Pastoral Nomadism

©Edward J. Vajda

The Pastoral Nomadic Revolution which began between 5,000 and 4000BC in Eastern Europe made it possible for the arid steppelands and even semi-desert areas of the Eurasian heartland to support larger populations and more elaborate cultures than ever before. Under the impetus of farming communities, pastoralism developed also in SW Asia and north and East Africa. Everywhere, the farmers and nomads were only occasionally compatible, with frequent discord. The earliest record of tension between farmer and pastoralist is found in the Bible. In Genesis, Cain the jealous farmer kills his pastoralist brother Abel. Tension notwithstanding, since both farmers and pastoralists essentially capitalized on separate ecological niches, neither was really an advance over the other and neither could entirely replace the other. (Contrast this with the idea of metal replacing stone everywhere). With the Pastoral Revolution the economic chronology becomes a bifurcation. It is true that farmers sometimes became nomads and vice versa, but only if they abandoned their environment and adopted a radically new one. The innovations of the farmer were only occasionally useful to the pastoralist, and the pastoralist's culture was rarely adaptable to sedentary populations.

Despite the inauspicious event described in Genesis, it was the nomadic pastoral cultures that eventually came to dominate the agricultureal settlements in the more temperate areas of Eurasia. (Actually, the term "nomadic civilization" is inappropriate, since it implies a way of life based on city dwelling, and true pastoral nomads have no permanent cities or towns by definition.) When the farmers called the nomads uncivilized, they were technically correct, but of course this adjective has come to have purely emotional, pejorative connotations. And the farmers did indeed have a lot to complain about. Old World history from 3000BC to 1500AD is a long catalog of one nomadic incursion after another into the world of civilization, sometimes with the wholesale destruction of cities and their sedentary populations. This was Abel's long revenge on the descendants of Cain.

On the Eurasian steppes over these several thousand years, the lifestyle of the nomads changed very little (the various metals replaced one another in succession, but as in the case of the farmers and hunter-gatherers, possession of metal vs. stone was a relatively minor factor in comparison to the vast difference in the food-producing economy. The nomads moved with their herds, usually slept mounted on their sturdy ponies; they lived in felt tents or wheeled wagons drawn by their cattle; the difference between peace and war was negligible for a nomad (in great contrast to the farmer and hunter-gatherer, and every nomad was a warrior. Styles of art and burial customs, probably religious belief evolved and changed, but the basic pastoralist lifestyle and its often warlike interaction with the farming communities remained essentially the same for thousands of years. Greek descriptions of Scythians in 500BC, Chinese descriptions of Turks in the 8th century AD, and Russian descriptions of Mongols in 1250AD are almost identical. The prehistory and history of the Eurasian steppes is best periodized not according to new technological innovations, but rather according to the dominant ethnicity on the steppes at any given time:

5,000-375AD: the Indo-European period (the ancestors of modern European peoples, including the Aryans, Greeks, Romans and Scythians, invade Europe, Iran and India).

200BC (in the East) or 375AD in the West to 1206AD: the Turkic period (Huns, Turks, Uighurs). During this time certain Mongol and Manchu speaking tribes are also dominant locally in northern China. Turkic and Mongol speakers supplant all of the Indo Europeans in Central Asia.

1206-1500's: The Mongols and their successors.

During the last few hundred years the farming peoples (Russians and Chinese) gradually subjugated all of the pastoral people of Eurasia. Once again, it was a time for Cain to kill Abel. The decline actually began within 150 years of the rise of Genghis Khan. Only in the last years of this century have the descendants of some of the nomads become independent (the five formerly Soviet Central Asia Republics, Mongolia).