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Pastoral nomadic societies view the husbandry of grazing animals as an ideal way of making a living and consider the regular movement of all or part of their societies to be a normal part of life. Although this lifestyle produces a low population density, and the total number of nomads has always been relatively small, the impact of nomads on world history has been profound.
During two thousand years (500 BCE–1500 CE) the horse-riding nomads of the Eurasian steppes (usually level and treeless tracts of land in southeastern Europe or Asia), such as the Scythians, Xiongnu, Huns, Turks, and Mongols, created powerful states that presented significant challenges to their sedentary neighbors in China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and Europe. The camel-raising desert Bedouins became key political actors in the Middle East and northern Africa after the rise of Islam during the mid-seventh century. In sub-Saharan Africa cattle-raising nomads such as the Masai and Zulus came to dominate much of the continent’s grasslands by the end of the nineteenth century. These pastoral nomadic societies considered the husbandry of grazing animals a viable way to earn a living, and the habitual movement and relocation of their communities as a normal part of their lives.
Early theorists saw pastoral nomadism as evolving out of hunting and into sedentary agriculture. Archaeological evidence has largely upended this view because the first domestication of both plants (wheat and barley) and grazing animals (sheep and goats) apparently took place in parallel more than nine thousand years ago in the Near East. Thus, rather than being a precursor of sedentary life, pastoral nomadism more likely developed as an economic specialization out of a mixed Neolithic (8000–5500 BCE) economy based on sedentary villages after 5000 BCE. The viability of such a nomadic specialization increased with the later domestication of cattle and more particularly with the domestication of baggage animals such as donkeys, horses, and camels. Only with the domestication of baggage animals or new technologies such as cattle-drawn carts and wagons beginning in the Bronze Age (c. 4000–3000 BCE to the Iron Age) were nomads able to effectively utilize truly mobile dwellings such as black goat-haired tents (yurts).
Recent ethnographic (relating to the study of cultures) work has largely discredited the notion of the “pure nomad” who subsists entirely on pastoral products, free of entanglements with the sedentary world. Historically pastoral nomads have always been tied economically and politically to their sedentary neighbors. Without such ties they could not easily survive.
Pastoral nomadism is commonly found where climatic conditions produce seasonal pastures that cannot support sustained agriculture. Because people cannot eat grass, exploiting grazing animals that can eat grass effectively taps an otherwise unusable energy source. Although historians generally use the terms nomads and pastoralists interchangeably, the terms are analytically distinct. The former term refers to movement and the latter to a type of subsistence. Not all pastoralists are nomadic, nor are all nomads pastoralists (hunter-gatherers or itinerant groups such as Gypsies).
Using portable tents or huts to facilitate migration, pastoral nomads rotate their animals through extensive but seasonal pastures. Migration cycles vary in time and length depending on local conditions. Nomads make relatively few moves when pastures and water supplies are dependable, many more moves when they are not. Although the degree of predictability in migration routes varies from group to group, pastoral nomads do not “wander”; they know where they are going and why.
Organization and Distribution
Pastoral nomadic societies are organized around mobile households rather than individuals, and everyone (men, women, and children) has a role in the various aspects of production. These characteristics distinguish pastoral nomads from European shepherds or U.S. cowboys who are recruited from the larger sedentary society to which they regularly return. All pastoral nomadic societies share such structural similarities as tribal organization and a strong bias toward patrilineal (through the paternal line) descent and residence.
Pastoral nomadic societies are confined to the Old World. The only area of indigenous large-animal domestication in the New World was the high-mountain Andes in South America, where llama-raising communities were integrated parts of alpine farming villages and did not form separate pastoral nomadic societies. Sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and cattle were introduced into the Americas only after the Spanish conquest during the 1500s. Although cattle raising became important in the western United States, Brazil, and Argentina, it was ranching done by sedentary people. The capture of horses from the Spanish during the mid-seventeenth century by natives of the U.S. Southwest did produce a classic nomadic society, the Plains Indians, but they were mounted hunters who followed herds of bison, an animal they never domesticated.
Main Types and Key Animals
The variety of animals raised by pastoral nomadic societies is surprisingly small: six widely distributed species (sheep, goats, cattle, horses, donkeys, and camels) and two species with restricted distribution in Asia (yaks at high altitudes and reindeer at northern sub-Arctic latitudes). Dogs are also often kept for protection. Pastoral nomadic societies fall into six distinct types, each with a key animal that has primary cultural importance and a specific geographical range.
