Of Apes and Elephants: Did Minoans Open the First Global Sea Lanes?

Fresco Fragments Blue Monkeys

Second Millennium murals at the Minoan sea-port of Akrotiri on Thera.


An article by Katherine J. Wu in Smithsonian reports that archaeologists and primatologists re-analyzing wall paintings found in Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement on Thera (modern-day Santorini) buried by volcanic ash around 1600 B.C., have identified the exotic blue apes depicted there as gray langurs, native to ancient India, thousands of miles distant.

A couple of centuries later, around 1470 BCE, live monkeys and apes “from Punt” were painted on the mortuary friezes of Egyptian female pharaoh Hatshepsut along with other common Indian trade items. (see William J. Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, Grove/Atlantic, 2009.)

Why were the apes not recognized long ago as overseas imports?

“Our ancestors were interested in rare and exotic things, just as we are,” Peter Frankopan, a global history expert at Oxford University, said. “Long-distance trade, and connections between the Mediterranean, Asia and the Indian Ocean are well attested, even in this period, for high value, expensive objects.”

It seems world trade is a lot older than most modern-day people assume. It has always been luxury goods like ivory, apes, gems, parrots, spices and drugs that have led the way. Can one doubt that people—and DNA—followed in the wake of these exchanges?

Here are some excerpts from the book Merchant Adventurer Kings of Rhoda that discuss these ancient trade routes for high-value, low-volume goods.

The really important branch of Oriental commerce, by which it was actually related to everyday life, was the importation of spices. One cannot insist too strongly on the importance of this trade. The Roman Empire had received all sorts of spices from India, China, Arabia. It was the trade in spices that built up the prosperity of Palmyra and Apamea. Pliny the Elder estimates that the Empire spent every year at least one hundred millions of our francs (about $150 million) on spices imported from India and China and Arabia. Their diffusion throughout the Roman Empire was not interrupted by the invasions. They continued, after the invasions, as before them, to form a constituent of the everyday diet. . . . (Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, in Merchant Adventurer Kings of Rhoda, p. 146.)


Louis Rabinowitz, chief rabbi in Johannesburg, fully documents and describes four international routes by sea and land taken by the Rhadanites. This association of Jews held a monopoly on trade originating or terminating in the West for over a hundred years, corresponding to the dates of the kings of Rhoda. Rhadanites were unique in being able to take advantage of the blocking of Mediterranean sea routes by the Arabs and cross from Christian ports through Muslim lands to India and China and return. They carried slaves and furs into Spain, North Africa and the Eastern Caliphate and brought spices, silk and other high-cost, low-bulk goods home to Constantinople and Carolingian France. Rabinowitz goes into detail about their practices, ports of call, imports, carrying trade and achievements. His book can be read as a long gloss on this important passage, which he calls “the key to the whole economic history of the Jews in the Middle Ages,” supplementing it with responsa, travel accounts and other documents from Judaic studies.  

According to Joseph Jacobs in Jewish Contributions to Civilisation, “Europe owes to the Jewish Radanites the introduction of oranges and apricots, sugar and rice, Jargonelle pears and Gueldre roses [viburnum opulus, snowball tree, kalina, national symbol of Ukraine], senna and borax, baelium and asafetida, sandal-wood and aloes, cinnamon and galingale [galangal, a type of ginger], mace and camphor, candy and julep, cubebs [Java peppercorns] and tamarinds, slippers and tambours, mattresses, sofas, and calabash, musk and jujube, jasmine and lilac . . . [also] the word ‘douane’ for custom-house, ‘tariff’, ‘bazaar’, ‘bale’, ‘fondac’ or ‘factory’, and ‘baggage’ . . . as well as ‘barge’, ‘barque’ and ‘sloop’. There is also the possibility that the royal breed of horses in France, known as limousine, introduced in the 9th century, was due to these Jewish merchants . . . .” (p. 155)

