Pastoralism and Subsistence Methods Involving Herds of Animals

Dromedaries in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Neil and Kathy Carey/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Pastoralism is the ancient method of subsistence farming that substantially relies on the raising and tending of domestic animals. Pastoralism takes place or has taken place in most parts of the world, in climates that range from arid desert to arctic tundra and from forested lowlands to mountain pastures. The ways that pastoralists tend their flocks, then, vary widely depending on farmer flexibility, as well as the regional geographic, ecological, and social conditions.

So, to a scientific researcher, pastoralism in its most basic meaning is simply stock keeping. But the study of pastoralists includes the effects stock keeping has on the societies, economies, and lifeways of the groups that keep stock and attach high cultural importance to the animals themselves.

Stock Animal Origins

Archaeological studies show that the earliest domesticated stock animals—sheep, goats, and pigs—were domesticated about the same time, about 10,000 years ago, in Western Asia. Cattle were first domesticated in the eastern Sahara desert about the same time, and other animals were domesticated later at different times in different areas. Animal domestication as a process still continues: ostriches, today an animal raised by pastoralists, were first domesticated in the mid-19th century.

There are many different herded animals, which vary by the place of origin.

  • Africa: cattle, donkeys, ostrich
  • Middle East: camels, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, bees
  • Central Asia: camels, horses, cattle, sheep
  • Tibetan Plateau: yaks
  • Andean Highlands: llama, alpaca, guinea pig, ducks
  • Circumpolar arctic: reindeer
  • Southeast Asia, China, and India: camels, water buffalo, zebu, banteng
  • North America: bees, turkeys

Why Domesticate?

Scholars believe that stock raising arose first when humans moved their domestic stock into drier lands distant from cultivated fields: but pastoralism was not and never has been a static process. Successful farmers adapt their processes to changing circumstances, such as environmental change, population density, and the spread of diseases. Social and technological developments such as road construction and transportation affect processes of production, storage, and distribution.

There is a multitude of reasons that people raise stock. Live animals are kept for their blood, milk, and wool, for their dung as fuel and fertilizer, and as transportation and draft animals. They are also food storage, fed fodder that is inedible by humans to create human-edible food, and once slaughtered, they provide skins, sinew, fur, meat, hooves, and bones for a range of purposes from clothing to tools to house construction. Further, stock animals are units of exchange: they can be sold, given as gifts or bride-wealth, or sacrificed for feasting or the general community welfare.

Variations on a Theme

Thus, the term "pastoralism" includes many different animals in many different environments. In order to better study stock-tending, anthropologists have tried to categorize pastoralism in a number of ways. One way to look at pastoralism is a set of continuums following several threads: specialization, economy, technology and social changes, and mobility.

Some farming systems are highly specialized—they only raise one type of animal—others are highly diversified systems which combine animal husbandry with crop production, hunting, foraging, fishing and trade into a single domestic economy. Some farmers raise animals solely for their own subsistence needs, others produce solely to be marketed to others. Some farmers are helped or hindered by technological or social changes such as the construction of road networks and reliable transportation; the presence of a temporary labor force can also affect pastoralist economies. Pastoralist people often adjust the size of their families to provide that labor force; or adjust the size of their stock to reflect their available labor.

Transhumance and Nomads

A major study area in pastoralism is another continuum, called transhumance when human societies move their stock from place to place. At its most basic, some pastoralists move their herds seasonally from pasture to pasture; while others always keep them in a pen and provide them forage. Some are full-time nomads.

Nomadism—when farmers move their stock far enough distances to require moving their own houses—is another continuum which is used to measure pastoralism. Semi-nomadic pastoralism is when farmers maintain a permanent home base where old people and tiny children and their caregivers live; full-time nomads move their entire family, clan, or even community as the demands of the animals require.

Environmental Demands

Pastoralists are found in a wide range of environments, including plains, desert, tundra, and mountains. In the Andes mountains of South America, for example, pastoralists move their flocks of llamas and alpacas between upland and lowland pastures, to escape extremes of temperature and precipitation.

Some pastoralists are involved in trade networks: camels were used in the famous Silk Road to move a wide variety of goods across vast reaches of central Asia; llamas and alpacas played a crucial role in the Inca Road system.

Identifying Pastoralism in Archaeological Sites

Finding archaeological evidence for pastoralist activities is a bit tricky, and as you might guess, varies with the type of pastoralism being studied. Archaeological remains of structures such as pens on farmsteads and at way stations on roadways have been used effectively. The presence of game management equipment, such as horse bits, reins, shoes, and saddles are also clues. Animal fat residues—lipids and alkanoic acids of milk fat—are found on potsherds and provide evidence of dairying activities.

Environmental aspects of archaeological sites have been used as supporting evidence, such as changes in pollen over time, which show what types of plants are growing in a region; and the presence of detritivores (mites or other insects that feed on animal dung).

Animal skeletons provide a wealth of information: bit wear on teeth, wear on hooves from horseshoes, morphological changes on animal bodies, and domestic herd demography. Pastoralists tend to keep female animals only as long as they reproduce, so pastoralist sites typically have more young female animals than older ones. DNA studies have tracked degrees of genetic difference among herds and domestic lineages.