time, it was still expensive. Spices and other luxury commodities were still the most traded items by this time, but bulk commodities such as beer or raw materials were also being shipped around the world.

The Steam Engine

The Industrial Revolution truly opened the way for globalization as we know it today to begin. The steam engine allowed for physical work to be done reliably, cheaply, and in large quantities. This made trade easier and faster, and allowed for factories to grow in size and output. At the same time, similar to what happened when agriculture first came around, there was an increase in the number and variety of commodities available for purchase — which also meant an increase in demand for raw materials.

The Watt / Boulton and Watt steam engine, one of the first reliable and relatively efficient steam engines. Image via Wikimedia.

During this time, trade was still seen as a zero-sum game. The whole point of it was to buy raw resources cheaply, process them, and sell the finished goods for a profit. Economies were still shackled by the use of the gold standard, which meant that every country tried its best to gain as much gold from others as possible, in order to expand their own economies.

The economics of the Industrial Revolution is a treat, if you’re into that sort of thing, and this period of time had a profound effect on globalization. You could argue that this was the era of its birth. Areas like China, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific Islands, which had been quite isolated before, increasingly became part of the world economy during this time.

But a lot of the elements that would eventually culminate in the process of globalization were already around, so we won’t dwell too much on this time. What the Industrial Revolution really brought to the table was, at long last, a way to unshackle ourselves from muscle power. The engine made the world smaller. People now had a much easier time in bringing goods from faraway lands to their markets, so they did.

Globalization, in the way we understand the term now, needed one or two more ingredients to be added in the mix. That would happen around the 1990s.

Information revolution

What really gave globalization wings was the digital revolution. Sure, our ships are more reliable and we have GPS and other fancy tech to help us move things along, but the computer is the single most influential element in regards to globalization of the last century.

It’s much easier to move money around now — they’re numbers in an electronic account. You can buy or sell certain currencies instantly. You can transfer money overseas, instantly. This makes international trading and investments hilariously easy compared to any other time in human history.

Data transfer is also lightning-fast today. For starters, this facilitates trade. I have whole websites with millions of products made half the world away that I can browse and order from at any time . The sheer ease with which I can find, purchase, and have something delivered to me from another hemisphere is borderline magical.

Back in the 50s most jobs weren’t outsourced, because how could a company reliably keep tabs on them? There was no internet, no underwater telephone cables linking different continents (there are, now). And having your middle management commute to South-East Asia wasn’t feasible, or acceptable.

Computers and the internet, however, make it possible to have the production process of a certain good distributed across several locations around the globe, without any hiccups in supply and with no surprise delay. Every step of the process can be monitored by a single person, any issues ironed out with a few clicks and an email. On the other end of the spectrum, any producer can know the price of raw materials and commodities instantly around the world and pick the best outlets and supply sources for their business.

The digital revolution was so profoundly important for globalization because it cuts through the main enemy of trade: uncertainty. Traders of yore would make their journey hoping they would make a profit — today, they don’t need to hope, they can simply know. You don’t need to spend a few days finding the best deal on a t-shirt in your city, you can find the best price on your continent instantly, and have it delivered to you within days.

Why it’s happening

We tend to think of globalization as a single force that’s reshaping society. But the truth is that it has been shaping our societies for a very long time now. It’s also not a monolith; it is legion. It’s a global process that is, fundamentally, the product of billions of individual choices. Today, we have the ability to purchase something made across the world from the comfort of our own home. Today, we can outsource a job to Vietnam to cut down on costs. We can watch a movie made by a whole different culture with a single click.

“Globalization” exists not because we have these options — it exists because we overwhelmingly, as individuals, choose them over other options. And we pick them because they make economic sense.

The harm sometimes caused by globalization is, sadly, part and parcel of the process. The simple fact is that when the world becomes a single, great market, everybody is suddenly in competition with everybody else. The dearth of manufacturing jobs is, ironically, exactly why we have cheaper goods. Lower prices are, ironically, the reason why more and more of us are struggling to make ends meet.

Anyone here who lived in the former communist bloc will know the immense economic shock their countries experienced after the transition to capitalism. Communist economies are top-down, command economies — someone makes the decision of where, how, and how much of anything gets produced. They don’t take feedback from consumers in the same way a free market does. An unprofitable enterprise, in communism, can simply be subsidized by profits from another. Under a capitalist model, enterprises have to adapt to their customers’ desires or get off the market. Needless to say, most of those communist-era enterprises didn’t make the cut during the transition, leading to massive losses of jobs and economic security for a while. Eventually, economies recovered, and new enterprises were established that could compete in these brave new markets.

Our gripes with globalization come from a similar process. It’s the same issue of the economic systems that were previously in place struggling once exposed to wider markets.

Sixty or seventy years ago, for example, an American factory would be in competition (for customers) with other American factories in the same field. An American employee would be in competition (for jobs and wages) with other American employees. This created a certain balance. Globalization broke that balance because now, the factory is in competition with all other factories producing the same goods worldwide. An employee in America is in competition with all those of similar skill and ability all over the world. The ill effects globalization can have are a transitional period, until a new balance is established.

On a personal level, that thought may not be much comfort, but globalization seems to be here for good. The pandemic did also show some of the flaws in our current interconnected system, mostly that it can be quite vulnerable to shocks. But judging from history, as long as we have the ability to trade with people all over the world, we will. And, as long as we do that, our economies will continue to inch ever closer together, becoming more intertwined and, at the end of the day, more dependent on one another.

Ancient teeth confirm: people have been trading internationally for thousands of years

We often hear how we’re living in a more interconnected world than ever before — and that is true. But people have never lived in complete isolation from others. New research comes to support this view, by showing that long-distance trade in food and spices was already taking place between Asia and the Mediterranean region over 3000 years ago.

Image credits John Oliver.

Spices such as turmeric and foods including bananas were known and present in the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age, the paper explains, much earlier than previously assumed. The authors further note that such plants were not endemic to the Mediterranean, so the only way they could get there was via long-distance trade.

