Nomadic Challenges And Civilized Responses

Edited By: R. A.Guisepi

 

 

 

The Rise And Spread Of Pastoral Nomadism

 

     The domestication of animals also made possible an alternative basis for

the support and organization of human societies - nomadic pastoralism. We do

not know when genuinely nomadic societies first came into existence because

the peoples who developed them had no written records and their wood-, hide-,

and bone-based material culture deteriorated rapidly in the harsh steppe and

semi-desert environments in which they lived. But it is likely that the

nomadic alternatives to sedentary agriculture emerged sometime after the first

civilizations, and that nomadic herders were quite widely distributed by 1500

B.C. It is also probable that pastoral nomadism originated among peoples who

had been driven with their herds from the fertile river valleys of the

civilized cores or among hunting-and-gathering bands that captured

domesticated livestock in raids on agricultural villages.

 

     The nomadic peoples led their herds into the grassy but sparsely

inhabited plains of central Eurasia. In this vast area and in similar zones in

Sudanic and East Africa, Arabia, and highland South America, refugees and

raiders found ample pasturage for their herds and discovered that they could

subsist on the products the animals supplied. The regions into which nomadism

spread received enough rainfall (considerably more then than today) to support

the grasses and other plant life on which herd animals feed, but not nearly

enough for sedentary farming. Thus, nomadic peoples occupied lands that could

not be claimed by rapidly growing farming populations. As they spread through

the steppes and savannas, the pastoralists displaced the original

hunting-and-gathering peoples or prompted them to adopt the herding

life-style, which was better suited to the plains environment. The

pastoralists in turn continued to hunt the abundant game animals for both the

meat and the furs they provided.

 

The Horse Nomads

 

     The first nomadic peoples about whom we know a good deal are the

Indo-European tribes of the middle centuries of the 2d millennium B.C. For

over a millennium thereafter they threatened the early civilizations of the

Middle East and the Indus plains. Some Indo-European peoples, such as the

Hittites and Hyksos, also established their own empires and centers of

civilization, while others, such as the early Greeks, settled in the lands to

which they migrated. As late as the last centuries B.C., these settled groups

still struggled to fight off the incursions of later Indo-European migrants

such as the Scythians, who invaded Europe and Asia Minor, and the Kushanas,

who established an empire spanning Northwest India and central Asia. Some

Indo-European peoples migrated eastward, where they contested with other

nomadic peoples for grazing lands, and invaded northwest India, where they

proved an increasing menace to Harappan civilization.

 

     Interestingly, the earliest Indo-European invaders did not ride the

horses that they raised in great numbers and prized as symbols of wealth and

status. Instead they fought from war chariots drawn by one or two horses. With

the development of increasingly effective bridles and stirrups, however,

Indo-European warriors increasingly rode horses to migrate or do battle.

 

     Another nomadic group that played a major role in the age of classical

civilizations were the Hsiung-nu (later known in Europe as the Huns). The

devastation wrought by Hsiung-nu incursions into China, beginning in the 4th

century B.C., presaged the calamities that would befall India and Europe

centuries later when the Huns toppled the Gupta Empire and smashed into the

crumbling Roman Empire. The eastern branches of the Hsiung-nu tribes also

competed for pasturelands with peoples such as the Tungus, while the Huns to

the west fought constantly with sheep- and goat-herding nomadic peoples

speaking a variety of Turkic languages. From the era of the Indo-European

migrations, droughts and intertribal warfare periodically drove large bands of

central Asian nomads into the sedentary agricultural zones that fringed their

far-flung steppe homelands. Their migrations played a major role in the rise

and fall of empires in the civilized cores from the time of these first

incursions to the era of the Turkic and Mongol explosions of the 11th through

the 14th centuries A.D.

 

The Reindeer Herders Of The North

 

     It is possible that reindeer-herding nomads like the Lapps were migrating

with their flocks across the tundra of northern Europe even before the nomadic

pattern spread to the steppe regions of central Asia. In the bogs of

Scandinavia archeologists have found the remains of sledges dating as early as

the Late Paleolithic era. The earliest of these sledges were probably pulled

by teams of dogs or men on rudimentary skis. But by the early Neolithic

period, tamed reindeer were used, suggesting that pastoral nomadism had been

established in the region. Despite their early appearance, the

reindeer-herding nomads lived far from the centers of civilization, an

isolation that rendered their influence on the course of human history

marginal at best.

