Pastoral Nomadism

You are surrounded by rolling grasslands. Far in the distance, foreboding mountains tower far above the grasses. The wind blows across the plains, and you are struck by the haunting beauty of the steppe. You notice, well in front of you, a group of people riding horses. People live here! But wait a second—no farms? No supermarket? How do they eat?

Pastoral Nomadism Pastoral Nomadism

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Table of contents

    Welcome to the world of the pastoral nomads. Pastoral nomads subsist by maintaining large groups of domesticated livestock, which they herd from pasture to pasture. Grab a horse: we're going to take a look at the advantages and impacts of such a lifestyle.

    Pastoral Nomadism Definition

    Nomadism is a lifestyle in which a community has no fixed or permanent settlement. Nomads continuously move from place to place. Nomadism is often associated with a form of livestock agriculture called pastoralism. Most modern livestock agriculture confines domesticated animals to a small—or at least, relatively small—enclosure, but pastoralism allows livestock herds to graze upon wide open pastures.

    Pastoral nomadism is a form of nomadism that revolves around and is enabled by pastoralism.

    The main reason for pastoral nomadism is to keep herds of domesticated livestock—the food source—continuously moving to new pastures. The livestock stays fed, which in turn keeps the nomads fed.

    Not all nomads are pastoralists. Many historical nomadic cultures sustained themselves through hunting wild game rather than maintaining domesticated livestock. In fact, one of the original causes of nomadism for many cultures was to follow the migratory patterns of wild animals.

    Pastoral nomadism is sometimes also called nomadic herding or nomadic pastoralism.

    Pastoral Nomadism Characteristics

    Pastoral nomadism is characterized by transhumance: moving herds from place to place with the changing of the seasons. This is because the quality and availability of pasture (and the severity of the weather) change in different locations throughout the year.

    Transhumance also prevents overgrazing. For example, if the herd were to be forced to remain in desert scrubland for an entire year, they might eat all the greenery and deplete their own food supply. Keeping things moving allows plant life to regenerate.

    Pastoral nomadism precludes the construction of most permanent settlements or other structures. Instead, nomads rely on encampments, temporary camps made up of tents, or similar living arrangements that can be easily disassembled and packed when it's time to get on the move again. Perhaps the most iconic nomadic structure is the yurt, used throughout central Asia. Nomadic peoples from the Great Plains of North America used tipis, though tribes such as the Sioux, the Pawnee, and the Cree generally practiced hunting rather than pastoralism.

    Pastoral Nomadism, Yurt Encampment, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A modern yurt in Mongolia

    Pastoralism is a type of extensive farming. Extensive farming requires little labor relative to the available land. By comparison, intensive farming requires much more labor relative to the available land. For example, planting, growing, and harvesting 25,000 potatoes on a single acre of land is intensive farming.

    Advantages of Pastoral Nomadism

    So, we're shepherding our herd from pasture to pasture, letting them eat as they please, and butchering them as needed to feed ourselves and our families. But why? Why practice this lifestyle instead of sedentary agriculture? Well, it has a lot to do with the limitations of physical geography.

    Pastoral nomadism is often practiced in regions that cannot support either crop-based agriculture or other types of livestock agriculture. Perhaps the soil simply cannot support wide-scale crop growth, or the animals cannot access enough food if they are confined to small plots of fenced pasture. This is particularly true in northern Africa, where pastoralism is still somewhat widely practiced; the soil is often too arid for most crops, and the simplest way to produce food is to lead hardy goats to different pastures.

    Pastoral nomadism can still support a greater population than traditional hunting and gathering, and like other forms of agriculture, provides an advantage in that it allows humans to be less dependent on wild game. In other words, pastoral nomadism allows people to remain fed when crop farming, intensive livestock farming, and hunting and gathering are not an option.

    Pastoral nomadism also has cultural value to those who practice the lifestyle. It enables many communities to remain self-sufficient without needing to participate in the global economy.

    The relationship between agriculture and the physical environment is a critical concept for AP Human Geography. If pastoralism is practiced because the environment can't support many other types of agriculture, what elements in the physical environment would be required to enable other farming practices like market gardening or plantation farming?

    Environmental Impacts of Pastoral Nomadism

    Typically, farmers put fences around their land to keep domesticated animals in and wild animals out. Pastoralism, on the other hand, puts nomads and their animals into direct contact with the wild.

    This can sometimes lead to conflict. The Maasai, native to East Africa, have long refused to abandon their pastoral lifestyle and switch to sedentary agriculture. They often lead their cattle herds into national park territory to graze. This puts them in competition with wild grazers like Cape buffalo and zebra (which may cause the spread of disease) and also exposes their cattle to predators like lions, against which the Maasai guard fiercely. In fact, Maasai men have protected their herds against lions for so long that many Maasai men will even hunt and kill unaggressive lions as a rite of passage.