Eurasian Steppe: Horses
In the Eurasian steppe zone nomads give pride of place to the horse, although they also raise sheep, goats, cattle, and Bactrian (two-humped) camels. Although the domestication of the horse may have occurred as early as 4000 BCE, the emergence of horse riding after 1000 BCE laid the foundation of steppe nomadic power. Beginning in the seventh century BCE the Scythians and Sarmatians established distinct societies in south Russia and Ukraine. Their way of life spread east relatively rapidly until, by the third century BCE, culturally similar groups, Xiongnu, Wusun, Yuehzhi, became well established on China’s northern steppe frontier. For the next two thousand years a series of nomadic empires based there was to be China’s greatest foreign policy challenge. The empires also controlled key links of the Silk Road, the overland trade route that linked China with the West.
The most powerful of these nomadic groups who successively bordered China were the Xiongnu, Turks, Uygurs, Mongols, Oirats, and Zunghars. In the West the best-known steppe nomads of the medieval and early modern periods included the Huns, Khazars, Kipchaks (Cumans), Golden Horde (Tatars), and Kalmuks. After the Mongol conquest the Kazakhs, Turkmen, and Kirghiz came to dominate Central Asia.
Southwestern and Central Asia: Sheep and Goats
The mountain and plateau areas of southwestern and Central Asia are dominated by pastoral nomadic societies who raise sheep and goats and use horses, camels, and donkeys for transport. Pastoral nomadic societies there have always had a symbiotic relationship with neighboring towns as economic specialists, trading meat animals, wool, milk products, and hides for grain and manufactured goods. Indeed, many settled villages are of nomad origin because poor nomad families settle into peasant villages when they become impoverished due to the loss of their animals.
Nomads coming from Central Asia came to dominate this region politically from 1000 to 1500 and established a series of important dynasties on the Iranian and Anatolian Plateaus. These dynasties included the Seljuqs, Ghaznavids, Khwarazm Shahs, Mongol Il-Khans, Timurids, Uzbeks, and Ottomans. From 1500 onward nomads formed powerful regional confederations who retained considerable autonomy until well into the twentieth century. Important nomadic components of such primarily sedentary groups as the Pashtuns, Kurds, and Baluch also existed.
Desert Middle East and North Africa: Camels
The Sahara and Arabian Deserts are home to Bedouins who specialize in raising the dromedary (onehumped) camel for food and transport. They derive other income by extorting dates from oasis farmers, raiding other nomads for camels, selling camels for the caravan trade, and serving as mercenaries. Nomads who only raise camels live mostly in Arabia (the peninsula of southwestern Asia including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf states) and have the widest migration circuits, which allow them to exploit deep desert pastures where only camels can survive because water is so scarce. A larger number of nomads in North Africa and other parts of the Middle East combine camel and sheep raising but have a much more restricted migration cycle because sheep need to be watered regularly.
The camel is a late domesticate (c. 1500 BCE); the nomads who specialized in raising camels emerged in an environment in which the urban civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt had already been in existence for two millennia. Camel-raising Bedouins became politically important only after the introduction of the north Arabian camel saddle between 500 and 100 BCE. This saddle allowed camel-mounted warriors to fight more effectively and gave them control of the lucrative incense trade routes that ran through Arabia. Such camel-mounted warriors became the core of the early Islamic armies who conquered the Near East and North Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries.
The rise of camel-raising societies was also facilitated by the growing demand for camels to be used for transport. Camels so effectively replaced wheeled vehicles as the more economical way to move goods that wheeled vehicles completely disappeared from the region until the arrival of cars and trucks during the twentieth century.
Sub-Saharan Savanna: Cattle
Cattle are most highly valued in the savanna areas of sub-Saharan Africa, but goats also play a major role in subsistence, as does seasonal agriculture. In societies in that area ownership of cattle is the key determinant of a man’s wealth and status. Ritual events all demand cattle exchanges or sacrifices. Using huts instead of portable tents, nomads there use only donkeys for transport. Because neighboring sedentary people also value cattle, determining just which societies should be considered true pastoral nomads can be problematic, but in general they have at least a five to one ratio of cattle to people.
The most prominent pastoral nomadic societies live in east Africa and include the Nuer, Turkana, and Masai. The Masai are renowned for a diet that consists primarily of meat, milk, and blood. They expanded rapidly south during the eighteenth century and came to dominate much of the highland grassland areas in Kenya and Tanzania. The Nuer expanded in a similar manner during the mid-nineteenth century in southern Sudan, displacing or incorporating neighboring groups. Broader interactions with the outside world did not occur until the latter part of the nineteenth century when these groups fought to resist their incorporation by European colonial powers. During this period some southern African pastoral societies such as the Zulus rapidly transformed themselves into powerful kingdoms that could more effectively deal with European expansion.