This Arab author (al-Dimishqi ) covers business practices in the Afro-Eurasian ecumene in a simple, but sound fashion. He omits the category of tycoon or capitalist ship owner to which our merchant-adventurers belonged. In addition to the carrying trade in spices and other high value goods from East to West, they also were vested in mining and the metals and gem trade and collected tolls. Many Eastern specialties, such as silk and cinnamon in China and India, could only be paid for in gold or silver. The grand businessmen at the top of the economy were able to mint their own coins and mine their own gold; typically, the sovereign of the land received what is known as the Royal Fifth. They owned ships and operated some of the mines. Additionally, they engaged in banking and protection services, even providing insurance on risky ventures. Jews, of course, are credited with a number of important contributions to the history of commerce. They developed the money transfer (disqui), pay-to-bearer instrument or check (suftaja), an international credit system, loan agreement or bond (starr) and commenda contract. The commenda (which is similar to a silent partnership) specified profit for an investor or stock holder upon sale of goods at a port or market, even if losses occurred. Abu al-Fadl Ja’far ibn ‘Ali al-Dimishqi, The Beauties of Commerce, late ninth century, quoted in Robert S. Lopez and Irving W. Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World: Illustrative Documents with Introduction and Notes (New York:  Columbia UP, 1990), pp. 24-27. (p. 156)

Spice Island mariners, which included our Gallo-Romans and Breton Jews, were able to traverse vast ocean distances by following the fast-flowing warm currents coming out of what oceanographers call the West Pacific Warm Pool. They sailed with these currents west to Madagascar, east to Africa, north to Japan, Hawaii and America and south to New Zealand. In the Northern Pacific, trade and colonization to the Americas was facilitated by the Kuroshio or Japan Current, whose speed and surface temperature protected voyagers against hypothermia. Such a combination of favorable conditions supported transoceanic exploration, trading and movement of peoples in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. On the return trip, merchants introduced at least forty useful Western Hemisphere plants to India before 1000 A.D. During our time period, trans-Pacific ships typically transported religious trade items, weapons and tools, slaves, prisoners, criminals and refugees on the outward-bound voyages and high-value-per-weight cargoes of drugs, gold, silver and gems on the return trip. A Hindu merchantman carved in relief at Borobudur, Java could have carried 1000 tons of freight. Marco Polo mentions ships in India that held 700 people. Chinese junks were even larger.

Ship captains, often in conjunction with a syndicate of shareholders, owned their own ships (as in Daniel Defoe’s Further Adventurers of Robinson Crusoe) or booked whole ships or space on ships for different segments of the voyage. The entire length of the journey might by interspersed with off-loadings involving land travel or change of ships and warehousing. The most profitable operators minimized the number of ports of call and transfer points so as not to pay double duties. It was traditional for Jews never to pay customs to other Jews, to form partnerships with other Jews and extend them credit (as the Cairo Genizah documents testify in abundance).

Climate change around 900 caused by a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation event reversed the direction of the trade winds and currents. This precipitated a cascade of droughts, floods, mud slides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, persistent cloud cover, crop failure, famines, starvation, plague, conflict over land and resources, regime change, extinctions and migrations. The affected areas were Polynesia, New Zealand and all around the Pacific Rim, including North Mexico. (See Pearce and Pearce, Oceanic Migration, 2010.)

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In the case of our Calalus colonists, or Rhadanites, it is not known what ships they arrived on, what ports they called at around the Pacific or what they might have been transporting to the New World. It is likely their cargo was human on the in-bound side and metal on the outbound, perhaps also maize. Along the way, various small bulk, high-cost exports and imports were opportunistically traded—turquoise, macaw feathers, bells, beads, spices and drugs. Maize grain is known from Indian temple representations and has been found depicted in an ivory carving from the Archbishop’s Palace in Ravenna as early as 550. Chinese trading cities, like Canton, allowed foreign merchants to pay for silk, porcelain and other prized goods in gold bullion or coinage only, so the Romani may have exchanged some of their metal there for imports which they carried further west in the regional trade systems. “The sea route from the Persian Gulf to Canton was the longest in regular use by mankind before European expansion in the 16th century” (Hourani). Certainly, the focus of the Calalus operations was gold and silver and spices, particularly spices used as incense in temple services and churches. For spices they held a monopoly in Western Europe from their inception until the Venetians and others broke it up in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Rhadanites appear to have supplied the overwhelming bulk of the incense and costly ecclesiastical vestments used by the Carolingian church, an irony which many Jewish responsa ruled and railed against in vain. One of the main ingredients of incense was cinnamon from China. Silk also originated only in China.