Megiddo Mall

“Exotic spices, fruits, and oils from Asia had reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Philipp Stockhammer from LMU, who led the research. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana, and soy outside of South and East Asia.”

The international team of researchers analyzed the tartar (dental deposits) on the teeth of 16 people unearthed in excavations at the Megiddo and Tel Erani sites in modern-day Israel. This area mediated any ancient travel and trade between the Mediterranean, Asia, and Egypt. If you wanted to travel between these places in the 2nd millennium BCE, you had to go through the Levant.

What the researchers were looking for was food residue, such as proteins or plant microfossils, that remained preserved in the dental plaque over the last thousands of years. From there, they hoped, they could reconstruct the local diet.

Dental plaque or calculus is produced by bacteria that live in our mouth. As it forms it can capture small particles of food, which become preserved.

“This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

The techniques they used fall under the domain of paleoprotemics, a relatively new field of science concerned with the study of ancient proteins. The team managed to identify both “ancient proteins and plant residues” from the teeth, revealing that their owners had consumed foods brought from faraway lands.

It was quite surprising for the team as well. Such techniques are difficult to use, they explain, because you have to piece together what food people ate judging solely from the proteins they contained. The proteins themselves must also survive for thousands of years until analyzed, so there’s also quite a lot of luck required to pull it off.

The team confirmed the presence of sesame in local diets at the time (sesame is not an endemic plant to the Levant), suggesting that it had become a staple food here by the 2nd millennium BCE. The teeth of one individual from Megiddo showed turmeric and soy proteins, while one individual from Tel Erani showed traces of banana proteins — all of them likely entering the area through South Asia.

“Our analyses thus provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” says Stockhammer. “I find it spectacular that food was exchanged over long distances at such an early point in history.”

Naturally, the team can’t rule out that this individual traveled or lived in South Asia for a period of time, consuming local foodstuffs during this time. They also can’t estimate the scale of any trades going on, only find evidence that such networks probably existed.

Still, the findings showcase how early long-distance trade began, and they go to show that people have been living in and building an interconnected world for a very long time now. While definitely interesting and important from an academic point of view, such results also help to put our current social dialogues around globalization, trade, and immigration into perspective.

The paper “Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Carved Ivory.

The price of ivory is up 1,000% since global ban on ivory trade, but is slowly decreasing

The global ban on ivory has increased the price of tusks on legitimate and black markets tenfold.

Carved Ivory.

Image via Pixabay.

Back in 1989, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) issued a worldwide ban on the trading of ivory. The move was intended to insulate Earth’s elephants from hunters and poachers and help stave off extinction. The decision did work: ivory prices plummeted, initially, and markets around the world closed down.

However, that was just the initial effect of the ban. A new study shows that the price of ivory increased tenfold since 1989, which is driving up incentive for poachers supplying illegal markets. Poaching is now responsible for an 8% drop in the world’s total elephant population every year, the team reports — and they hope this analysis can help us drive that number down.

Black ivory

“With poachers killing an estimated 100 elephants of the remaining 350,000 each day, we believe our findings are significant to global wildlife conservation policy-making,” says lead author Monique Sosnowski, who carried out the research at the Bristol Veterinary School as part of her MSc in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation.

The ban was introduced in 1975 for Asian elephants and 1989 for African elephants in response to unsustainable elephant poaching in the 1970s and 80s. The species were placed on Appendix I of the CITES, which forbids all international trade in a species and its products.

To better understand its effects, the team used data on ivory prices collected between 1989 and 2017 from literature searches and visits to ivory markets across Africa, Europe, and Asia, which they meshed with information such as ivory product type (raw, polished, carved), weight, region, and legality. This dataset allowed them to gauge the factors that lead to the rise in ivory prices.

Asian markets demand the highest prices for ivory on a global scale, while prices are the lowest in Africa. The global average price of ivory increased tenfold (~1,019%) between 1989 and 2014, but has been slowly decreasing since 2014. The main factors influencing the sale, purchasing, and price of ivory were the location of sale, whether the ivory had been carved or worked in any way, the legality of the sale (there are conditions under which ivory can be traded legally), and the total amount of ivory estimated to have been traded that year.

“Until now, very little has been known about global ivory prices since the international ban in 1989,” says Sosnowski. “We hope that a greater understanding of the factors that drive the price of ivory will lead to better informed policy interventions that lead to a more secure future for the long-term survival of elephants and other animals that suffer due to the ivory trade.”

The team hopes that their research will help policymakers better tweak global ivory policy. They explain that understanding regional price trends, the variables that drive them, and the associated demand can guide efforts on anti-trade campaigns, wildlife conservation, and education — all of them aimed at combating poaching. For example, focusing efforts to more heavily regulate trade in East Asia, where ivory demand and prices are highest, could decrease poaching and increase future security for elephants.

In the future, the team plans to incorporate their findings into larger economic models to guide more effective policy design concerning the CITES ivory ban, national trade regulations, and global ivory stockpile management. They also say that a similar study framework could be used for other endangered species experiencing poaching and illegal trade in their products, such as rhinos and tigers.

The paper “Global ivory market prices since the 1989 CITES ban” has been published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Bronze axeheads.

The Vikings’ Bronze Age relied on imported metal, new study finds

The forefathers of Vikings build their axes with imported metal.

Bronze axeheads.

British-developed bronze flat-axe from Selchausdal, northwest Zealand. Scandinavia holds the largest proportion of British type axes outside the British Isles 2000–1700 BC.
Image credits Heide W. Nørgaard, Ernst Pernicka, Helle Vandkilde, 2019, PLOS One.

The geographic origins of the metals used in Scandinavian mixed-metal (bronze) artifacts can be traced back to Britain and continental Europe, a new study reports. Based on the findings, the authors from Aarhus University, Denmark, estimate that Scandinavia was “dependent” on imported tin and copper at the beginning of the Nordic Bronze Age.

