Phase 2 in brief: globalisation and the rise of civilisation

Human population density was limited by food, and food was limited by climate. The climate warming thus triggered a transformation of human society directly, and globalisation indirectly. Population density rose in regions with long growing seasons and reliable water sources. With lots of people and lots of food clustered together, humans gradually learned how to move food production to people rather than having to move the people to the food as they did when they were hunter-gatherers. This was the agricultural revolution.

The world economy was, in other words, “localised” in the sense that production and consumption occurred in fixed locations.

Globalisation in this Phase meant ‘localising’ the world economy.

Alt the four ancient production-consumption clusters

Production and consumption were first localised in four river valleys that were in the crop-growing “sweet zone” (about 30 degrees north - not too hot, not too cold). The rivers were critical since the annual flooding solved the major problem facing ancient farming, namely soil exhaustion (without fertiliser, farmland loses much of its ability to grow crops in just a few years).

Historical Narrative

If the modern world were a house, Phase 2 would be its foundations. All the trappings of civilisation took their modern forms during this Phase—everything from writing and worship to governments and gunboats. The foundations were built in three stages: the rise of Asia, the integration of the Eurasian landmass, and the rise of Europe. Consider this in turn.

  • The rise of Asia (10,000 to 200 BCE).

The ancient Eurasian civilisations: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India /Pakistan, and China - arose around river valleys. Some trade happened among the three western-most clusters (Egypt, Mesopotamia and India/Pakistan), but it was limited to missing raw materials and elite goods since transport technology was so primitive. Importantly, China was not involved in this trade due to physical barriers (the Tibetan plateau, the jungles of Southeast Asia, and the long ocean route).

In the next segment was the uniting of the entire Eurasian continent via the Silk Road.

  • Eurasian Integration (200 BCE to 1350 CE).

The Silk Road opened around 200 BCE (see map). The Silk Road was the first sustained connection between the economic clusters at the East and West ends of Asia. Trade flowed by land and by sea. It opened around 200 BCE, reached its zenith around 1300. It is commonly said to have been shut down in 1453 when Constantinople fell to Islamic armies. The map uses modern city names where possible.

Alt the Silk Road

Silk Road by land and sea around the Year 1. Source: Background map from Wikicommons with routes added by author based on various sources.

For 15 centuries or so, the four original clusters (Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China) were connected by land and sea. Trade was regular, but scarce. To give an example, it took the famous traveller Marco Polo 3 years to travel overland from Venice to China. He returned by sea, a voyage that took 2 years.

A major shock to the world’s economic geography came with the Black Death (bubonic plague). This defines the beginning of the third stage of Phase 2:

  • The rise of Europe (1350 to 1820).

The Black Death killed up to half of all Europeans in just three years. It had a similarly terrible impact on the Islamic World which had come to dominate three of the four clusters of ancient civilisations in the “Golden Age of Islam”. By contrast, the shock seems to have had much less of an effect in South and East Asia.

For reasons that historians still argue about, the shock shifted Europe onto a positive-growth path, but did the opposite for the Islamic world.

At just about the same time (the 1400s), China decided to close itself off from the world, despite having been an important trader for centuries. One of the most spectacular events in China’s early globalisation was the voyages of Admiral Zheng He from 1405 to 1433. According to contemporary sources, the first expedition involved over 27’000 men, 62 “treasure” ships and 190 or so smaller ships. The treasure ships were several times larger than the European ships at the time. For example, Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, was about 30 metres long, Zheng He’s ship was over 120 meters long.

This combination of the rise of Europe and the turning inwards of China opened the door for the North Atlantic global domination that we are so familiar with today.

Western Europe had always been a primitive backwater in the centuries leading up to the 14th century (Southern Europe was the exception during the Greco-Roman civilisation’s few glorious centuries). Starting from the 1500s, however, Europe transformed itself into an economic entity that would soon tower over the world economically, militarily, and culturally.

The key features of this reversal of fortunes were i) new thinking (the Renaissance and Enlightenment), ii) new lands (the Age of Discovery brought the Americas into the Eurasian world system), and iii) new foods (for example, potatoes and maize) that were critical in raising Europe’s population density. The Industrial Revolution, which was a small English bushfire at the end of Phase 2, became a global firestorm in Phase 3 (as we shall see in the next video).

For more detail, please see :

Baldwin, Richard (2016), The Great Convergence: Information technology and the New Globalisation, Harvard University Press (Part I).

O’Rourke, Kevin and Ronald Findlay (2008). Power and Plenty: trade, war, and the world economy in the second millennium, Princeton University Press.

Gronewald, Sue (2009). The Ming Voyages, online article below.

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This article is from the free online course:

International Affairs: Globalisation

The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies