Nomadism In History Research Paper

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1. The Term ‘Nomadism’

Nomadism is a specific way of life practised in the dry belt of the Old World (Fig. 1), a socio-ecological mode of culture (soziookologische Kulturweise) (Scholz 1995), whose internal processes, governing factors, and external appearance essentially obey the elementary ‘law’ of safeguarding survival. Within the Old World dry belt, nomadism was able to re-appear in new and original forms, at all times and places, fundamentally separate from the evolutionary stages of sedentary life. Nomadism is oriented towards living ‘in’ and ‘with’ nature, rather than dominating and exploiting it; as such, it represents a region-specific mode of subsistence that makes optimal use of ecological possibilities and sociopolitical conditions in order to survive. Thus it is an elementary, constitutive, and independent component of the cultural and social evolution of this dryland zone.

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Nomadism In History Research Paper

2. Debatable ‘Stage Theories’?

Pohlhausen (1954, pp. 153, 167) still believed that pastoral nomadism started around AD 950 and that evidence existed of its monocentrist origin. But even the extensive ethnoarcheological studies of the past decades have failed to establish when and where nomadic peoples first appeared. The emergence of nomadism a—significant event in social history—may well have been due to ‘the herder of the steppe and oasis farmer having broken away from his agriculturalist brother’ (Wissmann 1961, p. 28). According to Lattimore (1940) this, or a similar process, may have occurred at the Inner Asian frontier, the marginal region between settled agriculture (practised by the Chinese) and nonsedentary livestock-keeping (practised by the Mongols). Indeed, it could have occurred anywhere within the Old World dry belt (Fig. 1).

Plausible concepts of the origin of nomadism have sought to convey various (three-) stage theories of cultural and economic history (Vajda 1968). While avoiding a lengthy discussion of such explanations— which have largely outlived their relevance—mention should at least be made of Adam Smith (1723–90) and Friedrich List (1789–1846). In his comments on the evolution of ‘productive forces’ in agriculture, List (1961, p. 57) expressed the opinion that, in genetic terms, the nomad represents a preliminary stage before the agriculturalist. This view prevailed from the nineteenth century up to late in the twentieth century and believed to be able to locate the centre of origin of nomadism in the Altai region. This theory may seem logical at first sight, but in the end it does not fit the facts and has been considered refuted since Hahn (1891, p. 487) postulated that mixed farming was the prerequisite for the origin of nomadism.

More complex theories of origin were developed by, among others, Pohlhausen (1954) or Dittmer (1965), who believed the predecessors of pastoral nomadism (Hirtennomadismus) to have been alpine mountain nomadism arising from plow agriculture and subsequently, transhumance and cowherding (Kuherwirtschaft). By contrast, Bobek (1959, p. 272) sees nomadism as a branch of clan farming (Sippenbauerntum) and relates this development ‘on the one hand to the availability of extensive pasturelands that are only suitable for seasonal use and not really for permanent settlement and, on the other, to the dual economic interests of mixed farmers,’ who are able ‘to change their mode of subsistence relatively easily and quickly by shifting the emphasis from cultivation to animal husbandry and vice versa.’ Basically similar ideas are put forward by Vajda (1968), special mention being made of the conception of a repeated alternation between nomadic and farming life as a result of natural catastrophes, armed conflicts, and economic setbacks. According to de Planhol (1975) the constant demographic surplus of the nomads substantially contributes to this situation.

These different views are plausible, but by no means imperative, in terms of time and space. The processes they describe could have happened anywhere and at any time, even long before the first written references (fourth millennium) to nomads.

3. Ethnoarcheological Findings

These cultural–historical views are, in the final analysis, conclusions drawn from archeological and ethnoarcheological research. Convincing work has recently been published on nomadic societies, which are generally not amenable to research methods based on permanent material evidence (Francfort 1990). These studies have thrown light on prehistoric forms of dwellings and camps, their primary theme being the repeated alternation between sedentary agricultural and mobile livestock-keeping groups, i.e., they provide evidence of the recurring emergency of nomadic groups, of nomadism. These processes have been described for Baluchistan, for the Negev Desert and for the Eastern Desert of Egypt. The view that the nomad did not solely evolve from the steppe farmer has been represented in various models. According to Lees and Bates (1974) the initial stage of nomadism was the transition from agriculture with animal husbandry to specialized irrigation-fed agriculture. On the one hand, this involved a population increase, specialized division of labor, and higher food requirements. On the other hand, animal husbandry was driven away from irrigable land, further and further into the steppes and mountains. Seasonal wanderings over increasing distances were the result, with nomads keeping their own separate herds. The different needs of the nomads and oasis dwellers to safeguard their existence, led to a symbiotic relationship of conflict and coexistence between the groups. The course of this relationship depended on the respective military power and was conductive to the nomads’ organizational independence. With reference to Lattimore (1940), Nissen (1980, p. 287) developed a similar hypothesis regarding early Babylonia whose history is marked by recurring invasions by ‘so-called nomadic groups … in the fertile grounds.’

In fourth millennium Sumerian texts there are already many pointers to the repeated abandoning of agriculture in favor of mobile livestock-keeping or to the separation of livestock-keepers from agriculturalists; this process probably occurred at the start of the first millennium. Gilbert (1983) even puts forward the view that the developing urban centers the Zagros mountain region caused an increase in the demand for animal products. Simultaneously, however, more intensive agriculture was accompanied by a reduction in local animal husbandry, and niches opened up for mobile livestock-keeping and the nomadic way of life. This process is supposed to have first occurred in the seventh millennium and then again in the third and first millennia BC.

If the domestication of herd animals is accepted as the prerequisite for nomadism, then nomadism presumably did not exist in North Africa before about 5500 BC when the Sahara was a grassland niche which was increasingly occupied by pastoral people. Similarly, livestock-keeping communities would not have occurred in East Africa prior to about AD 500.

It is unlikely that it will ever be known when this transition to, or origin of, nomadism first occurred. Yet such an event is, in the final analysis, less interesting and important than the fact that, given the right natural and social conditions, nomadism could and did appear at different times and places, evidently unconnected with each other, as archeological evidence suggests. It seems to have been the interplay between nature and society, together with the repeated long-term alternation of arid and less arid conditions and short dry periods since the early Holocene, that forced peoples to adopt a peripatetic way of life in order to survive. However, it is likely that social and political changes were no less important, such as the rise and fall of empires, population pressures, and famines and/or tribal conflicts (Planhol 1975). They triggered large-and small-scale migrations, caused nomadic hordes to overrun settled land, and forced settlers to move out into the steppes in times of emergency. In the final analysis, these are the causes of the ‘interplay between migratory and sedentary ways of life.’

4. Historical Interpretation And Evidence

The first written reports about nomadic groups date to the fourth and third millennia. These and later scripts were almost all written by sedentarists and reflect their opinions and prejudices. Cuneiform texts, for example, always describe nomadic territory in negative terms, as the home of spirits and demons, the same word being used to denote both the desert and the underworld. In Asia the nomad is portrayed ‘as a beast of hell’ and ‘incapable of civilized life’ according to the Chinese Confucians (Khazanov 1981, p. 142), or stereotyped as a ‘barbarian,’ a wolf or tiger. Little has changed since. However, now it is mainly Europeans who describe the historical role of nomads as destructive or nomadic existence as ahistorical.

The history of nomadism is voluminous, one-sided as regards its sources, doubtless complex and difficult to unravel, and its inner contradictions have never been critically analysed (Braudel 1990). Its contradictory nature consists in the dichotomy between the ephemeral duration and recurrence of nomadic patterns. This will be kept in mind in the following discussion.

Historical descriptions are based on the generally accepted experience that the nomad raided settled land suddenly, like a cavalry attack, and after a while either disappeared or was assimilated. By contrast, the agriculturalist, natural conditions permitting, occupied nomadic country for permanent or at least long-term settlement and remained in logistic contact with the hinterland. Admittedly, nomads had a ‘considerable impact on the social and political development of many sedentary societies with more diversified economies and advanced technologies’ (Khazanov 1981, p. 142). Apart from climatic reasons, this process gained importance as the mobility range of nomadic groups was enhanced by more powerful pack animals and the availability of lighter metal equipment. In addition, population pressure on the nomads increased, large (presumably wealthy) sedentary empires tempted nomads to trade or raid, and the scenario of conflict developed between central rule and peripheral tribes (Jettmar 1966), Planhol 1975). Yet these waves of nomadic raids on cultivated land are only part of the story, although sources mention them first of all. Much rarer are reports of sedentarists adopting a nomadic way of life. In this context Jettmar (1966, p. 5) even speaks of a ‘victory of nomadism.’ Even in Inner Asia, a region of almost classical ‘antagonism’ between nomads (Mongolia) and sedentarists (China), the situation is more one of overlapping and reciprocity (Lattimore 1988, p. 328). Hence authors have spoken of an almost oscillation of nomadism’s economic space or of a recurrent emergence of nomadism.

Indeed, empirical experience suggests that sedentism in conjunction with (oasis) agriculture offered safety and food in times of peace, but it was the mobile mode of life with herd-keeping in deserts and steppes that offered a means of survival in uncertain times. Considering the natural and socio-political settings and the short-and long-term changes occurring in the respective regions of the Old World dry belt, it may be assumed that a switch from sedentism to mobility or from agriculture to mobile livestock-keeping, and hence from agriculture to nomadism, occurred just as frequently as vice versa.

The historical view distinguishes two phases (Bobek 1959):

(a) The first phase differs only slightly from events in prehistoric times as described by archeologists. It is characterized by the keeping of small livestock, close links between agriculture and pastoralism, and probably also short, sometimes climate-induced switches from one to the other, leading to the recurrent separation of herders and cultivators within the same family or the same tribe. There is fairly reliable evidence of this from the Middle East. Similar events probably occurred in the Eurasian steppes although the actual ‘nomadization’ of the steppe agriculturalists presumably dates to the Scythian period (Iron Age, beginning around 800 BC) (Wissmann 1961, p. 30).

(b) This first phase ends during the second millennium BC. It was followed by First, domestication of the horse in the Eurasian steppes (in Turan about 2800 BC), by orienting entire peoples towards nomadism, by domestication of the camel in the Middle East (end of the second millennium), and resulting in greater mobility and the emergence of mounted warriors and hordes or ‘empires’ (e.g., the Cimmerians, Thracians, and Scythians, and later the Huns, Tatars, and Timurids). Second, the emergence of ‘wealthy’ centers of high culture, based on irrigation. They form the backdrop of the conflicts between nomadic and sedentary peoples that shape the subsequent history of this region. The clay tablets in the archives at Mari allowed scholars to infer these conflicts from the appearance of nomadic groups such as the Yaminites and Hanaeans (nineteenth century), the Sutaeans (eighteenth century), the Arameans (fourteenth century), or the Chaldeans (ninth century), in the irrigated parts of the drylands of Western Asia Mesopotamia. Lasting reminders of this are the fortified towns and villages of Iran, the famous ‘walls’ built as a defence against the nomadic threat in China (Great Wall, third century BC against the Huns, AD fifteenth century against the Mongols), in phase with Turan or NE Mongolia at the mouth of the Gan, in the Middle East (Limes Syriae), North Africa (Limes Numidiae), Russia (Limes Daciae), or in central Europe (Limes Germaniae Raetiae).

In the seventeenth century BC the Hyksos descended on Egypt, introducing the horse, and in the eleventh century the Midians overran Palestine and Canaan. Since the ninth century the ‘Arabs’ (nomadizing Arab Bedouins), mounted on camels, repeatedly entered fertile Mesopotamia and in the third century they came to Egypt. In the sixth century, the Persian empire in the northern Middle East expanded northward (beyond the Jaxartes River) into the lands of the sedentarized steppe peoples. Like the later westward expansion of Hun rule (starting in the first century), this interrupted the sedentarization process that prevailed in the Eurasian steppes at the end of the Scythian period. Subsequently the entire region experienced the upheavals of the migration of peoples. From then on, changes occurred more rapidly, and the nomad Bedouin continued to play a major role.

