The Bronze Age: Unique instance of a pre-industrial world system?

Document Type


Publication Date

January 2001


This paper considers the crosscultural trade of the 3d millennium B.C. across the region between the Euphrates and the Indus from the perspective of worldsystem theory. This theory was developed for the international economics of the past few centuries, but in the 3d millennium B.C., when neither labour nor land was a commodity, economic processes were totally different. The Bronze age was, however, unique even in ancient times in that the great river valley civilizations relied on metal for production and that metal (copper, tin, lead, etc.) was scarce and had to be procured from afar, from less developed regions. Thus trade involved not just luxuries but also basic requirements, interaction between societies at contrasting levels of technology and social organization, and organization by ruling elites. While making the point that Bronze Age economies were not inchoate versions of our own, the paper examines the nature of trading cultures and traded items, the technologies of transport, trade initiatives, comparative metallurgical development, and other features, in an attempt to determine whether the trade underdeveloped some partners.


Schortman provides supporting commentary as one part of the entire article.