Nomadic and Settled Peoples in Steppe Landscapes and within Statehood

History and the Contemporary in SFB (Collaborative Research Centre) 586

by Stefan Leder (translated by Fergal Lenehan), in: Scientia Halensis 1/05, p. 19–22.

Nomads have been a distinct element within and carriers of civilizations within the old world dry belts for thousands of years, from Morocco in the west to northern China in the east. They have, however, not always been perceived as such. Academics have only learned within the past few decades to view nomads not as a separate societal phenomenon, or as a fascinating particular form of human lifestyle, but, rather, to perceive them as an intertwined, broad societal structure.

Thus, the importance of nomads is now seen in a new light. Within the wide expanse of history nomadic peoples – also, indeed, not necessarily small in number - have formed their own distinct forms of lifestyle, yet also remained in close contact with settled societies and have helped to mould institutions, social structures and moral concepts.

Nomadic mobility has also shaped nomadic life styles and living forms. Continuous cyclical wandering, usually in tribal or familial groupings, has helped to create spatial and cultural distance to settled communities. This is to be observed within the Roma and other traveling peoples in Europe. Economic practices, social organization, laws, norms, language and the material culture of nomads have, usually, distinguished them greatly from their social surroundings.

The Multiplicity of Lifestyles

Nomadic ways of life have been characterized by a great variety. One thinks instantly of the historical model of mounted pastoral nomadism. Highly, and instantly, mobile they were able to assert themselves in relation to state-oriented settled communities for many years. Pastoral nomads’, at times, quite extensive wandering movements were often directed towards, and centered on, territories dominated by settled communities and often placed these under pressure. With their control of transport avenues and their position as, at times, subject, ‘cavalry’ powers they also commanded important resources, in addition to their herds, which meant that they came into contact with settled communities. But, however, nomads that have retained smaller numbers of animals in the steppe or mountain areas also have engaged in economic activities other than those of a mobile pastoral nature, including landholding and wage labor.

In this way nomadic and settled life forms have been intertwined for many years. Relations based upon peaceful exchange have existed alongside differing, at times, epochal conflict constellations, shaped by specific interests, values and identities. An echo of these relations are to be seen in the distrust, contempt, as well as idealistic civilization critique that is often expressed by the majority settled community in relation to nomadic societies. The societal structures, habits and customs of nomads have remained persistent, even when they have actually given up their mobile lifestyle.

Nomads Today

The complicated relationship to the past is still relevant today, even if the modern world allows little room for horse-mounted pastoral nomadism. In the 20th century modern notions of order and transport have become established in most areas. Campaigns intended to settle nomads, the reduction of their freedom of movement through state borders, but also new sources of income have resulted in a loss of importance for nomadism as a distinct way of life. However, these developments have had differing results, according to region. Basic economic and social conditions, often in conjunction with cultural conditions, have allowed the survival of niche and reserve pastoralism, also promoting a return to nomadic pasture usage.

Nomadic camp in Oussikis, Morocco
 Nomadic camp in Oussikis, Morocco. Although the nomads apparently still engage in “traditional” agriculture, they are also, however, integrated in national and international labour and consumer markets. Whole families are employed as labour migrants in Moroccan cities and in Europe, while the barley for their animals comes chiefly from the U.S.A.
(Photo: Ingo Breuer, Project A 4.)

A lot of factors would suggest that the mobile use of natural pastures does, indeed, have a future. Long distance and wandering pastoral agriculture is still practiced, under very difficult conditions, in arid areas and in the tundra, usually in a motorized form. In some places this form of agriculture has even displayed levels of growth. Ecologically suitable, mobile pastoral agriculture by state supervised nomads even appears to national and international agencies as a meaningful option for regional development. However, traditional habits, local conflicts of interests and historically developed negative stereotypes still have to be ‘toned down’ and overcome.

SFB (Collaborative Research Centre) with Numerous Projects

The history and present day situation relating to the interaction of nomadic and settled forms of life still shape the face of many areas of our contemporary world. In SFB (Collaborative Research Center) 586 of the universities of Halle and Leipzig the workings of this relationship are being examined within the second phase (2004-2008) in a total of 20 research projects. Historians, Archeologists, Geographers, Orientalists and Ethnologists are working together in an effort to understand the conditions and consequences of cohabitation and confrontation of nomadic and settled lifestyles. The reasons and modalities regarding the disappearance or re-emergence of nomadic life forms are examined and a perspective has been taken in order to reflect upon and legitimize these various ways of life.

Fragment of a stela
 Fragment of a stela, consecrated by a former nomadic Amorite for the welfare of Hammurabi (18th cent. B.C.)

The cooperation between specialists for ancient epochs with empirically oriented social scientists is indeed a challenge, as evident changes and discontinuities in history, in relation to understanding and comparisons, are also included. As always in such research the work includes a multiplicity of perspectives and approaches, from which a complete picture will emerge.

