Starting in the 1400s, Europeans undertook a flurry of exploration, mapping new sea routes around the world. This great age of exploration was fueled by many causes, but at first, the most important cause was the search for spices.
On their way to the Indies, Vasco da Gama's ships rounded the southern tip of Africa, shown here in the distance.
Europeans had traded with Asia long before the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, the Crusades introduced Europeans to many luxury goods from Asia. When the Mongol empire united much of Asia in the 1200s and 1300s, Asian goods flowed to Europe along complex overland trade routes.
The Black Death and the breakup of the Mongol empire disrupted Asian trade routes, but by the 1400s, Europe's population was growing—as was the demand for goods from Asia. The most valued trade items were spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, and pepper. People used spices to preserve and add flavor to food, and to make medicines and perfumes.
The chief source of spices was the Moluccas, an island chain in present-day Indonesia. Europeans called the Moluccas the Spice Islands.
In the 1400s, Arab and Italian merchants controlled most trade between Asia and Europe. Muslim traders brought spices and other goods to Mediterranean ports in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.