Shipping Bronze

“4000 years ago, Britain and Central Europe supplied copper and tin to Denmark, which has no metal sources of its own,” the authors write. “Instead finished metal objects were imported and recast to fit local tastes. In this creative process at the onset of the rich Nordic Bronze Age mixing of the original sources took place. This conclusion is prompted by robust archaeological and geo-chemical data.”

The earliest signs of bronze-type alloys being used in Scandinavia (known as Nordic Bronze age) hail from around 2000-1700BC. Around this time, both tin and copper (which mix to make bronze) had rapidly, and drastically, increased in availability in the area. In a bid to understand where this metal came from, Heide W. Nørgaard from Aarhus University, Denmark, and colleagues performed isotope and trace-element analyses on 210 Bronze Age artifact samples (mostly axe heads) collected in Denmark. The majority of samples (141 counts) date between 2000–1700 BC and 50 samples from 1700–1600 BC.

The sample size represents around 50% of all known Danish metal objects from the early Nordic Bronze age, the team explains.

Trade was how the early Danes got their metal, the findings suggest. Robust trading networks were established to import raw metal and finished metal goods such as tools and weapons via two major routes: one leading down across the Baltic Sea towards the Únĕtice (a Bronze Age civilization in what is now eastern Germany and Bohemia), and another leading west to the British Isles.

These two sources made up a sizeable portion of the Scandinavian bronze ‘market’ at the time, the team explains. This is underscored by findings of particular isotopic signatures and the particular make-up of the alloys, which allowed the team to track their origins. Artifacts from between 2000–1700 BC are mainly made from high-impurity copper (fahlore type copper), except those imported from the British isles. Local production was based on the re-casting of foreign items, the team explains, as suggested by the presence of this British copper in axes of local styles. The team also reports finding lower lead contents in locally-crafted items than in imported ones, which suggests locals were mixing copper from different sources.

Later, around 1800–1700 BC, the team reports that a new and distinct type of copper with low impurity levels starts coming to the forefront. Copper from Slovakia was widely-used in Scandinavia during this time, with the Úntice people likely acting as middlemen facilitating the trade.

Metal recycling remained common in Scandinavia, with smiths here repeatedly re-casting imported objects into goods of local styles. The authors also found evidence of relatively pure copper sourced from the eastern Alps that would become dominant in Scandinavian smithing later in the Bronze Age.

The findings showcase how important trade was even for communities that we’d consider ‘primitive’. They also align with previous findings of copper trade networks dating from the time of Otzi the Iceman, stone-age Vietnam, and Ancient Babylon, showcasing how important this metal was at its time — and the efforts people were willing to go through to trade in it.

The paper “On the trail of Scandinavia’s early metallurgy: Provenance, transfer and mixing” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Our ships carry invasive species, not just trade — and it is rapidly getting worse

More maritime traffic means a higher standard of living — but also more invasive species.

Paper ship.

Image via Pixabay.

The rise in global maritime traffic could lead to dramatic increases in the number of invasive species globally over the next 30 years, a new study from McGill University researchers reports. The authors also say that this increase in shipping will come to far outweigh climate change in the spread of non-indigenous pests to new environments in the coming decades.

“My passion is traveling”

“Biological invasions are believed to be a major driver of biodiversity change, and cause billions of dollars in economic damages annually,” says senior author Brian Leung, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Biology and School of Environment. “Our models show that the emerging global shipping network could yield a three-fold to twenty-fold increase in global marine invasion risk between now and 2050.”

Some 80% of world trade gets ferried around on boats, as do between 60% and 90% of marine invasive species. The latter get onto ships either in ballast water — which is pumped in to help balance the vessels — or attach to their hulls as stowaways. So, the team says that to understand how invasive species will evolve over time, we need to look at how shipping patterns could change.

To that end, the team used socioeconomic-growth scenarios (developed as part of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC) to build several computer models that estimated future rates of global shipping traffic growth. As population and wealth increase in different areas of the globe, the demand for goods and services that aren’t available locally also spikes — leading to more shipping. The models estimated a pretty wide range of increases in bio-invasion risk — from three- to twenty- fold — which the team says comes down to uncertainty in the socioeconomic paths different areas will take in the future.

“Our study suggests that, unless appropriate action is taken, we could anticipate an exponential increase in such invasions, with potentially huge economic and ecological consequences,” says Anthony Sardain, a graduate student in Leung’s lab at McGill and the study’s lead author.

“Despite this large range, all scenarios point to an increase in both shipping and invasions. That should alert us to the gravity of the situation, and the importance of measures to curtail biological invasions.”

Some progress is being made into limiting the spread of invasive species, the team writes, citing major policy initiatives such as the International Ballast Water Management Convention. The Convention entered into force in 2017 and represents the latest global effort to control bio-invasions through measures such as ballast exchange. Leung explains that it’s still too early to gauge the efficacy of this measure globally, but that their work suggests it’s a step “in the right direction.”

The paper “Global forecasts of shipping traffic and biological invasions to 2050” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Old map.

Globalization is an ancient practice, new research reveals

Globalization isn’t a new phenomenon — far from it, new research reveals.

Old map.

A vintage, hand-drawn map.
Image via Pixabay.

An international research team reports that ancient civilizations engaged in globalization to a much higher level than previously assumed. Viewed in this light, the level of international integration we see in today’s economies isn’t unique, but the norm.

I consume energy therefore I exist

“In this work, we present evidence that the attributes of human populations, at a global scale, display synchrony for the last 10,000 [years],” the paper reads.

The research is the first of its kind, as it didn’t focus on a specific region or culture, but on the broad, long-term evolution of human societies. The team used the energy expenditure levels of these societies as a proxy to judge their development and how closely they were involved with the rest of the world.

It may sound like a strange angle to approach the issue from, but energy expenditure is actually quite a reliable indicator of a society’s development. Energy is one of the main drivers of a society — or, perhaps more accurately, a society’s ability to generate and harness energy is the main factor limiting its development.

