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UNIT 8: Early Economies



As early peoples built communities and ordered their spiritual and political worlds, how did they meet the fundamental needs of food and shelter? After the spread of agriculture throughout much of the world, many people settled in villages and became farmers.

Other peoples did not adopt a sedentary life and instead continued to live as nomads, following animal herds as they moved across steppes, grasslands, and tundra. Like their sedentary farmer counterparts, these nomadic, pastoral peoples often fished and hunted. They also frequently combined horticulture — and even agriculture — with herding.

Whether through pastoralism or agriculture, the ways people met their needs for food and shelter were fundamentally shaped by the landscapes they inhabited, by the technologies they employed, and by the political orders that structured their lives.

This unit explores the basic problem of how people made a living in the past. How did people distribute the goods they produced, and how did they gain access to what they needed to survive? How did societies establish systems of exchange based on differing concepts of value? What kinds of things were considered valuable: land, labor, or commodities such as gold and salt? How did some people accumulate wealth? How did different political systems structure the distribution of goods and services through taxation and tribute? How was money used? And finally, how did markets work?

The answers to these questions illustrate the diverse ways and means people secured food and shelter and accumulated wealth — however that wealth was defined. They also show how ways of making a living were embedded in political structures and were shaped by historical forces of change.


Time Period: 1000-1500 CE

The half-millennium between 1000 and 1500 CE was marked by political centralization and increasing interaction between distant societies. In Afro-Eurasia, nomadic Mongol and Turkish peoples spurred these developments by creating vast empires. By the middle of the fourteenth century, these empires had facilitated trade and communication across wide-ranging areas. During this same period, increased trading activities in the Indian Ocean region also encouraged cross-cultural connections between South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. Political centralization also increased in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Although far removed from the trading and political networks of Afro-Eurasia, societies in the Americas also grew more centralized, as both the Aztec and Inkan empires facilitated trade and communication between distant peoples.

AP Themes:

  • Examines technology, demography, and environment by exploring the ways that population growth and agricultural productivity facilitated changes in Japan, England, and China; and the ways the environment of the Andes shaped the economic structure of the Inkan empire.
  • Explores systems of social structure by comparing the economic organization of Japan, England, the Inkan Empire, and China.
  • Discusses the changing functions of states by focusing on the ways that states in Europe, the Americas, and East Asia organized themselves — at least in part — according to economic imperatives.


  • Question 1: How did early economies work to meet the basic needs of people?
  • Question 2: What kinds of circumstances caused economic growth and change in early economies?
  • Question 3: The term "political economy" refers to the relationship between political structures and the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. How did the early histories of England, Japan, China, and the Andean highlands shape the types of political economies that developed in each place?
  • Question 4: How did the differing political structures of early economies such as empires and feudal systems shape economic life?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Early economic systems were able to integrate smaller local and household economies into larger units.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Early economic systems were built on difference, as goods and services were allocated unequally according to different levels of political power and social status.

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