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Nomadic Pastoralism and Cultural Survival Essay

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Updated: Jun 20th, 2020


The term nomad refers to the periodic shifting while pastoralism describes a type of human subsistence via keeping animals. Therefore, nomadic pastoralism is the practice of animal rearing where individuals move from one place to another in search of rich grazing lands and water. Nomadic pastoralists are socially organized around temporary settlements and they live communally as opposed to individually. The practice requires all individuals in a given family to take part in one activity or another for the benefit of an entire community. Family and community are universal institutions amongst nomadic pastoralists (Khazanov 1994:126). Unlike the European shepherds who herd animals individually within ranches, nomadic pastoralists move to different areas in search of pasture.

This way of livelihood explains why nomadic pastoralists value animals, land, family, and community. Land is the only source upon which their livestock can get pasture and water. On the other side, family members are essential to providing support at different levels of production. Due to their periodic movements, land is communally owned to ensure wide access to pastures. This article will highlight why nomadic pastoralism persists coupled with explaining why animal husbandry is viewed as a culturally feasible way of making livelihood. Nomadic pastoralists view any other opportunity as a complimentary to pastoralism.

Case studies

This section looks into the case of the Northern Afghanistan nomadic pastoralists and the kind of animal they keep coupled with why they choose to remain nomadic pastoralists. The variety of animals kept by nomadic pastoralists is usually small. They concentrate on about five or fewer species such as goats, cattle, sheep, camels, donkeys, and horses (Barfield 1993:5). Even though other species exist, the above herds form the key livestock varieties kept by nomadic pastoralists in many regions. All the kept animals are herbivores and they feed on similar pastures, and this aspect eases the control of their movement. Nomadic pastoralists in this region have different interests vested on each species of animal. For instance, horses, donkeys, and camels are regarded as transport animals, but at times, they are used for prestige. The pastoralists also focus on exploiting animal by-products like milk, blood, cheese, or wool, and this aspect makes live animals highly beneficial. Unlike hunters who kill, thus terminating the value of animals, pastoralists sustain their animals for a long time.

The second item of great value to the nomadic pastoralists is land. Pastoralism is a major way of utilizing natural resources in underexploited areas. Grass cannot sustain human livelihood, and thus raising livestock to use this resource is an alternative way of subsistence for these people. During the spring and summer, pastoralists move their animals to the mountains, thus making a good use of the large tracks of land, which are inaccessible for agriculture. The nomadic societies own land communally and they graze together, thus making it easy for them to allocate pastoral labor and move together as a unit. Herding together reduces the risk of attacks by wild animals.

How an outsider can tell what nomadic pastoralists value

Some of the main factors that define nomadic pastoralists include ecological setting, social organization, and economic interactions with other communities. For instance, nomadic pastoralism in East Africa is well defined by the emphasis on cattle rearing. Owning herds of cattle defines a man’s social status and wealth. In these societies, social exchanges like marriage and sacrifice rituals involve cattle. Families live together in temporary settings and herds of livestock are family owned (Bacon 1958:10). The father, mother, sons, and unmarried daughters possess the cattle wealth as a family. They also value occupying less densely populated areas where they can move their animals for long distances in search of pasture. Regular trade with their animals is rare because they believe animal by-products are sufficient to support their livelihood. The social formation of the pastoralists’ family is highly differentiated with respect to their socio-economic activities. The entire family has duties and responsibilities attached to animal production. For instance, men and boys go out grazing, while women and girls stay in tents to prepare dairy products and food.

Social and environmental issues that generate the value for animal rearing

Nomadic pastoralists’ social organizations are patrilineal in the kinship structure in most cases. Like in the society of Hazara Mongols, the father is the head of the family. Strong bonds of inclusive obligations and responsibilities link the members of the family. The head of the family, who doubles as the head of the flocks and land, cannot sell any property without the approval of the rest of the family. This aspect encourages communal ownership, thus increasing the value of such property. Marriages require the payment of bride price to be done in the form of animals as well as their products. The preferred animals included cattle, sheep, goats, and camels. In addition, other rituals involved animal sacrifice. This aspect raises the need to have many animals since the payment of dowry requires a substantial number of animals. Consequently, this aspect provides very stable and reliable relationships among the nomadic pastoralists or even across other societies through intermarriages. However, these social factors make the value of land and animal very significant to pastoralists.

Pastoralists understand times and seasons, and this knowledge is critical in deciding on the carrying capacity of the available land and the best seasons of the year. Their mobility helps them to adapt to the various types of environments. Nomadic pastoralists occupy large belts of arid and sub-arid areas where other forms of production such as agriculture are not suitable. For example, the nomadic pastoralists of Africa and Eurasia occupied the semi-arid zone extending from southwest to northeast from East Africa to Mongolia (McGee 2004:8). Pastoralists base their economies by rearing certain sets of species that do best in these tropical zones and the savanna grasslands. The desert zones provide a suitable environment for camel pastoralism. In zones with harsh climatic conditions, pastoralists keep dromedary camels, which provide food and transport. The camels’ ability to walk for long distances and go for days without water allows nomadic pastoralists reach desert pastures where other animals cannot access (Barfield 1993:96). The high-altitude regions such as the Tibetan Plateau have harsh climates, but they provide grasslands, which are rich for grazing sheep, yaks, horses, and goats. Due to the unique terrains and climate of these regions, the environment is suitable for animal rearing, thus making people along such areas to adopt and value nomadic pastoralists as their cultural ideal way of subsistence.

Why people might be emotionally connected to nomadic pastoralism

Nomadic pastoralists view their practice as a culturally ideal way of subsistence as it is one of the ways to exploit the unproductive land through grazing and getting the rich by-products of the animals. Pastoralists make productive use of the large arid and semiarid areas, which would rather be left unexploited. Nomadic pastoralism is of huge significance to many economies apart from feeding a small group of nomad societies. Nomads produce many valuable products such as milk, hides, wool, and meat. In Mongolia and Tibet, yak and cow milk are used to produce butter, which is used as energy food to keep pastoralists fit for long distances. Milk and blood contain the necessary nutrients for fighting bodily diseases. Nomadic pastoralists utilize grasslands for economic benefits. Cattle, goats, and sheep are used for dowry payments, rituals, and as a sign of wealth in most African societies.

This significant reliance on livestock creates strong links between the nomads and their flocks. For example, the Mongol Empire traces its background from nomadic pastoralism. Pastoralists view themselves as superior to hunters and gathers who have to go out hunting every day for subsistence. In addition, nomads do not see agriculture as an alternative means of subsistence, but a complement to pastoralism. This assertion holds because pastoral nomadism requires less labor for production and mobility is critical during harsh times. To nomads, live animals are more valuable than dead ones due to the production of blood, wool, milk, and butter for a long time. Pastoralists’ attachment to their animals sometimes is so intense that even after sons marry, they maintain joint ownership of livestock to ensure collective responsibility.


Periodic nomadic migration of pastoralists and their herds is inevitable in a bid to access new pasturelands and water. This aspect is one of the adaptive measures to maintain a sustainable supply of animal products. Migration schedule is designed to avoid harsh environmental conditions that risk the decline of productivity or even death of the herds. The economic feasibility linked with the selling of animals and their products explain why most societies continue to practice nomadic pastoralism to earn their livelihoods.

References Cited

Bacon, Elizabeth 1958 OBOK: A study of social structure in Eurasia. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Reseach, Inc.

Barfield, Thomas 1993 The Nomadic Alternative. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Khazanov, Anatoly 1994 Nomads and the outside world. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

McGee, Harold 2004 On food and cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner.

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