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Summary and Keywords

Nomadism is a technique of population movement used to accomplish a variety of goals. It is used for primary production when the resources to be tapped are distributed thinly over a wide space, or are located in different places in a large region. Commonly nomadism is a technique used in a spatially extensive adaptation. Pastoralists raising domestic animals on natural pasture move from grazed areas to areas with fresh pasture, and from dry areas to those with water.

Nomadism follows regular patterns where the resources tapped are reliable and thus predictable. This is common in macro-environmental adaptations to factors such as seasons and altitude. Some pastoralists have mountain adaptations, migrating to high altitudes in summer and low altitudes in winter, an adaptation called transhumance in Europe. Nomadic patterns are more irregular when rainfall patterns, and thus pasturage, are erratic and unpredictable, as is common in desert areas with low rainfall.

Among some pastoral peoples, all of the households in the community move together. Among other pastoral peoples, a sector of the populations is nomadic; young and/or mature men migrate with the livestock, while women, children, and elders remain in a stationary home settlement. This is also the pattern in European transhumance.

Many pastoral peoples produce primarily for their own subsistence; it is common that they have multi-resource or mixed economies, engaging also in hunting and gathering, horticulture, agriculture, and arboriculture. Economic activities are not limited to primary production; patterns of predation, including raiding and extortion, against other pastoralists, farmers, and traders are widespread. Other pastoral peoples are heavily market-oriented, producing for sale, or have symbiotic relations with hunters or cultivators; it is normal that they are more specialized in their production. But pastoralists can be found at all points on a continuum between subsistence- and market-oriented.

Keywords: nomadism, mobility, migration, livestock, pastoralism, subsistence, market, predatory raiding

Types of Nomads

Let us define “nomad” as someone who moves residence as part of the yearly round of economic activity. Nomads are thus distinguished from people who are settled or sedentary, who do not move their residences as part of their yearly economic activity. It is mobility and movement that define nomads.

Definitions are of course arbitrary, and are best judged by their usefulness. If we define “nomad” too narrowly—insisting, for example, that everyone in the society must change residences—then we are using our definition to distinguish among people and peoples who move. Our broader definition is more useful, because it directs us to consider everyone within groups or societies who moves as part of their yearly round, their various patterns of movement, and their similarities and differences. It is a more open and better path into the world of nomads.

Is there some general explanation for nomadism? The reason for nomadism is not complex or mysterious. Economic nomadism is a response to dispersed resources, a way of exploiting resources that could not be tapped by people living in one place.

One type of dispersed resource is undomesticated edible plants and wild animals, exploited by hunters and gatherers, or foragers (Lee & DeVore, 1968; Bicchieri, 1972; Kelly, 1995). Another is grass and bushes suitable for grazing and browsing of domesticated animals, exploited by pastoralists (Galaty et al., 1990; Barfield, 1993; Salzman, 2004). A third type is goods produced in different areas that can be traded, exploited by traders, for example the Humli-Khyampa nomadic traders of western Nepal (Rauber, in Rao, 1987). A fourth is customers for products, exploited by service nomads, for example the Gadulia Lohar (Misra, 1977) blacksmiths of Rajasthan, India; the Lurie of Iranian Baluchistan (Salzman, 2000); and traveling salesmen.

If nomadism is a strategy for exploiting dispersed resources, we can dispose of one possible misconception immediately: nomads do not “wander” randomly, nor seek movement for its own sake. Migrations of residence from one locale to another are usually taken only after careful consideration of all of the costs and benefits of the move.

Nomadism has other uses as well. Political nomadism is exhibited in predatory raiding, territorial expansionism, and escape from political and military threats (Irons, 1975).

From the rise of modern humans, Homo sapiens, 100,000–200,000 years ago, until the Neolithic agricultural revolution brought domesticated plants and animals around 10,000 years ago, people made a living by hunting and gathering. Until 10,000 years ago, there was no other way for people to make a living. In most—but not all—places, naturally occurring edible plants and wild animals were widely dispersed, and most hunters and gatherers lived in small bands and were nomadic, moving from area to area to gain improved access to plants and animals.