High-Latitude Asia: Reindeer
In high-latitude sub-Arctic areas pastoral nomadism is the most sophisticated variation in a continuum of reindeer exploitation. This continuum ranges from the simple hunting of wild animals, herding semiwild animals for meat harvest alone, to true pastoral nomadism in which domesticated reindeer are milked and used for traction among the Lapps of Scandinavia. Because reindeer feed on lichens rather than the grass or bush species grazed by other domesticated herbivores, societies who raise reindeer are isolated from other pastoralists. As a result these far northern reindeer herders have had the least-direct impact on world history. Although one might suspect that reindeer herding represents the oldest form of pastoralism because societies who depended on hunting them date back to the foraging (Paleolithic) era, many scholars now believe that the use of domesticated reindeer is historically recent and has emerged only during the past five hundred years.
High-Altitude Asia: Yaks
The high-altitude plateau of Tibet is a harsh environment above 3,000 meters in elevation where the yak makes pastoralism viable. Herds also include yak-cattle hybrids, high-altitude varieties of sheep, cashmere goats, and a few horses. Tibetan pastoralists trade wool, skins, salt, and milk products to valley villagers for barley, which is a mainstay of their diet. In the past they also supplied the overland caravan trade with yak, the only animal capable of carrying heavy loads in that high mountain region. Nomads there move relatively short distances and live in black tents made of yak hair. Many of the pastoral nomadic communities were incorporated into large estates run by Buddhist monasteries until China took direct control of Tibet in 1959.
The complexity of political structures among pastoral nomadic societies is strongly correlated with the degree of centralization found among their sedentary neighbors. The most complex and centralized political organizations emerged among nomads who faced powerful centralized states such as China. By contrast, pastoralists in eastern Africa who faced only other stateless rivals relied on decentralized political organizations. Four basic types existed:
- Political organization based on age sets among the Masai or acephalous (lacking a governing head or chief) segmentary lineages among the Nuer was characteristic of sub-Saharan Africa, where pastoral nomadic societies encountered few state societies until the colonial era.
- Political organization based on lineages that had permanent leaders but no overarching or centralized organization typified North African and Arabian Bedouin societies who encountered only regionally powerful states.
- Supratribal confederations with powerful hereditary leaders emerged throughout the Iranian and Anatolian plateaus as parts of regional political networks that lay within large empires.
- Centralized nomadic states ruling over vast areas and vast numbers of people periodically developed on the steppes of Mongolia, usually in response to the unification of China under the rule of a single dynasty.
The centralized nomadic states that formed along China’s frontier had the greatest impact on world history. Their combination of horse riding with archery, which created a formidable horse cavalry, made these nomads powerful. Through policies that combined raiding or extorting their sedentary neighbors with controlling international trade networks, these nomads became wealthy and politically influential in spite of their relatively small populations. Such wealth and influence allowed for creation of large, long-lived nomad empires in Mongolia that were the political equals of the powerful native Chinese dynasties with whom they often warred. The most notable of these early empires was that of the Xiongnu, who rivaled the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) in power. A series of Turkish empires then faced off against the Chinese Sui and Tang dynasties from 581 to 907. In the West the Huns under Attila created a similarly powerful but relatively short-lived empire that threatened the Romans during the fifth century.
The most powerful nomad empire to emerge on the world stage, however, was that of the Mongols. Under Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and his successors during the thirteenth century they conquered most of Eurasia to create a world empire that ran from the Pacific Ocean to the Danube River and from the frozen forests of Siberia to the humid shores of the Persian Gulf. From the eighteenth century onward, however, the steppe nomads’ political power declined significantly because the gunpowder revolution reduced their military advantage. The growing imperial power of czarist Russia in the West and China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) in the East led to the division of the Eurasian steppe between them by the beginning of the nineteenth century and destroyed the autonomy of the steppe tribes.
Pastoral Nomads Today
Although pastoral nomadic societies can be found throughout their traditional ranges, they no longer have the influence they once did. The military power that they wielded as mounted archers or desert warriors disappeared centuries ago. Similarly their ability to remain autonomous by isolating themselves deep in the desert on the steppes or in the mountains was trumped by motorized vehicles and airplanes. As the world’s population has expanded, they have lost pasture areas to farmers who have attempted to plow land that is only marginally fit for agriculture. Modern governments that have a bias against people who move and that employ active policies to settle nomads have accelerated this process. Still, in many parts of the world pastoral nomadism remains a viable economic strategy and is likely to continue in some form far into the future. The historical legacy of the nomad remains: the Mongol hordes galloping across the steppe, the Bedouin camel rider topping a sand dune, and the tall Masai holding his long spear are stereotypes so strongly engrained in the popular imagination that we could not eradicate them even if we wanted to.
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