To drive that point home, imagine two cities. The inhabitants of the first one only know how to harness muscle energy (i.e. that generated by their bodies or those of other animals from food) to perform work. Those living in the other city know about electricity, can build engines, the whole shebang. Needless to say, City number 2 will be able to address its own needs or to expand much more easily than its primitive counterpart, because it has the means to generate energy and apply it to change its environment.

So, for the study, the team assumed that greater energy consumption suggested a society was booming with population, political, and economic activity. Energy consumption was estimated — starting from historical records and further propped up by radiocarbon dating — for a period of history ranging from 10,000 to 400 years ago. Some of the areas included in the study were the western United States, the British Isles, Australia, and northern Chile.

Radiocarbon dating was used on preserved organic items such as seeds, animal bones, and burned wood from ancient trash deposits at these sites. The method was used to assess each society’s waste output over time, as radiocarbon dating is very good at establishing the age of organic matter — which represented the team’s main source of energy consumption estimates up to the 1880s when official records become available and reliable.

All in this together

Matrioska dolls.

Image credits Ricardo Liberato / Flickr.

The first surprising find here was that societies often boomed or collapsed simultaneously, a process known as synchrony, the team writes. Synchrony is indicative of interconnected groups — on the scale employed by the team, such groups would be whole societies and nations — of people who trade, migrate, and even fight with one another.

“If every culture was unique, you would expect to see no synchrony, or harmony, across human records of energy consumption,” said lead author Jacob Freeman, an assistant professor of archaeology at Utah State University.

“The causes likely include the process of societies becoming more interconnected via trade, migration, and disease flows at smaller scales and common trajectories of cultural evolution toward more complex and energy-consuming political economies at larger scales,” the paper explains.

This tidbit suggests that early globalization may have been a strategy for societies to keep growing even after exceeding their carrying capacity, the team explains. Overall, the findings point to ancient societies creating connections and becoming interdependent — a trend we refer to as globalization — even millennia ago.

By looking at so vast a stretch of human history, the team could also notice patterns associated with the rise and fall of different groups and cultures. Building closer ties to other societies benefits everyone, they write, but there are also pitfalls: “The more tightly connected and interdependent we become, the more vulnerable we are to a major social or ecological crisis in another country spreading to our country,” adds Erick Robinson, paper co-author and a postdoctoral assistant research scientist in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. This “all eggs in one basket” approach, he explains, makes societies less adaptive to unforeseen changes.

“The financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 is a good recent example,” Robinson adds.

According to them, we shouldn’t consider a society’s collapse as a failure, however — it seems to be an intrinsic part of civilization. Still, they hope that by looking back at how our forefathers handled such events, we may very well avoid them in the future.

“Importantly, these causes of synchrony operate at different time scales [which] may lead to path dependencies that make major reorganizations a common dynamic of human societies,” the paper reads.

“Our data stop at 400 years ago, and there has been a huge change from organic economies to fossil fuel economies,” says co-author by Jacopo A. Baggio, an assistant professor in the University of Central Florida political science department.

“However, similar synchronization trends continue today even more given the interdependencies of our societies. [Societal] resilience is intrinsically dynamic. So, it becomes very hard to understand resilience in a short time span. Here we have the opportunity to look at these longer trends and really see how society has reacted and adapted and what were the booms and busts of these societies. Hopefully this can teach some lessons to be learned for modern day society.”

The paper “Synchronization of energy consumption by human societies throughout the Holocene” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Walrus upper jaw bone.

Ivory trade made Greenland great, then barren again

The secret of Greenland’s quick rise to prominence, as well as its rapid decline, may have been walrus tusks.

Walrus head.

Image via Wikipedia.

Sometime in the late 10th century in Iceland, one Erik Thorvaldsson was having a pretty bad day.

Born in Norway, Erik and his family were forced to flee to Iceland after his father committed “some killings“. Erik was about 10 years old when this happened but, he realized today, he didn’t take the lesson to heart. Following in his father’s footsteps, Erik had also committed manslaughter — and was now forced into exile from Iceland.

This paternal murderous streak, however, would echo through time and help shape the destiny of Europe’s northern countries.

“Looks green to me!”

Erik sailed with his family and slaves, intent on finding his fortune on the wild shore to the southwest of Iceland. Icelandic Sagas hold that he christened the massive island Grœnland (‘Greenland’) and stayed there — thus creating the first Norse settlement on Greenland.

Nestled in the frigid waters between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean, however, Greenland is decidedly un-green. Historians are still split on whether the lands were lusher back in the days of the Vikings, or whether Erik simply had a knack for PR campaigns and an interest in tempting new immigrants into sailing over.

What we do know is that it worked. People sailed in and by the mid-12th century, Greenland could boast two major towns, a population of several thousand, and even its own bishop. This rapid ascent was followed by a dizzying drop: by the 15th century, Greenland was virtually devoid of Norsemen, ruins of their settlements peeking out of snow across the land.

How these colonies developed and declined so fast has long fascinated historians. One theory proposed that a change in climate patterns, coupled with antiquated farming technology, made it impossible for the Greenland Norse to feed their population — so they left. One other holds that the Greenland Norse never really farmed much, but sustained their population by trading commodities with Europe. Walrus tusks were a particularly sought-after commodity in the time, and Erik’s frozen island was rich in walruses. When trade declined, the Norse also faded into history.

Walrus upper jaw bone.

A walrus rostrum (upper jaw bone) with tusks that was used in the study. Dated to c.1200-1400 CE based on the characteristics of a runic inscription in Old Norse.
Image courtesy of Musées du Mans.

This latter hypothesis is further supported by archeological findings in Europe. We’ve found many luxury items — from crucifixes to game pieces — fashioned out of walrus ivory in Europe around this time. However, the theory couldn’t be proved or disproved, as the source of this ivory couldn’t be pinpointed.

New research from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo, however, successfully established the source of this walrus ivory. By studying the DNA in walrus tusks and skulls from ivory workshops across the continent, the team found that Greenland held a “near monopoly” of the ivory supply in Western Europe for over two centuries. The research also revealed an evolutionary split in the walrus, allowing the team to distinguish between ivory sourced from Greenland and that obtained elsewhere.