After the domestication of animals, some groups came to specialize as pastoralists. Domesticated animals continued to be part of mixed farming regimes, which could provide for some of the needs of their animals with cultivated plants and their “waste” products. Pastoral specialists followed a different productive strategy: they mainly (but not exclusively) raised animals, “livestock,” and relied on natural, uncultivated pasture to feed their animals. Because natural pasture is seasonally or annually sparse (and always sparse in arid climates), and because eventually a herd or flock has fed and exhausted the pasture in an area, the herds must be moved across the landscape to maintain a constant food source.

There are two main nomadic strategies used by pastoralists. One is to move residence when the animals move. Many pastoralists form mobile herding camps that accompany the animals wherever they move. These herding camps are residential groups, so everyone in the group—men, women, and children—migrates together with animals. One camping site is left behind, and the group moves to another. This is the pattern common among the Bedouin (Evans-Pritchard, 1949; Lancaster, 1997) and Baluch (Salzman, 2000). Characteristic of this nomadic strategy is mobile dwellings, from the black, woven goat-hair tents of Baluchistan to the dome-shaped yurts of pressed felt in Central Asia and the lean-to huts of Somalia. This strategy tends to be held in society-wide and entire-community nomadism.

The other strategy is for central settlements to be more or less stable, with a specialized segment of the population taking the animals out to pasture and staying with them over time in animal camps. For example, in East Africa, the young men of warrior age accompany the cattle in temporary cattle camps, while the male elders, women, and children remain in the central settlement. The cattle will be moved from place to place, according to the availability of pasture and other factors, such as availability of water, and avoidance of disease and hostile outsiders rustling or raiding. This is the society-wide pattern among the Maasai (Spear & Waller, 1993) and Karimojong (Dyson-Hudson, 1966). Among most European pastoralists, it is the male household head, sometimes assisted by elder sons, who travel with the herd away from the permanent village or town (Salzman, 2004, pp. 109–115), although in some cases, for example the Sarakatsani of western Greece, the entire family migrates (Campbell, 1964). This nomadism is sometimes referred to locally as transhumance in French, transumanza in Italian, or trashumancia in Spanish.

Pastoralists are widespread in Eurasia, from the Pyrenees in the west to Mongolia in the east and from the Arctic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south (Galaty et al., 1990; Barfield, 1993; Salzman, 2004). They are prominent throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and also in East, West, and South Africa (Galaty et al., 1990; Barfield, 1993; Salzman, 2004). They can also be found in the Andes of South America (Flannery et al., 1989).

Variations in Mobility

To understand variations in distance travelled by nomads, we have to consider the dispersal of resources required. Nomads, after all, are not moving residence for the sheer pleasure of it, but in order to access and exploit resources in order to make a living. If people can access adequate resources in short distances, then they will not travel far, but if the best available resources are distant, they will travel great distances to gain access.

Another dimension in mobility is regularity, which depends upon the reliability of resource availability and thus the predictability of access to the resources. If resources are reliably available in the same places, year after year, then the nomadic pattern can be regular, the nomads following the same routes, confident that they will find what they need when they arrive at their destination. If the availability of resources is uncertain, and the place where resources can be accessed changes from year to year, then migration patterns will vary according to the particular circumstances. In such cases, the key to success is timely information, which is sought voraciously.

The Basseri of the Zagros: Mountain Nomads

Long-distance pastoral nomads are found in the Zagros Mountain chain, which runs north-south, dividing the high Iranian plateau to the east from the Persian Gulf lowlands in the west. Famous, large tribal confederations such as the Iranian-Lur-speaking Bakhtiari confederacy in the central zone (Garthwaite, 2009), and the Turkic-speaking Qashqai confederacy (Beck, 1986, 1991) and the Arab Khamseh confederacy (Barth, 1961) in the southern zone, as well as Kurdish tribes in the northern zone, all make lengthy migrations up and down the Zagros mountains.

