History of Global Trade

Global trade or simply put the exchange of goods over great distances dates back to as early as Stone Ages in Europe. As a result of some basic innovations and improvements in transportation mediums namely invention of wheels, horse-pulled wagons & wooden vessels our Eurasian ancestors were able to trade far beyond their better-known borders thousands of years ago. Interestingly, these ancient roads had no particular name up until mid-nineteenth century when the German geologist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the trade and communication network “Die Seidenstrasse” or the Silk Road. The Silk Road (絲綢之路, طريق الحرير, Մետաքսի ճանապարհ, جاده ابریشم, Δρόμος του μεταξιού); an ancient network of trade routes was initially developed around 200 BCE to export silk, stretching from China all the way to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. After the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, trade between China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe blossomed and that was because the eastern trade routes were inherited by the Roman Empire. It is believed that by the time of Augustus, up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos in Roman Egypt to India. The Silk Road in the 1st century CE was so developed that it actually connected Venice to Osaka stretching all the way from Japan to Mongolia in North and Sri Lanka in the south on its path to as far away as Central Asia, Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia and Europe. Marco Polo was a 13th-century Venetian merchant traveler whose 24-year long journey to China is recorded in his ever-famous book “The Marvels of the World”. This map illustrates the extent of his journey along the Silk Road. Meanwhile, in the 14th Century, China owned the greatest seagoing fleet in the world consisting of 3,500 ships at its peak, some of which were five times the size of the ships being built in Europe at the time. This is what the Silk Route looks like now.

Chinese, Arabs, Turkmens, Indians, Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Syrians, Radhanite Jews, Romans, Georgians, and Armenians to name a few have been trading many other goods besides silk while exchanging cultural and religious values, technological, scientific and philosophical discoveries, or even arts and antiquities through this most ancient transcontinental trade route for well over 2000 years and as far away as they could carry their goods using wooden boats, wagons and camel caravans.

Global trade in ancient times has had a profound impact on the advancement of history and civilizations of the Eurasian people as a result of the constant movement and mixing of populations.

It is as difficult to imagine what the world would look like today had the silk road never existed, as it is to foresee the future of this ancient trading route spread globally. Rapid technological advances in transportation, communication, and e-commerce industries have accelerated the growth of international trade in recent times to a point that it has become an undeniable $18 trillion reality, where for instance long caravans of camels are replaced by a 17-day long direct freight train service from China to the UK. Nevertheless, both ancient and modern traders would wholeheartedly agree that there is one unique human factor that has remained unchanged over centuries of trading; we have always moved from place to place and traded with our neighbors, exchanging not only tangible goods but skills, ideas, knowledge, beliefs, science, arts, and literature, as well as crafts and technologies thus allowing languages, religions, and cultures influence and empower each other.

The Current Reality

This $18 trillion global trade is weaved around the notion that efficient sea, land & air transportation mediums have brought about seemingly endless trading opportunities as long as transportation cost to target market does not exceed its profit margin. This is how vast the global trade has grown. Try the live shipping map below to look for and trace any vessels in real time.

Fortunately, due to the vast availability of data, it is actually possible to make sense of this overwhelming complexity, pinpointing the countries which export or import a particular product. There are also some advance analytic systems available online which could determine the competition in terms of volume, pricing, growth in volume/ pricing, proximity to the target market and product space in terms of trade balance and tariffs. Following sites explore visualizations of a huge volume of UN trade data and metadata, cutting-edge data extraction tools, and alternative dissemination platforms.

Global Economic Dynamics  

The “Global Economic Dynamics” (GED) project of the Bertelsmann Foundation is intended to contribute to better understanding of the growing complexity of global economic developments. By using the latest tools and methods for measuring, forecasting and modeling global economic dynamics, the project is designed to make globalization, its economic effects and its political consequences more transparent and understandable.

The Observatory of Economic Complexity

The Observatory of Economic Complexity is a tool that allows users to quickly compose a visual narrative about countries and the products they exchange. The observatory provides access to bilateral trade data for roughly 200 countries, 50 years and 1000 different products of the Harmonized System and SITC.


resourcetrade.earth has been developed by Chatham House to enable users to explore the fast-evolving dynamics of international trade in natural resources, the sustainability implications of such trade, and the related interdependencies that emerge between importing and exporting countries and regions.

The Globe of Economic Complexity

Provided by the Center for International Development at Harvard University. The Globe of Economic Complexity dynamically maps all countries’ traded commodities, their volumes and export destinations, and allows users to navigate export networks and intricate connections between products. The tool utilizes novel web technologies (WebGL) and design to visualize trade flows as 3-d “confetti,” with the ability to morph into bar charts, compounded country textures, and node-link diagrams.

NAFTA Trade Flows

Which commodities have experienced the greatest increase in trade within NAFTA? Which NAFTA countries have the strongest import-export bonds between each other, and at what point in time? How much intra-NAFTA trade occurs compared to extra-NAFTA trade for a given commodity? Thomson Reuters Labs collected, analyzed and visualized UN Comtrade data to find out.


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