Tusky business

The team worked with samples of walrus bone and tusk obtained from key medieval trading centers such as Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Dublin, London, Schleswig, and Sigtuna, dating between 900 and 1400 CE.

Ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque.

Ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque from the beginning of the medieval walrus ivory trade; believed to date from the 10th or 11th century. Found in North Elmham, Norfolk, UK.
Image credits Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology / University of Cambridge.

The tusks were exported still attached to the walrus’ skull. They helped protect the ivory during shipping and was later broken up at each workshop. The team extracted DNA from the remains of this process, as to avoid damaging any artifacts. Ivory was carved into luxury goods such as religious objects and game pieces.

DNA analysis revealed that the walrus branched into two lines during the last Ice Age — which researchers term “eastern” and “western”. The eastern lineage spread across much of the Arctic, while the western lineage remained contained in the waters between Canada and Greenland.

The lion’s share of walruses during the early years of the ivory trade came from the eastern lineage, the team reports. As demand soared from the 12th century onwards, however, the supply shifted almost entirely to tusks from the western lineage — namely, from walruses in Greenland. The Norse settlers there either hunted the animals themselves or traded with indigenous populations for the tusks, according to the team.

“The results suggest that by the 1100s Greenland had become the main supplier of walrus ivory to Western Europe — a near monopoly even,” says paper co-author Dr James H. Barrett. “The change in the ivory trade coincides with the flourishing of the Norse settlements on Greenland. The populations grew and elaborate churches were constructed.”

“Later Icelandic accounts suggest that in the 1120s, Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure the right to their own bishopric from the king of Norway. Tusks were also used to pay tithes to the church,” he explains.

Europe was faring pretty well from the 11th to the 13th century, and demand for luxury and exotic goods soared. The Greenland Norse cashed in on this, supplying almost all of the ivory in Western Europe during this time. However, craftsmen eventually switched over to elephant ivory — there is virtually no evidence of walrus ivory imports in Europe past the year 1400, the team explains. Left without a market for their single most important export good, the Greenlanders’ economy ground to a halt.

“Changing tastes could have led to a decline in the walrus ivory market of the Middle Ages,” Barrett explains.

“An overreliance on a single commodity, the very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability.”

There may have been other factors at work, however. Walrus populations are known to abandon their coastal haulouts due to overhunting. The 14th century also saw the “Little Ice Age“, a sustained period of low temperatures. Finally, Europe was also going through some tough times, as the Black Death plagued the lands.

“Until now, there was no quantitative data to support the story about walrus ivory from Greenland,” says co-author Dr Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo.

“Walruses could have been hunted in the north of Russia, and perhaps even in Arctic Norway at that time. Our research now proves beyond doubt that much of the ivory traded to Europe during the Middle Ages really did come from Greenland.”

The paper “Ancient DNA reveals the chronology of walrus ivory trade from Norse Greenland” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Brown rat.

Rats trade with each other and are surprisingly fair, research finds

Trade and cooperation aren’t as exclusively human as we like to believe. A new study reveals that Norway rats trade different services and commodities following a strict equity principle, even when different ‘currencies’ are employed.

Brown rat.

Researchers at the University of Bern are the first to report that certain non-human animals will naturally exchange different goods and services. Trade is widely considered a cornerstone human competence which helped us create complex societies. Finding similar behaviors in other species (in this case Norway rats, Rattus norvegicus, one of the most common species of rat also known as the brown rat) could help us understand the evolutionary path of cooperation in humans — and also show us that, in the end, we’re not that different from other life on Earth.

These here onions for your plow

Humans have their ‘cooperation’ dial set on overdrive. We cooperate with our peers virtually every single day and on multiple levels. It can be something as innocuous as holding the door open for someone or giving directions all the way to extremely complicated tasks — such as managing global markets, putting together a space shuttle, or trying to fight global warming.

It’s this pervasive pattern of cooperation which made our societies what they are today. Cooperation in our species generally follows the “I help you because you helped me” (reciprocal) strategy. This is believed to be a very cognitive demanding process, especially when different commodities are exchanged.

Despite that, it seems to be a winning strategy in the long term. It forms the cornerstone of our communities, enabling systems such as the division of labor, which in turn propelled our ecological and economic success.

Although high-level cooperation so far seems to be ours alone, cooperation by-and-large is far from being uniquely human. Bees work together to manage the hive, ants maintain surprisingly complicated colonies, for example. However, it has been argued that the demands reciprocal cooperation strategies preclude non-human species from partaking in the fun. Despite this, some research has found evidence of commodity exchange and reciprocal cooperation in the wild, raising the possibility that other species could be trading under our noses.

The rat race

Manon Schweinfurth and Michael Taborsky, two researchers from the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the University of Bern carried out an experimental study to see whether common Norway rats will engage in reciprocal trading of two different forms of help (services), allogrooming and food provisioning.

They worked with 37 wild-type rat couples, running them through four different situations, each consisting of an experience and a test phase. During the first stage of the experiment, the rats experienced their partner as cooperating or non-cooperating in one commodity. Allogrooming was induced by applying a saline solution to the back of the rat’s neck, which is difficult to impossible to access while self-grooming and requires help from a partner. To induce food provisioning, partner rats could pull trays with food items towards the test rats.

During the following test phase, rats could return the service to the same partners, but they were only supplied with the opposite commodity of the one used in the experience phase — donating food after being groomed or vice-versa. The team then observed how long it took for the rats to help in the first stage, and how often it was returned in kind during the second stage. The researchers note that allogrooming is a naturally occurring behavior where no training was involved. In contrast, rats had been taught at a young age how to donate food to a social partner by the tray within its reach.

The team reports that rats groomed cooperating pairs more often than non-cooperating ones, and were more likely to donate food to partners that had heavily groomed them compared to ones that had not. In effect, the trading patterns between the two animals respected the rule of direct reciprocity, the “tit for tat” principle of equity, even when they needed to use a different currency to repay.