 

The Camel Nomads

 

     The spread of pastoral nomadism in the central Asian steppes had hinged

largely upon the domestication of the horse. Farther west in the Arabian

peninsula and the Sudanic zone that stretches across north-central Africa,

another animal played the pivotal role in the diffusion of the nomadic

pattern. As early as 1700 B.C. the camel was mentioned in Egyptian sources as

a pack animal, but it was not yet ridden by humans. It is likely that

pastoralism based on the camel had been established in western Asia even

before they were first ridden in the last centuries B.C.

 

     Awkward-looking and peevish creatures, camels have proven remarkably

adapted to the barren and parched regions that fringe the Sahara and Arabian

deserts. They can carry loads of up to 400 pounds and travel 60 miles a day.

Once they have filled the reservoirs in their paunches with water, camels are

able to sustain this pace for over 20 days without water in temperatures

averaging 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If they are occasionally fed a little green

fodder on the journey, the camels will plod on indefinitely. Without the

fodder, they will continue on for another five days before lying down to die.

Though horses were introduced into both Arabia and the Sudan and

cattle-herding nomads came to predominate on the savannas south of the Sahara,

the camel has remained central to most of the nomadic cultures that have

developed in these regions. These "ships of the desert" have been essential to

the great trading systems that developed in these areas and the formidable

capacity of their nomadic masters for making war.

 

The Cattle Herders

 

     Beginning in the upper reaches of the Nile River in the southern portions

of the present-day nation of Sudan, and expanding over the centuries from

north to south across the rift valleys and plains of East and southern Africa,

yet another major variant of pastoral nomadism developed. In this vast and

varied expanse, warrior-dominated societies based on cattle herding coalesced

and expanded. Because the climate and especially the disease environment posed

major barriers to horse breeding, the cattle nomads migrated, hunted, and

fought their wars on foot. But cattle provided their sustenance and the basis

of their material culture. Cattle were the prime gauge of wealth and status,

the focus of religious rituals, and the key item given to the bride's family

in arranging a marriage alliance.

 

     Like those of the reindeer herders of the northern tundras, the regions

occupied by the cattle nomads were initially distant from major civilized

centers. As a consequence, we know little of the early history of these

peoples. However, in contrast to the Lapps and other subarctic pastoralists,

the cattle herders of Africa were eventually to play major roles in the

history of different areas of the continent.

 

Nomadic Peoples Of The Americas

 

     Because most of the large mammals of the Americas had died out by the end

of the last Ice Age, pastoral nomadism played almost no part in the history of

these continents until horses, cattle, and other domesticated animals were

introduced by the Europeans after A.D. 1492. Only in the highlands of the

Andes, where llamas and alpacas survived in large numbers, was it possible for

truly nomadic cultures to develop. But even in this limited area, pastoralists

played a minor and subordinate role. The prairie and semidesert regions of the

Americas that might have supported pastoralists were occupied instead by

hunting-and-gathering peoples. The incursions of some of these peoples, such

as the dreaded chichimecs, into the sedentary farming zones of Mesoamerica

appear to be similar to the assaults on the civilized core regions of Eurasia

by the steppe and camel nomads.

 

     The absence of large mammals, however, prevented the nomadic peoples of

the prairies and arid plains from fully tapping the potential of their

environments and deprived them of the superior mobility necessary for raiding

and conquering in the civilized heartlands. If the Aztecs can be taken as

typical, however ferocious the chichimecs were in battle, they were

impoverished wanderers until they established themselves in the sedentary

zones. The Aztecs' arrival in the central valley of Mexico was little noticed

by the civilized peoples who lived in great cities along its lakes. During the

decades when they struggled to establish themselves in the region, the hapless

and weak Aztecs were beaten in battle, enslaved in large numbers, and finally

driven to a marshy island refuge in Lake Texcoco. The contrast between the

reception accorded in civilized Mesoamerica to incoming migratory peoples and

the shock waves sent repeatedly through the civilized centers of Eurasia by

invading horse- and camel-herding nomads is indeed striking evidence of the

power that could be generated by pastoral adaptation.

 

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