Roger M McCoy
What first prompted groups of humans to leave a place they had occupied for thousands of years and begin the migrations that populated the world? Perhaps food sources disappeared. Perhaps they were driven out by neighboring tribes who had been forced from their own homeland. The thing is that ever since humans first left east Africa about 75,000-100,000 years ago, they have continued wandering from place to place. Most of those migrations left no permanent trail, even though researchers using DNA analysis now know the general direction and sequence of movements.
Other migrations have created permanent trails, many of which are still in use today as highway or railroad routes. Some well-known examples in North America are the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and the California Trail, which migrants or merchants followed in hope of better opportunity. Each of these are well-known routes of movement from east to west across parts of North America and continue to be in use today in approximately the same locations. Similar trails exist in many other parts of the world.
One of the oldest historic trails is the Silk Road used by tradesmen carrying goods from East Asia to Persia and Syria. It is more correct to call the Silk Road a network of trails moving goods from both China and India. Travel and trade began along segments of the route began over 2,000 years ago and continued through the rise and fall of various kingdoms. Eventually the various segments began to connect into a complete trail between China and Europe. During the Middle Ages east-west trade had to pass through the Ottoman Empire which imposed stiff tariffs on Eastern goods (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and fine fabrics). In the fifteenth century European importers saw strong economic advantages to finding a sea route to the East and urged the rulers of Spain and Portugal to support efforts by Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama to reach India by sea. Thus we see that the ancient Silk Road has a connection to the discovery of the New World.
Not all trails were created by people seeking new opportunity or economic gain. An especially tragic movement of people was a forced relocation of Native Americans from various parts of the southeastern United States into an area designated as Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Many people died on that forced march known as the Trail of Tears. Other forced movements did not leave trails, such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, or the diaspora from Israel. Religion was also a basis for certain movements or pilgrimages beginning in the Middle Ages. Some of these movements also left trails.
Before humans had knowledge of other places, the primary cause of migration would have been some change that forced them to leave, e.g. climate change, depletion of necessary resources, or the expulsion of unwanted populations by existing rulers or by invaders. Later as global awareness grew, migration could be prompted by some perceived opportunity in another place…better resources and the potential for trade. Therefore the primary reasons for human migration can be reduced to being forced from a region or being drawn away by distant opportunities. Two other elements that have often led to movement are the expectation of fame and glory and simple human curiosity to know what is in back of beyond.
In most cases these migrations left trails that have endured through time, and they were used by pilgrims, nomads, merchants, and warriors. They formed a great communication network, and could be called the world’s central nervous system. This series of blogs will look at the origin and purposes of historic trails with insight into real experiences by first person descriptions when available. A thread throughout will be the idea of trails as bridges: bridges between eastern and western cultures; bridges between centers of civilization; bridges between markets; and bridges between religious centers.