“This result indicates that reciprocal trading among non-human animals may be much more widespread than currently assumed. It is not limited to large-brained species with advanced cognitive abilities,” says Manon Schweinfurth.

So does this mean we should be worried about illegal cheese markets going on in back alleys at night? Probably not. But it is exciting to see hints of human-like cooperation patterns in other species. It would be interesting to see if animals can maintain this tit for tat mentality when ‘trading’ with other species as well — if that’s the case, I have a lot of grooming to cash in from my cat.

The paper “Reciprocal Trading of Different Commodities in Norway Rats” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Shark fin.

Most shark fins and ray gills sold in Vancouver come from threatened, trade-banned species

DNA sequencing of over 100 shark fins and manta ray gills in Vancouver has revealed that over half come from threatened species who are banned for trade under international law.

Shark fin.

Image via Pixabay.

As far as traditional Chinese delicacies go, shark fins are more on the expensive side. They’re used to make soups that can sell for over US$100 per bowl and are generally served during special occasions. Manta ray gill rakers, tiny filaments which these species use to filter nutrients out of water are used in traditional Chinese medicine, advertised as effective against all sorts of conditions from smallpox to cancer according to the conservation group Manta Ray of Hope.

The problem with them is two-fold. First, about a quarter of shark and ray species around the world are threatened due to overfishing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Secondly, they’re sourced very inhumanely — shark fins, for example, are cut off from live animals which are then thrown back into the ocean where they die a slow, agonizing death. So the commercial use of these commodities sourced from several species of both shark and ray are banned for international trade in an effort to give the animals respite from commercial fishing, and allow them an opportunity to recover.

But that doesn’t mean people don’t still buy and sell them, according to a research team led by Dirk Steinke from the University of Guelph. They’ve tested over 100 samples of the items available for purchase in Vancouver, Canada, and report that over 71% belong to species that are considered endangered.

Fin-ding soup

Yokohama shark fin.

Dried shark fins on display in a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Yohokama.
Image credits Chris 73 / Wikimedia.

According to Steinke, Canada is the largest importer of shark fins outside of Asia. The Senate of Canada’s website reports that in 2015, the country imported some 114,540 kilograms (252,517 pounds) of fins, and the CBC cites Statistics Canada as saying this increased to 140,750 kilograms (310,300 pounds) of shark fins worth $3.08 million (of the total $11,3 million estimated global trade) in 2016.

Steinke’s research was in part prompted by the Vancouver Animal Defence League, which was concerned that fins from protected species were being sold locally. Because these fins are very expensive, the team used 71 dried fin samples collected in 2011 and 2012 by volunteers and University of Guelph researchers, and 54 ray gill plates obtained by scientists working with the Save Our Seas Shark Research Centre at the Nova Southeastern University from Hong Kong and mainland China.

“It took them awhile to get the money together because they’re not cheap,” Steinke said.

The samples were analyzed using DNA barcoding, a technique developed at the University of Guelph which allows for species to be pinpointed using relatively short bits of DNA. The drying process actually helped speed this along, Steinke said, as it helps preserve DNA in a usable form.

Overall, the team traced the samples back to 20 species of sharks and some 5 species of rays. Roughly 56% of them are on the IUCN Red List as endangered or vulnerable, and some 24% are close to threatened status. Seven of the shark species and all five ray species are also banned from international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty. It must be pointed out that the ban for most of these species went into effect between 2014 and 2017, which is after the samples were collected. However, the team did trace some samples back to species which did have protected status and was banned from trade at the time the samples were collected, such as the whale shark.

Banned but not gone

Chinese shark fin soup.

Chinese shark fin soup in Austin, Texas.
Image credits harmon / Wikimedia.

That last tidbit, coupled with the fact that there are “confirmed occurrence of these species’ body parts in recent trade suggests ongoing market demands,” the researchers wrote. Although almost three-quarters of shark and ray species are not considered threatened, are not banned from trade in Canada, and are not at risk of extinction, it’s “very frustrating, although not unexpected” that we see such a large percentage of banned species still up for trade — rarer types of fins will, after all, demand a higher market price, offering an incentive in their continued trade.

Compounding the problem is that authorities simply lack the means to meaningfully impose the ban. It’s virtually impossible to tell what species a dried fin belongs to simply by looking at it. Retailers can reliably expect to get off without being caught and fined, and along with the high price fetched by the fins selling illegal species “might still pay off,” Steinke says. DNA testing can reliably trace the source species, and is quite cheap at US$10 a pop — but it can take up to several weeks for a result.

Steinke hopes that raising awareness and lowering demand will wither the market and at least help some sharks make it out alive — and eventually stop it altogether. He also hopes the results (and ideally, public support for such measures) will goad politicians into banning shark fin sales on a larger scale. Similar bans are already in effect at a local level in over a dozen municipalities in Canada, but bills for a federal ban have already failed to pass in 2013 and 2016.

These animals have been around for longer than trees, and we’re killing them over what’s widely agreed to be a pretty tasteless soup. Traditions do have a very important role to play in human life, granted. But there’s a point where we have to take the reigns, a point beyond which getting bogged down in the past will make tomorrow less — and in this case, we’re literally eating the viability of tomorrow’s oceans. Although, that seems to be a very human-like take on a lot of very serious issues.

Third time’s the charm as far as bans go, hopefully.

The paper “DNA analysis of traded shark fins and mobulid gill plates reveals a high proportion of species of conservation concern” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Stone age trade.

Around 4,500 years ago, Vietnamese stone-age traders traveled hundreds of kilometers to sell their wares

An archaeological team from The Australian National University (ANU) has found evidence of an expansive trading network in Vietnam which operated from about 4,500 years ago up to until around 3,000 years ago.

Stone age trade.

Note: this picture is not part of the study in any way, shape, or form. It’s just a funny flavor pic I found online.
Image credits Chris Jobling / Flickr.

