By the end of the second millennium B.C.E., civilizations
based on livestock domestication and sedentary agriculture
had emerged in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Despite the
accomplishments of civilized cultures, civilizations actually
occupied only a small portion of the earth. Most of the
inhabited earth was populated by small groups of peoples who
practiced pastoral nomadism, shifting cultivation, or hunting
and gathering. Although these more scattered peoples did not
develop civilizations of their own, they strongly affected
the core regions of civilized cultures.
In some cases, incursions of migratory peoples resulted in
the collapse of civilizations, as in the case of Harappa. In
other cases, migratory peoples were able to establish ruling
dynasties within civilizations, as in the case of the Zhou.
In many cases, migratory peoples served as links
between civilized cores.
- The Rise and Spread of Pastoral Nomadism
It is probable that nomadic societies were prevalent by 1500
B.C.E. In the millennia that followed, pastoral nomadism
varied according to the type of domesticated animal chosen as
the primary source of livelihood. Nomadic peoples lived in
the grassy plains of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, where
the grasses provided the sustenance for their herds. These
lands were generally unsuitable for sedentary agriculture.
Pastoral societies tended to absorb or replace hunting and
gathering groups who occupied the same ecological niches.
- The Horse Nomads
The first nomads for which there is substantial information
are the Indo-Europeans the Hittites, Hyksos, early Greeks,
and Aryans. The earliest horse nomads did not ride their
animals, but fought from chariots. Later Indo-European
groups rode on horseback. The Hsiung-nu (known as the Huns
in the West) played a major role in both Asia and Europe as a
destructive force. Wars among pastoral nomads often drove
large bands into the sedentary agricultural zones that
surrounded the steppes. These migrations often contributed
to the fall of civilizations.
- The Reindeer Herders of the North
Reindeer herding as a form of pastoral nomadism may have
developed even before herds were kept on the Eurasian
steppes. Reindeer herders lived in isolation far from the
core regions of civilization.
- The Camel Nomads
In Arabia and the Sudanic zone of Africa, camel nomadism
became common sometime prior to the last centuries B.C.E.
Able to subsist on limited water and fodder, camels became
critical to the maintenance of trade routes that crossed the
great Saharan and Arabian deserts.
- The Cattle Herders
From the upper reaches of the Nile throughout the plains of
southern and eastern Africa, cattle nomadism was common.
Better adapted to the ecology of the region than horses,
cattle became the basis of wealth for warrior-dominated
societies of southern Africa. Like the reindeer herders, the
societies of cattle herders were initially distant from core
zones of civilization.
- Nomadic Peoples of the Americas
Because of the absence of large mammals in the Americas prior
to the European contact after 1492 C.E., pastoral nomadism in
the Americas was limited to the Andean highlands. There
llamas and alpacas did provide a basis for limited
pastoralism. The absence of large mammals restricted the
peoples of the American steppes by limiting their mobility
and their ability to make war.
- Nomadic Society and Culture
Migratory patterns defined the social systems and material
culture of nomadic cultures. Typically the steppe
environment forced nomadic peoples to migrate seasonally in
search of fodder and water necessary for the maintenance of
their animals. In Africa, the tsetse fly drove cattle
herders from some regions. Though migratory, nomads often
claimed particular grazing regions and water sources as their
own. It was necessary for pastoral nomads to defend their
territory continuously from raids and seizure.
- Societies Oriented to Domesticated Animals
Maintenance of their herds was critical to the survival of
nomadic groups. Animals supplied meat, milk, and dairy
products that were the staples of nomadic diet. Animals
defined wealth within the group. Even religious rituals
tended to center on animal sacrifices. Camel and horse
nomads also depended on animals to transport their goods from
one pastureland to another and to market. Animals provided
the mobility these groups required to survive. Material cultures of nomadic groups were dominated by the animals they herded. Animals provided the basic subject matter for art and religion. Housing within pastoral societies was defined by the need for mobility. Animal hides
and fleeces provided the material from which clothing was fashioned.
- Courage Cultures and Nomadic Patriarchy
The harsh environment in which they lived and violence
endemic to pastoral groups tempered nomadic societies.
Warlike males bound to each other by ties of personal loyalty
tended to dominate these societies. Physical valor and
courage were among the most valued of attributes. Many
pastoral nomads lived in kin-related bands numbering up to
100. Tribal membership was defined by recognizing a common
ancestry among kinship groups. Clan groups within a tribe
often quarreled with one another. Violence between kinship
groups set off vendettas that limited the ability of clans
and tribes to cooperate.
- Nomad Hospitality
The violence of nomad society was offset by a strong emphasis on hospitality. Those who refused hospitality to travelers or refugees risked retribution from other nomadic groups. Tribal legends celebrated leaders for their generosity.
- Cultures Made for War
Males in nomadic societies trained for war either against
civilization centers or against other nomadic groups. The
mobility obtained from their animals gave nomadic peoples
significant advantages as warriors, even against the armies
of sedentary peoples. Pastoral nomads achieved a reputation
for ferocity in battle among the civilized peoples.
- Family Ties and Social Stratification
Men dominated gender relationships within pastoral societies.
Males controlled herds, participated in commerce, made war,
and ruled their households. Inheritance was through the male
line. Marriage tended to be patrilocal, and polygamy was
common. Marriage was generally viewed as an alliance between
family groups. Female dominance, although not unknown in
nomadic societies, was rare. Social stratification was
common with pastoral societies, with wealthier families
acting as the patrons of the less wealthy. Beyond gender and
patron-client relationships there has been limited social
stratification in pastoral societies, perhaps because of
limited occupational specialization. Among most nomads, only
shamans are differentiated by occupation.
- Nomads and Civilization
Nomadic interaction with centers of civilization has been
varied. Often depicted as cruel raiders and pillagers,
nomads more often interacted with their civilized neighbors
as merchants and consumers of manufactured products.
- Nomads as Mercenaries and Empire Builders
Civilized centers were constantly aware of the potential
military threat posed by nomadic groups. Rulers often paid
tribute to their nomadic neighbors or recruited them as
mercenaries for their armies. There were inherent dangers in
such recruitment, as mercenaries could create rival states
on the borders of empires. In some cases, nomads have
captured empires, seized the thrones of deposed rulers, and
continued to govern using the institutions of the conquered
peoples. Pastoral nomads have often been ambivalent to
civilized life, preferring instead the harsh environment of
the steppes. Those dynasties established by nomadic groups
generally failed to last beyond several generations.
- Soft Living and the lure of the Desert and the Steppe
Nomads have been suspicious of the “soft living” of civilized peoples. The Muslim historian Ibn-Khaldun theorized three stages of nomadic adaptation to civilized life: vigor, adaptation to luxury, dissolution. This theory has proved remarkably accurate.
- Nomads and Cross-Civilization Contacts and Exchanges
Nomadic peoples established nearly all of the long-distance trade routes among civilized cores. In addition, nomadic peoples could be persuaded, for a fee, to provide protection for trade caravans crossing the steppes. Herd animals provided means of transportation for long-distance merchants and their goods. Ideas, religious beliefs, artistic motifs, and technological innovations traveled from one civilization center to another along the trade routes.
- Conclusion: Nomads and the Pattern of Global History
Although pastoral nomads have not created empires of their
own, their interactions with civilized cores has been
extensive. The capacity of the civilized centers to support
vastly greater populations, to develop greater occupational
diversity, and to produce lasting institutions has given
core regions great advantages over nomadic peoples. The
impact of pastoral nomads has been significant, but usually
of short duration.