What an interesting question!
I'll divide the answer into main areas (geographic ones), because
naturally the world was very different from one place to another in
that year. However, 1500 is marked by many as a year of change, and
the beginning of the global reign of Europe. Life, in general, was
very different than it is today for the population: ?While many of the
world?s population lives in poverty today, nearly all of the world?s
population lived in poverty in 1500. Even the richest king 500 years
ago could not enjoy the benefits available to the poorest of his
citizens today. The amazing thing about this growth in living
standards is that it has occurred while an ever-growing number of
people have been inhabiting the same small earth. In fact, we have
fewer natural resources today (and more people using them) than 500
years ago, yet we are living much longer, healthier, and more
luxurious lives today? (SOURCE: ?Increases in productivity result from
technological change and other sources?
From the European point of view, "Africa was still largely unexplored"
(SOURCE: "The World in 1500", BBC Brasil,
Benin and Madagascar were among the only places that had contacts with
However, this shows only half of the picture. This is because there
were thriving Western African kingdoms in that period, those of Ghana
and Mali (which were in decline) and the new rising power - Songhay.
Those kingdoms traded ? with the Muslim powers ? in gold, salt and
other commodities (including slaves). ?By 1500, the empire of Songhay
had become the largest and most powerful state in the history of West
Africa. Some of the most important innovations associated with this
empire are the establishment of schools, a uniform system of weights
and measures, the improvement of banking and credit procedures,
reorganization of the armed forces, the promotion of more foreign
trade, and the creation of an effective government administrative
network throughout the land. As Songhay was a Moslem state, the laws
of the Koran became the basis for the administration of justice.
Songhay made its greatest progress in education during the reign of
Askia Mohammed.? (SOURCE: Donavan Duncan, ?West African Kingdoms?,
In 1500 Mansa Musa attempted to build the world?s largest university
1500 was about the time that another great African power began to
decline: that of Great Zimbabwe in Sourthern Africa.
In Eastern Africa, Asians and Arabs, who traded with the local Swahili
population, began to settle there (Read more about it: ?ASIATIC
IMMIGRANTS IN SOUTH-EASTERN AFRICA?,
In Central Africa, ?The Luo, a Nilotic people from modern Sudan,
settle the Cwezi states, establishing the state of Buganda?, at about
Further Reading regarding Africa in 1500:
Great Zimbabwe, <http://search.eb.com/Blackhistory/article.do?nKeyValue=78375>
Great Zimbabwe (The Story of Africa: Central African Kingdoms, British
Broadcoasting Company [BBC] News: World Service):
The Mwenemutapa or Zimbabweans (Richard Hooker, World Civilizations, WSU):
Lost Cities of the South (PBS Online's Wonders of the African World
with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1999):
Wonders: City of Great Zimbabwe (PBS Online's Wonders of the African
World with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1999):
Wonders: The Shona People (PBS Online's Wonders of the African World
with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1999):
Shona Religion & Beliefs (Solomon Murungu): (Link broken 08.2003 LL)
The Religions of Zimbabwe (George P. Landow, African Postcolonial
Literature in English: Zimbabwe Overview, Brown Univ.):
Great Zimbabwe (also George P. Landow):
Nationmaster ? Songhai
In April 1500, The Portuguese Pedro Álvares Cabral ?discovered? Brazil
and claimed the territory for Portugal. However, in that year, "only a
small part of the Americas had been discovered, next to the Caribbean
Sea." (SOURCE: "The World in 1500", BBC Brasil,
In 1500 Juan de la Cosa publishes the first known map of the world
that contains the Americas ? of course, as he knew them:
The larger American civilisations, those of the Aztec and Inca,
continued to exist, and haven?t met the European powers yet. D?Souza
notes that ?Despite their reputation for brutality and human
sacrifice, these were impressive for their architecture, social
organization ? and city planning.? (SOURCE: Dinesh D'Souza, ?The World
in 1500 ? or the West as a Backwater?, The Globalist, October 16,
Most of the Americas, in fact, like most of the world in general, has
not been urbanised. ?Bairoch (1988, Table 24.1, p.389) reports the
distribution of cities with populations of 20,000 or more. In 1500,
there were 20 such cities in the Northern Andes (Bolivia, Colombia,
Equador and Peru), and 10 in Mexico. There were no cities above this
threshold size in the Caribbean, Brazil or the ?Temperate Regions?
(Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay). He further estimates that there were
4-7 cities with populations of more than 50,000 and ?25-30 (perhaps
even 40)? with populations of 20,000-50,000 (Bairoch 1988, p.66).
There were two main concentrations of urban population: the Aztecs,
Tarascans, and Zapotecs (roughly in the area now Mexico); and the
Incas, Mayas, Chibchas, and Cakchiquels (Central America and
north-western South America.) Urbanization may have been as high as
10-13% in some places, but Bairoch?s assessment is that it was more
likely around 7% on average. For the Chimu region of the Andes,
Bairoch cites an estimate as high as 14% (Bairoch 1988, p.66). For the
Andean region as a whole, Bairoch estimates the low end for
urbanization was 2-3%; and the high end was 10-13%?. (SOURCE: Daron
Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson, 1002. ?Reversal of
Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World
Income Distribution? ,
Despite the fact that the historiography of the year 1500 is very much
Europocentric (see in the Europe section), it was, in fact, the era of
two major Asian superpowers: Ming dynasty?s China, and the Islamic
Civilisation (in particular, the emergence of the Ottoman Empire).