A new paper reports that several settlements strewn about along the Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam were part of an ancient, sophisticated trade network. Large volumes of goods and materials were manufactured and shipped between them, often over distances of hundreds of kilometers. The discovery helps place early Vietnamese culture in a whole new light, and joins other findings that show ancient societies weren’t the simple, isolated, warring groupings of tribes we usually believe them to be — quite the opposite.

Rock for tat

The most striking discovery here isn’t that these people moved materials and goods around — we knew that already. What’s striking here is the scale of the operation, both in regards to the quantities produced and shipped, the huge length of routes, and the level of specialization involved. This latter factor, in particular, hints at a long-running trade operation. Specialized craftsmen need access to wider, stable markets to ensure there’s always someone buying their goods or such enterprises bog down.

Location of sites.

The location of settlements that were part of the ancient trade route.
Image credits Frieman et al., 2017.

“We knew some artefacts were being moved around but this shows evidence for a major trade network that also included specialist tool-makers and technological knowledge. It’s a whole different ball game,” said lead researcher Dr Catherine Frieman, Senior Lecturer in European Archaeology from ASU’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology, who specializes in ancient stone tools.

Dr Friedman made the discovery after she was asked to look at a cache of stone items unearthed at a site called Rach Nui in Southern Vietnam. There were even some sandstone grinding stones among the items, instruments which were used to fashion other tools such as stone axe heads. It struck Dr Frieman as odd to see them all the way here — since Rach Nui is nowhere near any sources of stone. In other words, people here had to import stone — and import a lot of it — to justify a local stone-fashioning industry. Even the sandstone used to fashion the grinding tool itself most likely came from a quarry some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away in the Mekong Delta.

The grindstones also come in different sizes, shapes, and judging by the grooves left in them, different use patterns. This indicates that highly-specialized stone processing techniques were used in local manufacturing. These included differently-shaped grindstones to be used on various parts of an axe-head, for example, or grind surfaces of various coarseness, meant to either shape or polish the stones — meaning that these were a people who didn’t just make tools, they made refined, high-quality tools.

“This isn’t a case of people producing a couple of extra items on top of what they need. It’s a major operation. The Rach Nui region had no stone resources. So the people must have been importing the stone and working it to produce the artefacts,” she said.

“People were becoming experts in stone tool making even though they live no-where near the source of any stone.”

Operation chain.

A schematic of the steps the team believes went into making the axes. It’s a much more complicated undertaking than you’d credit stone age communities with.
Image credits Frieman et al., 2017.

Dr Phillip Piper, an expert in Vietnamese archaeology at the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology and paper co-author, is using the findings to map how people in Southeast Asia transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming. According to him, there are numerous Neolithic sites in southern Vietnam that, despite being “relatively close together,” show “considerable variation in material culture, methods of settlement construction and subsistence.” This suggests that when communities started establishing permanent settlements throughout the delta and coastal regions, they also developed distinct social, cultural and economic systems.

These differences formed a ripe setting for trade to spring up,  moving “materials and manufacturing ideas over quite long distances” between the different communities.

“Vietnam has an amazing archaeological record with a number of settlements and sites that provide significant information on the complex pathways from foraging to farming in the region” Dr Piper said.

All in all, the findings peer into the complexity of Neolithic trading networks in the area and offers a glimpse of how technological know-how flowed side-by-side with finished goods and materials along these trade routes.

The full paper “Rach Nui: ground stone technology in coastal Neolithic settlements of southern Vietnam” has been published in the journal Antiquity.

The Iceman's Axe.

Otzi’s copper axe offers hints of ‘extensive trade networks’ in Italy 5,300 years ago

Isotope analysis of Otzi’s copper axe blade hints at a long-distance trade route between central and northern Italy in the early copper age.

The Iceman's Axe.

The Iceman’s Axe.
Image credits Gilberto Artioli et al., 2017.

Otzi’s mummified body was found back in 1991, flash-frozen in an Alpine glacier on Italy’s northern border with Austria. He’s estimated to have lived in the early copper age, around 3360-3105 BCE, not very far from the place where his remains were found.

So far, nothing too unexpected. But appearances were deceiving  — turns out that the copper used in Otzi’s axe came from a much more distant place than the man himself, unlike previously believed. A new paper led by University of Padua geoscientist Gilberto Artioli reports that the metal was sourced about 500 kilometers to the south, in today’s Southern Tuscany region of central Italy.

Follow the lead

While the blade is made of copper, it was manufactured in a time where metal working and refining were still in their infancy. As such, the blade contains noticeable levels of impurities in the form of lead, arsenic, silver, and a host of other elements.

Up to now, researchers assumed the metal was sourced from the known (and quite sizeable) copper deposits found less than 100 km from the site where the mummy was found. But by analyzing the lead isotopes (atoms of the same number of protons and electrons but a different number of neutrons) contained in the blade and comparing them with copper samples from present-day exploitations across Europe, Artioli’s team reports that the metal likely came from Southern Tuscany. Other elements in the chemical makeup also point to Southern Tuscany as the likeliest point of origin, they add.

Finding a bit of copper so far away from its point of extraction — especially considering the closer deposits, which people likely knew about by the time of Otzi — would suggest that complex trade networks existed by this time. After all, copper was very expensive and heavy, so transporting it over such a long distance meant the merchants had to be able to defend their wares and turn a nice profit at the end for it to be worth it.

Archaeological evidence does point to a flourishing copper extraction and production industry in central Italy when Ötzi was alive, the team says. They propose it was complemented by an extensive trade network which supplied the goods to the northern Alpine lands. This would make it one of the earliest organized trade networks in the area, established at the dawn of civilization, at a time when people still used stone for most tools.

Radiocarbon measurements on the axe’s wooden shaft indicate that the item was fabricated roughly 5,300 years ago. It’s not yet clear whether the copper was transported as a raw material or a finished product.

The paper “Long-distance connections in the Copper Age: New evidence from the Alpine Iceman’s copper axe” has been published in the journal PLOS one.

