From cliffside fortresses, they controlled a sprawling trade network — and hoarded wealth beyond dreams. Meet the merchant princes of the ancient Southwest.
When we hear terms like “invasion” and “first contact” in American history, we naturally think of European colonialism — and with good reason.
The Spanish arrival in New Mexico devastated indigenous populations, disrupted regional trade, introduced horses and guns, and left the Southwest irreversibly transformed.
But the Spanish were not the first foreign people to set foot on Southwestern soil — nor were they the first to introduce new technologies, languages, beliefs and ways of life that radically altered the region’s ecology and social structure.
More than a thousand years before the Spanish, a different group of colonists erupted into the Southwest.
They raised mighty mud-brick cities, and built a trade empire spanning the Southwest. Meet Arizona’s desert lords.
The people had been walking in the desert for many days. When they’d departed from northern Mexico on their great northward migration, they’d been more than a hundred strong – men, women and children, well-practiced at surviving in this merciless land.
These people knew how to drink water from cacti, how to trap the mice and lizards that scurried among the rocks, and how to find shady places to sleep through the brutal midday heat.
But this miserable life was very different from the one they’d left behind.
They built astronomical observatories and innovative farming systems — and we don’t even know their names. Meet the first great civilizations of Native American history.
Nearly four thousand years ago — as the city of Babylon was first growing into a metropolis, Egypt’s Middle Kingdom was in full swing, and tens of thousands of years of Native American history had already passed — a group of hunters along North America’s Mississippi River assembled in their thousands, to build something very strange.
In a place that would someday be known as northern Louisiana, they staked out an area of some five hundred acres, and began to heap the earth into enormous mounds. Read more
Their realm was the heart of civilization — until the apocalypse came. Meet the great masters of Central Asia’s last golden age.
When you think of “Arabian culture,” what do you imagine? Towering citadels, perhaps; adorned with domes and minarets. Flowing robes of many colors, and turbans and embroidered veils. Gardens of colorful flowers and birds, where courtesans sing poetry for sultans. Spices and the scent of sandalwood, and the tales of the Thousand and One Nights.
It might surprise you, then, to learn that none of this comes from Arabia. Not at all.
They brought together the best of Asia—then improved on it. Meet the merchant princes of the ancient East.
In the year 36 BCE, a Han Chinese expedition marched west across the Jaxartes River, in what’s now Kazakhstan — more than 4,000 miles west of their home in China, in the heart of the mountainous wilderness of Central Asia.
There on the forested riverbank, the Han horsemen and crossbowmen encountered a force of strange barbarians —
Warriors in heavy iron armor, who fought with long spears and tall shields.
Chinese crossbows and arrows made quick work of these newcomers’ flimsy shields, and soon the spear-fighters were falling in droves. They died quickly, without making it anywhere near the Chinese line. Read more
They drank, smoked, plundered, raided and traded their way across ancient Asia. Meet the Scythians — the deadliest crew you’ve ever wanted to party with.
I’ve experienced some surprisingly intimate moments at archaeological museums around the world.
When I gaze into the lifelike eyes of a statue like that of Ebih-Il, or stumble upon a familiar name in an ancient inscription, the centuries seem to melt away, bringing me and the other person together across thousands of years. For a few brief seconds, we meet in a time outside of time.
But my most intimate historical moment happened at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Long before the Huns, or the Mongols, or the Aryans, a different people ruled the Eurasian plains. Meet the inventors of thunderbolt-hurling sky gods.
Imagine a time long before Asia’s vast interior was crossed by railroads or telephone lines. Thousands of years before anyone dreamed of the Silk Route; before there were friendly roads and caravansaries to welcome travelers from across the desert. Long before anyone had heard the names of China, or India, or Rome.
It is 1900 BCE, or thereabouts. Far to the west, the Sumerians are experiencing their Renaissance, Egypt has entered its Middle Kingdom era, and Babylon is about to rise to power for the first time.
But here in Central Asia, there is only wilderness.
It’s a town in Tunisia, North Africa, where many of the desert scenes in Star Wars were actually filmed. And while it’s not home to any starships or aliens, its true story is every bit as strange.
In my first article of this “Great African Empires” series, I mentioned that people in North Africa were living in settled villages, practicing farming and animal agriculture, as early as the 11,000s BCE —
A full 7,500 years before the Great Pyramid was built.