Nomads and Settled People in Asia

History's Great Rivalry

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Mongol man rides out to capture horses. Bruno Morandi via Getty Images

The relationship between settled peoples and nomads has been one of the great engines driving human history since the invention of agriculture and the first formation of towns and cities.  It has played out most grandly, perhaps, across the vast expanse of Asia.

North African historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) writes about the dichotomy between townsfolk and nomads in The Muqaddimah.

  He claims that nomads are savage and similar to wild animals, but also braver and more pure of heart than city dwellers.  "Sedentary people are much concerned with all kinds of pleasures.  They are accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires."  By contrast, nomads "go alone into the desert, guided by their fortitude, putting their trust in themselves.  Fortitude has become a character quality of theirs, and courage their nature."

Neighboring groups of nomads and settled people may share bloodlines and even a common language, as with Arabic-speaking Bedouins and their citified cousins.  Throughout Asian history, however, their vastly different lifestyles and cultures have led to both periods of trade and times of conflict.

Trade between Nomads and Towns:

Compared with townspeople and farmers, nomads have relatively few material possessions.  Items they have to trade may include furs, meat, milk products, and livestock such as horses.

  They need metal goods such as cooking pots, knives, sewing needles, and weapons, as well as grains or fruit, cloth, and other products of sedentary life.  Lightweight luxury items such as jewelry and silks may have great value in nomadic cultures, as well.  Thus, there is a natural trade imbalance between the two groups; nomads often need or want more of the goods that settled people produce than the other way around.

Nomadic people have often served as traders or guides in order to earn consumer goods from their settled neighbors.  All along the Silk Road that spanned Asia, members of different nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples such as the Parthians, the Hui, and the Sogdians specialized in leading caravans across the steppes and deserts of the interior, and selling the goods in the cities of China, India, Persia, and Turkey.  On the Arabian Peninsula, the Prophet Muhammad himself was a trader and caravan leader during his early adulthood.  Traders and camel drivers served as bridges between the nomadic cultures and the cities, moving between the two worlds and conveying material wealth back to their nomadic families or clans.

In some cases, settled empires established trade relations with neighboring nomadic tribes.  China often organized these relationships as tribute; in return for acknowledging the Chinese emperor's overlordship, a nomadic leader would be allowed to exchange his people's goods for Chinese products.  During the early Han era, the nomadic Xiongnu were such a formidable threat that the tributary relationship ran in the opposite direction - the Chinese sent tribute and Chinese princesses to the Xiongnu in return for a guarantee that the nomads would not raid Han cities.

Conflict between Settled and Nomadic Peoples:

When trade relations broke down, or a new nomadic tribe moved into an area, conflict erupted.  This might take the form of small raids on outlying farms or unfortified settlements.  In extreme cases, entire empires fell.  Conflict pitted the organization and resources of the settled people against the mobility and courage of the nomads.  The settled people often had thick walls and heavy guns on their side.  The nomads benefited from having very little to lose.

In some cases, both sides lost when the nomads and city dwellers clashed.  The Han Chinese managed to smash the Xiongnu state in 89 CE, but the cost of fighting the nomads sent the Han Dynasty into an irreversible decline

In other cases, the ferocity of the nomads gave them sway over vast swathes of land and numerous cities.

  Genghis Khan and the Mongols built the largest land empire in history, motivated by anger over an insult from the Emir of Bukhara and by the desire for loot.  Some of Genghis's descendants, including Timur (Tamerlane) built similarly impressive records of conquest.  Despite their walls and artillery, the cities of Eurasia fell to horsemen armed with bows. 

Sometimes, the nomadic peoples were so adept at conquering cities that they themselves became the emperors of settled civilizations.  The Mughal emperors of India were descended from Genghis Khan and from Timur, but they set themselves up in Delhi and Agra and became city-dwellers.  They did not grow decadent and corrupt by the third generation, as Ibn Khaldun predicted, but they did go into a decline soon enough.

Nomadism Today:

As the world grows more populated, settlements are taking over open spaces and hemming in the few remaining nomadic peoples.  Out of about seven billion humans on Earth today, only an estimated 30 million are nomadic or semi-nomadic.  Many of the remaining nomads live in Asia.

Approximately 40% of Mongolia's 3 million people are nomadic; in Tibet, 30% of the ethnic Tibetan people are nomads.  All across the Arab world, 21 million Bedouin live their traditional lifestyle.  In Pakistan and Afghanistan, 1.5 million of the Kuchi people continue to live as nomads.  Despite the Soviets' best efforts, hundreds of thousands of people in Tuva, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan continue to live in yurts and follow the herds.

  The Raute people of Nepal also maintain their nomadic culture, though their numbers have fallen to about 650.

At present, it looks as though the forces of settlement are effectively squeezing out the nomads around the world.  However, the balance of power between city-dwellers and wanderers has shifted innumerable times in the past.  Who can say what the future holds?

Sources:

Di Cosmo, Nicola. "Ancient Inner Asian Nomads: Their Economic Basis and Its Significance in Chinese History," Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Nov., 1994), pp. 1092-1126.

Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Russell, Gerard.  "Why Nomads Win: What Ibn Khaldun Would Say about Afghanistan,"  Huffington Post, Feb. 9, 2010.