Globalization offers us a huge choice of foodstuffs — but we’re not having it

Globalization hasn’t changed our dietary habits as much as it has other areas of our lives, a new paper published Wednesday.

Image credits NeilsPhotography / Flickr.

Visit a well-stocked grocery’s produce aisle and you’ll see a generous selection of imported fruits and veggies to go with traditional domestic items. Given the huge range of available choices, you’d expect that people living in temperate areas would have expanded their diets, including these varieties readily — after all, we all love food.

A new study published yesterday found that globalization has a much smaller impact on what types of food we grow and eat. The biggest factor influencing what a person eats is still his or her birthplace, they found.

“The diversity of the food we eat hasn’t changed as much as we expected it would with globalization,” said study co-author Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, who led the working group together with Regents Professor Stephen Polasky at the University of Minnesota. Both are fellows at the Institute on Environment.

“We still tend to tend to eat based on the biodiversity around us even though we could eat anything.”

Although we have access to an unprecedented variety of produce, each country’s production and consumption patterns “are still largely determined by local evolutionary legacies of plant diversification.” As the tropics have a much larger pool of genetically-distinct plants naturally available, countries in those areas produce and consume a greater diversity of produce than temperate countries.

“In contrast, the richer and more economically advanced temperate countries have the capacity to produce and consume more plant species than the generally poorer tropical countries, yet this collection of plant species is drawn from fewer branches on the tree of life,” the authors note.

The game (theory) is afoot

The results were a surprise even for lead author Erik Nelson, an applied economist at Bowdoin College and former University of Minnesota graduate student advised by Stephen Polasky. According to game theory concept of comparative advantage, if each country would focus on crops they could most efficiently produce then trade with each other for the stuff they can’t grow cheaply, everyone would eat more in terms of quantity and diversity.

When considering the manufacturing or services sectors, globalization has pushed countries to focus on what they can produce or offer best, then trade for the rest of what they need. As countries become richer, this particular industry or industries develop rapidly, outclassing the others. So Nelson expected to see each country becoming increasingly more specialized in what it produces and more diverse in what it consumes, aligning to global trade practices. But he found that when it comes to the food we eat, the economy hasn’t followed suit.

“We have not seen a lot of increased specialization in agriculture around the world like we have in other economic sectors areas such as manufacturing, finance and technology,” said Nelson.

Consumption patterns have adapted to increased trade and wealth, but diversity hasn’t — for example, people who traditionally eat apples consume more varieties of the fruit thanks to trade, but don’t eat papaya regularly even though they have access to it.

Nelson cites the persistence of domestic agricultural subsidies that play a huge role when farmers decide what to plant, traditional culinary habits that rely heavily on locally available foodstuffs, and the fact that growing a wider range of crops shields households in developing countries from food price shocks. The paper warns that while a wider range of crops makes farms more resilient to pests, shifting climate, and social perturbations, it also lowers global production efficiency — which means more resources used and a greater environmental strain by our farms.

“We need to become more efficient in agriculture to meet demand,” said Nelson, “but food may be different than other commodities as it turns out, so we should think about the implications and whether it a good or bad thing in terms of food security.”

“The more a team is interdisciplinary, the greater the chance to bring new insight on old theories,” said Matt Helmus, assistant professor of biology at Temple University who co-led the study. “What excited me about working with the applied economists on our team was that they introduced me to these long-standing economic theories, that together with my knowledge on biodiversity statistics, we were able to finally test.”

The full paper “Commercial Plant Production and Consumption Still Follow the Latitudinal Gradient in Species Diversity despite Economic Globalization” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Israeli archaeologists uncover roman-period glass factory underpinning trade throughout the empire

Israel Antiques Authority (IAA) archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of a 1,600 year-old complex of glass kilns in the Jezreel Valley. Their size indicates that Israel was one of the most important glass manufacturing center in the ancient world, says Dr. Yael Gorin-Rosen, IAA’s Glass Department head curator.

Small fragments of raw glass found at the site. Now that’s pretty.
Image credits Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

The structures are built in two compartments — a firebox where fuel was burned to create the huge temperatures required for the process and a melting chamber. Here, clean beach sand and salt were mixed and melted at temperatures in excess of 1,200 degrees Celsius (2190 Fahrenheit.) The raw glass would take a week or two to form into huge chunks, some of which weighed in excess of 10 tons. When the kilns cooled, the blocks were broken into smaller pieces that were sold to workshops where it was melted again to produce glassware.

“This is evidence that Israel constituted a production center on an international scale; hence its glassware was widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe,” said Dr. Gorin-Rosen.

The kilns, undisturbed for 1,600 years.
Image credits Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

“We know from historical sources dating to the Roman period that the Valley of Akko was renowned for the excellent quality sand located there, which was highly suitable for the manufacture of glass,” Dr. Gorin-Rosen said. “Chemical analyses conducted on glass vessels from this period which were discovered until now at sites in Europe and in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean basin have shown that the source of the glass is from our region.”

“Now, for the first time, the kilns have been found where the raw material was manufactured that was used to produce this glassware,” he added. “This is a very important discovery with implications regarding the history of the glass industry both in Israel and in the entire ancient world.”

Demand for glassware soared during the Early Roman period. It was highly appreciated for its transparency, beauty, the feeling of delicacy these items exuded. As glass blowing was adapted throughout the empire (an inexpensive production technique that dramatically sped up production and lowered costs,) the demand grew even higher.

Glass thus became a common sight from the Roman period onward, being used in almost every household and adorning public buildings as windows, mosaics and lighting fixtures. Large quantities of raw glass were required to fill this demand, production being taken over by specialized centers who could manufacture it on an industrial scale.

A price edict issue by Emperor Diocletian early in the 4th century CE differentiated between two kinds of glass. The first one, known as Judean glass (from the Land of Israel) was a light green color and less expensive than the second – Alexandrian glass (from Alexandria, Egypt).

“This is a sensational discovery and it is of great significance for understanding the entire system of the glass trade in antiquity,” added Prof. Ian Freestone, a researcher with the University College London, UK.