In the first two centuries AD Roman rule in the Middle East triggered a wave of nomadization; in this case the shift from a non-Bedouin to a Bedouin way of life. This process continued, as the decline of Marib Oasis (Yemen, sixth century) and the contemporaneous revival of Bedouin life show. Over the following centuries it received a new stimulus from the spread of Islam, particularly from the Islamic-Turkish nomadic armies of the Seljuqs (1048) in the mountains of Anatolia and Iran, Iranian tribes as far as Baluchistan, Sind and Punjab, and the Beni Hilal (1051) and Beni Sulaym in North Africa. In the Khanate of the nomadic Khazars, north of the Caucasus, the sedentarization process that had begun in the eighth century was succeeded by a wave of renomadization as a result of conquests by the Pechenegs and Cumans in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The same happened to the Polovtsy (Kipchaks) after the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century. In the Iranian mountains, too, they triggered a real nomadization wave described as ‘medieval Bedouinization’ Planhol 1975, p. 238). The Mongol impact stretched as far as Western Asia, where for example, Baghdad was destroyed in 1258, the irrigation systems of Mesopotamia were devasted, arable land reverted to pasture, and the desert was the only safe refuge for any length of time Wissmann 1961, p. 47). Similar consequences followed the attacks by Timur in the fourteenth century or by the nomadic Turkmen tribes in Anatolia in the sixteenth century, where ‘nomadism’ disappeared in the West and began to flourish in the East (Braudel 1990, p. 139). Until the nineteenth century Egypt experienced repeated phases of movement and settlement, and the shift between sedentarization and nomadization also continued into the nineteenth century in the Eurasian steppes, where it was quite common among the Turkmen of southern Kazakhstan for ‘a nomad who had lost his livestock to settle down on land, or for a rich farmer to buy a herd and to shift again to nomadism’ (Khazanov 1978, p. 121). This process has been impressively described for the Arabian Peninsula, for western Afghanistan, or for the western Sahara at the start of the twentieth century, where oasis farmers aspired to the ‘higher’ class of nomadic herders. With some exceptions, however, the trend since the late nineteenth century has been generally towards modern agriculture and sedentary life (Scholz 1995).

5. Conclusions

This fragmentary outline of the ‘origin’ and history of nomadism as a socioecological mode of culture may be summed up in the following four conclusions:

(a) To a large extent, authors agree that stock-keeping (domestication of herd animals by farmers) forms the basis prerequisite for nomadism.

(b) Historical sources ‘report’ in great detail, nomadic invasions of settled lands and nomadic switches to sedentism. This is probably why these events have enjoyed particular academic attention, wide and biased regard, and a historical interpretation of considerable influence on society.

(c) Primarily ethno-archeological studies have indicated that the shift from sedentary life to mobility, from agriculture to nomadism, occurred no less frequently. However, historical sources say little about such switches, and so there is some justification for assuming that insufficient importance has been attached to the historical and social relevance of these processes.

(d) Nomadism as a socio-ecological mode of culture (soziookologische Kulturweise) and, is a human survival strategy in response to specific ecological and sociopolitical conditions within the Old World dry belt. As such, it represents a regionally immanent, logical ‘idea’ that can could emerge recurrently, both locally and throughout the whole region.

The switch between sedentism and mobility, cultivator and nomad, occurred in both short-and longterm sequences, affecting both small groups and entire peoples. Its impact was local, but could also involve entire areas and regions.

In this context, it is no longer really necessary to consider Pohlhausen’s (1954) hypothesis of a monocentric origin of pastoral nomadism and a multicentric origin of its various regional forms. The above archeological and historical ‘facts,’ and the conclusions derived from them, suggest that it is more logical to assume that the ‘idea’ of a nomadic mode of culture was latent everywhere in the natural ecological and sociopolitical setting structures of the Old World dry belt. It only required a trigger, a change in prevailing conditions, for it to revive as a survival strategy or, indeed, to disappear.


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