The Castle of Tadmur
 The ruins of the medieval castle of Tadmur (Palmyra), Syria.
(Photo: Dr. Kurt Franz, Project B 1)

Shepard societies, who lived near towns in temporary settlements, existed in conjunction with settled communities from a very early period, as the archives of the city state of Mari on the Euphrates (19th/18th centuries B.C.) can prove, going into quite minute detail. Here one can follow how the attempts by the state to control and tax nomadic groupings had to be balanced out with the attempts of the nomads to flee state control and establish links to the outside world.

The Influence of Nomads on their Surroundings

With the taming of the horse for domestic usage and its resulting mobile life forms, especially the emergence of horse breeding mounted nomads in 200 B.C., and the employment of the camel as a pack and riding animal from 100 B.C., a spatially far-reaching, at times war-like nomadic mobility developed.

The consequences of this development included the spread of the image of the weapon-carrying nomads, which became a sort of dominant leitmotif. Nomadic-dominated rule or state forms, as are to be seen for example in the Fruitful Half Moon of the 11th century or the Uzbeks of the 16th century, show the possibilities and limits of the adaptability of nomads in relation to the institutional requirements of a political order. The example of the Near East shows in detail how efforts at a controlling and integrating nomadic politics incorporated great effort, as well as misguided directions. In relation to North Africa it can be proven that the nomadic or nomadic dominated areas influenced directly Roman power structures, in which the local demesne economics developed its own administrative and legal forms.

Characteristic for these interrelations are not the “Nomadic storm”, nor the “Nomadic state”, but, rather, the influence of nomads upon societies and states. When today armed nomadic militia in the west of Sudan go to attack the farmer communities of Darfur, it seems as if an ancient contrast lives on. It does not, however, relate to a conflict concerned with the rivalry of resources between nomadic pastoralism and settled agriculture, but rather to an earlier conflict constellation that arises from former political conditions and this dynamic has resulted in the Sudanese government’s support of Janjaweed bands.

This situation is typical for contemporary and historical times. The present practical and developmental-oriented perspectives of peaceful nomadism in Tibet and Central Asia, in the Arabic Near East and in North Africa are determined by events on national and international fields of play, often very distant from the place of the actual happenings. It is a task of observing and accompanying academia to incorporate the economic possibilities of mobile pastoral agriculture and the social function of nomadic or nomadically perceived ways of life from the local context with the process of decision-making.

Basic political conditions are also immensely important for the historical relationship between the nomadic and settled communities. The incursion of powerful bands of nomads from the Steppe, for example during the time of the Genghis Khan led Mongols of the 13th century or at the time of the expansion of the Arab tribes in the 7th century, are spectacular exceptions to the norm. Made possible by the consequences of an internal unifying idea or religion, the conditions in the conquered areas – China and Byzantium – also contributed. The conquests were also marked by the adaptation of the nomads to settled ways of life and state organization.

A Shepard boy in western Mongolia.
 A Shepard boy in western Mongolia.
Photo: Uta Schilling , Project E 6

The consequences of nomadism may also be seen in alternative world-views and approaches to life. As descriptions of the beauty of nomadic life, in the Arabic context present already in late antiquity, make evident, the differences between nomadic and settled lifestyles stimulate the creation of concepts, in which the symbolic representation of nomads can facilitate the offering of collectively influential points of identification. These images and imaginings have resulted in their own, in the Arab context longstanding, consequences.

The nomadic roots of Kazaks are perceived in present day Kazakhstan as a quasi-national identity. The functionalization of a negative image is, however, more usual. Since ancient times nomads have been seen in many societies as civilisation threatening conquerors or, as in the colonial context of Czarist Russia, as a culturally inferior savage and - in the complementary idealisation – as a savage who maintains ancient human capabilities. Large parts of historical experience are simply ignored with this traditional structure of perception, which is also present in Aramaic literature. This has to, firstly, be exposed.

In actual fact nomads have not worked against but always with processes of civilisation. Nomadic heavily influenced cities such as Hatra and Hira, which bloomed in Iraq on the border to the Steppe in the first half of the 1st century A.D., represent examples for the political integration within the large Persian Empire as well as for the complex functionality of the mixing of nomadic and settled elements among the inhabitants.

Reindeer nomads, Yamal Peninsula
 Reindeer nomads during migration to the Yamal Peninsula, Western Siberia.
(Photo: Dr. Florian Stammler, Project B 6)

Nomadic and settled communities maintained in history an entangled relationship, in which aspects of societal difference and lines of conflict with integrative changes, from both sides, intermingled. If these relationships, which are still extremely relevant for contemporary times, can be systematically examined, then a new foundation for our understanding of the history and society of large parts of Africa and Asia can be laid.