    The problem? Lions as a species cannot survive the pressures of both mass urbanization and unregulated pastoralism. Eventually, they will go extinct in the wild, and the savanna ecosystems of East Africa will cease to function properly. Additionally, wildlife safaris have become a major source of tourism income for Tanzania and Kenya, which the Maasai way of life threatens.

    Like other forms of agriculture, pastoralism can cause pollution and land degradation. Even though herds are moved from place to place, long-term pastoralism does have the potential to degrade land over time if animals overgraze and their hooves compact the soil.

    Pastoral Nomadism Example

    Pastoralism is still relatively common in central Asia, where steppes and rolling plateaus make other forms of agriculture relatively difficult. Historically, Mongols have been among the most widely-recognized pastoralists; their efficiency as pastoral nomads even enabled them to conquer huge swathes of Asia and establish the largest contiguous land-based empire in history.

    Today, pastoral nomads in Tibet embody the crossroads facing many nomadic communities. For several thousand years, Tibetans have been practicing pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayan mountain range. Tibetan livestock includes goats, sheep, and, most importantly, the ever-iconic yak.

    Pastoral Nomadism, Yak, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The yak is ubiquitous in pastoral communities of Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal

    The Tibetan Autonomous Region is part of the People's Republic of China. Recently, the Chinese government has accused the Tibetans of causing environmental degradation and pollution through their pastoralism and has relocated at least 100,000 nomads since the year 2000, forcing them to adopt sedentary agriculture or relocate to cities. This process is called sedentarization.

    It is perhaps important to note that Tibet is rich in minerals like lithium and copper, which have little value to the Tibetan nomads themselves but are critically important to overarching Chinese primary and secondary economic sectors. Slowing or stopping pastoralism would free up more of the land for mining exploration.

    The conflict over development, land use, industrialization, economic opportunity, different forms of pollution, and communal/cultural autonomy is not unique to Tibet. As we mentioned above, the governments of Tanzania and Kenya are similarly at odds with the Maasai, who have no widespread interest in joining the global economy or segregating themselves or their livestock from the natural world.

    Pastoral Nomadism Map

    The map below shows the spatial distribution of major pastoral nomadic communities.

    As you can see, pastoral nomadism is most common in central Asia and many parts of Africa, largely due to the limiting effects of the local physical geography. We've already mentioned some pastoral groups; major pastoral nomadic communities include but are not limited to:

    • Tibetans in Tibet
    • Maasai in East Africa
    • Berbers in North Africa
    • Somalis in the Horn of Africa
    • Mongols in Mongolia
    • Bedouins in Libya and Egypt
    • Sámi in Scandinavia

    As the global economy expands, it is entirely likely that the spatial distribution of pastoralism will decrease. Whether by choice or through external pressure, it may become more and more common for pastoral nomads to adopt sedentary lifestyles and tap into the global food supply in the near future.

    Pastoral Nomadism - Key takeaways

    • Pastoral nomadism is a form of nomadism that revolves around moving with large herds of domesticated livestock.
    • Pastoral nomads are characterized by domesticated livestock; transhumance; encampments; and extensive farming.
    • Pastoral nomadism allows communities to feed themselves in areas that do not support other forms of agriculture. Pastoralism enables these communities to be self-sufficient.
    • Pastoral nomadism can put nomads and their animals into conflict with wildlife. If improperly managed, pastoralism can also cause widespread environmental degradation.
    Pastoral Nomadism Pastoral Nomadism
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Pastoral Nomadism

    What is pastoral nomadism?  

    Pastoral nomadism is a form of nomadism that revolves around moving with large herds of domesticated livestock. 

    What is a pastoral nomadism example? 

    The pastoral nomads of the Tibetan Plateau herd goats, sheep, and yaks, moving them from place to place with the changing of the seasons. 

    Where is pastoral nomadism practiced? 

    Most pastoral nomadic communities are found in Africa and central Asia, including Tibet, Mongolia, and Kenya. Pastoral nomadism is more common in areas that cannot easily support other forms of agriculture. 

    What activities characterize pastoral nomads? 

    Pastoral nomads are characterized by transhumance; setting up encampments; and practicing extensive farming. 

    Why is pastoral nomadism important? 

    Pastoral nomadism provides people with a way to feed themselves in otherwise harsh environments. This also allows communities to remain self-sufficient. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Why does pastoralism lead to nomadism? 

    What is the single greatest reason for pastoral nomadism? 

    What are some possible environmental impacts of pastoralism? Select all that apply. 

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