Hemispheres | College of Liberal Arts
skip to content The University of Texas at Austin

Explorers, Traders & Merchants

College of Liberal Arts

This caption describes the image above.

Explorers, Traders & Merchants: Tracking the Cultural and Social Impact of the Global Commodity Trade is based in part on the Hemispheres Summer Teachers' Institute "Explorers, Traders & Merchants: Tracking Cultural Contact through Food." That four-day workshop examined aspects of cultural contact that have left trace evidence on the food that we eat. In seeking to expand the workshop's scope as we developed this unit, we have moved beyond looking only at foodstuffs and have incorporated a number of other commodities that have had significant global impact.

When complete, this unit will examine eight global commodities from their points of origin and the social, cultural, political, and economic changes they wrought along their way. Each case study covers encompasses four "stops" along the commodity's journey from its initial discovery and/or access, its progress from local good to international trade, the ramifications of large-scale production, and the drama of its boom-and-bust cycles through the years.

We have sought to address the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and National Geography Standards that cover spatial and cultural diffusion. This unit draws on primary source readings, images, and maps so that students can both track and assess commodities as they have traveled the world. Each case study is laid out in a Document-Based Question (DBQ) format so that students can cite, interpret, and evaluate sources; consider point of view; and use historical evidence to develop and support a thesis.

In addition to responding to specific questions about each commodity, students can compare commodities by placing the following set of questions and their answers into a graphic organizer:

  • What role did _____ play in people's lives?
  • How were people's lives affected by _____?
  • To what extent has _____ been harmful or beneficial to society?

Each case study also lends itself to be used as a mapping activity in which students can trace on a world map each commodity's journey from origin to global impact. Toward that end, a blank world map is included for you and your students to use.

We have also sought to include images among the primary source documents included in the DBQs. To help your students analyze these images as documents, we have included an image analysis worksheet.

It is our hope that, with Explorers, Traders & Merchants, students will be able to better appreciate the long-term effects of intercultural contact and population movements by relating them to the presence of various commodities that they see and use every day.

We welcome feedback and comments on the unit and your experience using it in the classroom. Please do not hesitate to contact us at hemispheres@austin.utexas.edu.

Download the full unit (PDF) or download each unit separately:

  1. Caviar: From Elite Treat to Marketing Magic
  2. Chocolate: From New World Currency to Global Obsession
  3. Fur: From Mark of Nobility to Synthetic Chic
  4. Indigo: From Devil's Dye to Denim
  5. Rice: From Gift of the Gods to the San Francisco Treat
  6. Rubber: From Mesoamerican Ball Game to Modern Transportation
  7. Salt: From Edible Rock to Worth its Weight in Gold
  8. Tea: From Medicinal Magic to Economic Powerhouse