?During the Ming dynasty, the wealth, knowledge and power of China
astonished all those who came into contact with it. Chinese
astronomers knew more about eclipses and heavenly orbits than anyone
else at the time. The Chinese were responsible for inventions of
surpassing importance ? printing, gunpowder and the compass. In the
15th century, the Chinese sent a fleet of ships ? the largest and most
sophisticated of their kind ? to explore the shores of Africa, India
and other countries. At home, the Chinese ruling class presided over
an empire distinguished by its size and cohesion. Confucian philosophy
gave a kind of moral and intellectual unity to Chinese civilization.
The Chinese had a merit system of government appointments. This was
all the more impressive as most of the world operated on traditional
systems of nepotism and patronage. Chinese society showed a refinement
in porcelain work, in silk embroidery ? and in social refinement ?
that no other society could match. No wonder the Chinese emperors
regarded themselves as the ?sons of Heaven? ? and their part of the
world as the center of the universe.? (SOURCE: Dinesh D'Souza, ?The
World in 1500 ? or the West as a Backwater?, The Globalist, October
16, 2002, <http://www.theglobalist.com/DBWeb/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=2786>).
The Muslim Empires also thrived in 1500: ?Equally impressive in the
year 1500 were the achievements of Islamic civilization. Starting in
the 7th century, the Islamic empire spread rapidly until it sprawled
across three continents: Europe, Asia ? and Africa. The Muslims
unified their enormous empire around a single faith, Islam ? and a
single language, Arabic. The Islamic world enjoyed a flourishing
economy, enriched by trade with India and the Far East, and a largely
uniform system of laws. The Muslims built spectacular cities ?
Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul, Seville, Granada ?distinguished by
architectural and literary splendor. Islamic literature and thought
exhibited a richness, variety ? and complexity ? that far surpassed
that of Europe at the time. Islam produced great men of learning, such
as Ibn Sinha (Avicenna), lhn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Khaldun,
al-Ghazali, al-Farabi and al-Kindi. Indeed, much of Greco-Roman
knowledge ? including the works of Aristotle ? that had been lost in
Europe during the Dark Ages was preserved in the Islamic world. It is
no exaggeration to write, in the words of historian David Landes, that
during this period ?Islam was Europe?s teacher.? (SOURCE: Dinesh
D'Souza, ?The World in 1500 ? or the West as a Backwater?, The
Globalist, October 16, 2002,
In 1500, the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire has won the Second Battle of
Lepanto against the Venetians, demonstrating force also in Europe.
Another Muslim Empire was Moghul Empire, emerging from Central Asia.
And in India ?the civilization of India, renowned for its spiritual
depth as the original home of two of the world?s great religions:
Hinduism and Buddhism. India was also famous for its wealth and
mathematical learning.? (SOURCE: Dinesh D'Souza, ?The World in 1500 ?
or the West as a Backwater?, The Globalist, October 16, 2002,
Some areas in Asia were not so powerful and in fact, in economic
decay. In November 1500, Emperor Go-Kashiwabara began to reign Japan
(read more about him and Japan in 1500 at : Wikipedia
was at the time impoverished, due to the Onin War
(<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onin_War>), and was not a major power.
Further reading might be:
Asia in 1500
Europe, of course, is central to our understanding of the year 1500,
and most of the historiography about the year 1500 is "Europocentric".
The population of Europe in 1500 is estimated to have been about 60
There were two conflicting ? but also related ? themes in European
history in that year. First, it was an age of political tensions, wars
between small kingdoms "fighting among themselves." (SOURCE: "The
World in 1500", BBC Brasil,
The ?Italian Wars? have started, between small Italian kingdoms,
France, Switzerland and other powers (read more about it here:
In Northern Europe, the tension translated itself to a series of ?Peasant Wars?.
It was also the age, where disgruntled scholars began to question the
rule of the Catholic Church in people?s lives, which led to the
Reformation later. It was an age of inventions, explorations and
developments. The ?West? as we know it, with its superior military and
economic strength, began to emerge in 1500.
A major political power was Portugal, because of its marine strength
and the exploration of new economic potential in the Americas, Africa
and Asia. "Portugal used its sea access to maintain relations with
communities in northern Europe and on the Mediterranean Sea. The
country was able to develop its navy, which allowed it to explore the
Atlantic Ocean before other countries did.
Portugal was a small country, with just over one million inhabitants.
The Portuguese used their maritime explorations to guarantee their
influence over the international community and to control the trade
routes. The naval expeditions had to generate money for their
investors, including the King of Portugal. The entry of other
countries into the colonial race (England, Spain, Holland and France)
marked the downfall of Portugal as a power." (SOURCE: "The World in
1500", BBC Brasil, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/world/2000/navigate_brazil/mundo.stm>).
See a map of Europe in 1500
In terms of inventions, some of the important inventions we know of
began at that time. In the year 1500, Peter Henlein invented the
pocket watch. However, as you can understand from the first paragraph
of this answer, most of the people in Europe did not enjoy the kind of
lifestyle that enabled them to enjoy this kind of inventions and
developments: diseases were wide spread; medicine was ?primitive? in
comparison to that enjoyed by the Arabs. It is hard to imagine
contemporary European cuisine without the English Fish-n-Chips or the
Italian pizza, but in fact ? cuisine was also much different: no
potatoes (brought to the ?Old? World after 1500) or tomatoes as well
as tobacco or cocoa.
The World in the 1500s
Robert Tignor et al. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the
Modern World from the Mongol Empire to the Present. New York: W. W.
Norton and Company, 2001
I hope this answers your question. Please contact me if you need any
further clarifications on this answer before you rate it.