A ninth-century Arab or Indian shipwreck was discovered in 1998 in the waters off Belitung Island between Borneo and Sumatra. This territory was ruled by the powerful Indic city-state of Srivijaya. With its capital at Palembang on Sumatra, Shaivite Srivijaya long dominated trade between India and China, guaranteeing protection from the Malay pirates who infested the straits, while exacting relatively low port fees and taxes. From the Belitung Wreck, divers recovered a mostly ceramic cargo of wares traced to the Changsha kilns of Hunan Province, China. A Tang red oxide inscription on the earliest piece proclaimed “the third year of Kaicheng,” equivalent to AD 838. Also observed were lead ingots used for ballast, stacked on the ceiling planks the full length of the ship as well as placed in green-glazed jars from Canton for export. Further were a bell-shaped anchor (cf. 7A, The Josephus and Saul Cross) with cast iron crossarms, Chinese coins, fine Yue, sancai tri-colored, blue-and-white and white ware, aromatic resins and spices (star anise). Some of the objects are marked with Tang-era seal script trade emblems similar to those on the Tucson Artifacts.

In addition to the Srivijaya shipwreck, we have the record of the Jewish merchant Eldad ha-Dani, who completed the West-East Rhadanite routes in both directions about 880 and ended up a captive in China on one of his voyages. Here he was ransomed by a fellow Jew for 32 gold coins and returned to their home country, the northern mountains of Khorasan in the Eastern Caliphate. The fact that Eldad was rescued by another Jew demonstrates that he was part of an international merchant brotherhood, according to Rabinowitz (pp. 179-81).

Jewish merchants were so common in India that a whole book called “The India Book” was published focusing on them in the Cairo Genizah documents. One was David, the brother of Maimonides who lost his life in the Indian Ocean in 1161. Robert Heine-Geldern estimates that voyages from India reached directly into America from as early as the 2nd century C.E., in other words already in Roman times. According to Sorenson and Johannessen, a short list of plants with decisive evidence for movement from the Americas to India during the ensuing centuries includes agave, amaranth, milkweed, annatto, chili pepper (by 800 C.E.), certain squashes, arrowroot and basil. It was a Golden Age for world exchanges, those of a biological nature as well as cultural. Their book reproduces several pictures of Indian temple sculpture from about 800 C.E. clearly showing American maize held in the hands of male and female divinities. Perhaps then as now, the New World offered exotic foodstuffs to the countries around the Pacific and Indian Oceans. (pp. 166-67.)

Imports of India and China

From a ninth century Arabic work titled The Investigation of Commerce comes this interesting list of imports at about the same time as the merchant adventurers of Rhoda. This was a period of great prosperity under the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (Aaron the Just, ruled 786-809), who was very commercially minded. Harun al-Rashid established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, became the ally of Charlemagne and sponsored active trade missions to Tang China by land and sea. Robert S. Lopez and Irving W. Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World (New York:  Norton, n.d.), pp. 28-29; translated from the French text in J. Sauvaget, Historiens arabes, pp.10-12.

From India are imported tigers, panthers, elephants, panther skins, rubies, white sandalwood,

ebony and coconuts. (p. 168)

* * * *

From these accounts, it is clear that long-distance trade began in the Aegean Basin before Minoan times and continued during the entire age of sail until steamships were able to traverse oceans in straight paths. The Romans and Greeks called maritime law Rhodian after its birthplace on the island of Rhodes. Syrian and medieval Jewish merchants were called Rhodanites, or Rhadanites. Apes and elephants were imported into the West from India. Hunting dogs from Britain were a staple of world trade, and “Viking dogs” reached pre-Columbian Peru. Chinese ponies were once common in North America.

Complete with trunk, flapping ears and short tail, an elephant is carved in bas-relief on the cliffside at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. The spiral to the left probably depicts the people’s wanderings or emergence. Or it may be a labyrinth, a symbol of Minoan knowledge and arts. (Los Lunas Decalogue Stone, p. 65.)


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