Sailing Sinbad's seas

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Science  27 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6191, pp. 1440-1445
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6191.1440

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The tall tales of Sinbad the Sailor, who plied the Indian Ocean from Arabia to Africa to India and beyond, once held little interest for scholars of ancient East-West relations. Researchers focused instead on the so-called Silk Road—the land route across Central Asia. Now, the southern maritime trade route of ancient times is emerging from the shadows. Archaeologists are picking through Southeast Asian swamps, diving off Sri Lankan reefs, and digging on African beaches. They aim to track how plants, animals, trade goods, people, and ideas moved around the ocean from 2000 B.C.E. until 1500 C.E. Already the research is uncovering a lost story of Indian Ocean trade that went far beyond the simple exchange of gems and spices and forged surprisingly modern connections among cultures. The work is shifting researchers' focus from the great empires at either end of the Silk Road—Rome and China—to the vibrant societies in between. Key sites include Khao Sam Kaeo, which is perhaps the oldest city in Southeast Asia; an ancient shipwreck off Sri Lanka; and sites along the East African coast that reveal the origins of the Swahili culture.