What Is Pastoralism: Understanding Its Role in Ancient History

The Development of Civilization

Mongolia - Horses
Mongolia - Horses. CC Ed-Meister

 

Pastoralism refers to a stage in the development of civilization between hunting and agriculture and also to a way of life dependent on the herding of livestock, specifically, ungulates.

The Steppes

The Steppes and the Near and Middle East are particularly associated with pastoralism, although mountainous regions and areas too cold for farming can also support pastoralism. In the Steppes, near Kiev, where the wild horse roamed, pastoralists used their knowledge of cattle herding to domesticate the horse.

The Lifestyle of Pastoralists

Pastoralists focus on raising livestock and tend to the care and use of animals such as camels, goats, cattle, yaks, llamas and sheep. Animal species vary depending on where pastoralists live in the world; typically they are domesticated herbivores that eat plant foods. The two main lifestyles of pastoralism include nomadism and transhumance. The nomads practice a seasonal migratory pattern that changes annually, while transhumance pastoralists use a pattern to cool highland valleys in summer and warmer ones during the cold wintertime.

Pastoral Nomadism

This form of subsistence agriculture, also known as farming to eat, is based on herding domesticated animals. Instead of depending on crops to survive, pastoral nomads primarily depend on animals that provide milk, clothing and tents. 

Some key characteristics of pastoral nomads include:

  • Pastoral nomads typically do not slaughter their animals but already dead ones may be used for food.
  • Power and prestige are often symbolized by this culture's herd size.
  • The type and number of animals are chosen in relation to local characteristics, such as climate and vegetation.

Transhumance Pastoralists

The movement of livestock for water and food encompasses transhumance. The core differentiator in regards to nomadism is that herders who are leading the flock must leave their family behind.

 Their lifestyle is in harmony with nature, developing groups of people with the world's ecosystem, embedding themselves in their environment and biodiversity. The main places you can find transhumance include Mediterranean locations such as Greece, Lebanon and Turkey.

Modern Pastoralism

Today, most pastoralists live in Mongolia, parts of Central Asia and East African locations. Pastoral societies include groups of pastoralists who center their daily life around pastoralism through the tending of herds or flocks. The benefits of pastoralism include flexibility, low costs and freedom of movement. Pastoralism has survived due to additional features including light regulatory environment and their work in regions that are not suited for agriculture.

Quick Facts

  • Over 22 million Africans depend on pastoralists for their livelihood today, in communities such as the Bedouins, Berbers, Somali and Turkana.
  • There are over 300,000 cattle herders in Southern Kenya and 150,000 in Tanzania.
  • Pastoralism societies can be drawn back to the time period 8500-6500 BC.
  • Literary work involving shepherds and rustic life is known as "pastoral" which comes from the term "pastor", Latin for a "shepherd."

Source: Andrew Sherratt "Pastoralism" The Oxford Companion to Archaeology.

Brian M. Fagan, ed., Oxford University Press 1996. Oxford University Press.