For example, the Persian-speaking Basseri, a member of the Arab Khamseh confederation, annually migrate from the deserts around Lar at around 2,000–3,000 feet north to the high mountain pastures at 13,000 feet in the Kuh-i-Bul, and then back again (Barth, 1961, p. 3). These migrations are coordinated with the seasons. In the lower plains and lower mountain altitudes, there is good pasture in the warm winter, but the heat becomes torrid by March, and the grasses dry up and die. In winter and early spring, the high mountains are covered in snow, sometimes to considerable depths. As the Basseri migrate up the mountains, they find good pasture, earlier fed by the melting snow, at the higher, cooler altitudes. By June, when the Basseri arrive at their high mountain destination, having taken some three mouths on the way up, the snow in the higher altitudes has melted and fed fresh pastures. After around three months in the high pastures, the Basseri begin their migration down from the mountains by September, lest they be caught in snowfall, and take a rapid 40–50 days returning to the plains (Barth, 1961, pp. 4–6).

The seasons are reliable variations, and altitude variations are also reliable. So migrations relying on both season and altitude tend to be highly dependable and thus predictable. The Basseri know ahead of time where and when they are migrating. In fact, the Basseri characterize their migration path as their il-rah (Persian for “tribal road”). As Barth (1961, p. 5) describes it:

Such an il-rah is regarded by the tribesmen as the property of their tribe, and their rights to pass on roads and over uncultivated lands, to draw water everywhere except from private wells, and to pasture their flocks outside the cultivated fields are recognized by the local population and the authorities. The route of an il-rah is determined by the available passes and routes of communication, and by the available pastures and water, while the schedule depends on the maturation of different pastures, and the movements of other tribes … [R]ights claimed to an il-rah do not imply exclusive rights to any locality throughout the year, and nothing prevents different tribes from utilizing the same localities at different times—a situation that is normal in the area, rather than exceptional.

Long-term migration thus is not necessarily a sign of uncertainty or hardship, but can be, as in this case, and those of the other pastoral nomads in the Zagros Mountains, an indication of a reliable, predicable course to access widely dispersed resources. Furthermore, this dependable migration pattern allows the nomads to give their flocks the best possible conditions in all seasons, good pasture and moderate temperatures throughout the year. Because of its reliance on major, largely unchanging environmental conditions—seasons and altitude—this kind of migration could be called, if we wanted to use technical language, a “macro-environmental” migration and adaptation. In ordinary language, it could be called “mountain nomadism.” And wherever there are large mountain ranges—the Rockies in North America, the Andes in South America, the Atlas in North Africa, the Taurus in Turkey, the Elburz in northern Iran, the Tien-Shan in Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, China, the Himalayas in Tibet and South Asia—some people have pursued mountain nomadism.

The Komachi of Central Iran

The Komachi (Bradburd, 1990) also can be considered mountain nomads, because the area they consider their home is the high mountain pasture south of Kerman city, in south central Iran. Their use of macro-environmental factors—seasonality and altitude—in their 200-mile migration is similar to that of the Zagros nomads, such as the Basseri, Qashqai, and Bakhtiari. The high mountain pastures are the Komachi’s summer destination; the lowlands near the Persian Gulf, east of Bandar Abbas, are their winter destination.

Baluchi Nomads of the Sarhadi Plateau: Desert Nomads

What contrasts with mountain nomadism is “desert nomadism,” in which nomads are responding to “micro-environmental” variations, such as leaving parched areas of the desert and seeking areas that have had a spot of rain and now boast sparse green pasture, or leaving an area with pasture for the grazers—sheep and cattle—eating grass, but none for the browsers—goats and camels—eating the tender parts of bushes and trees, or leaving an area with poor access to water for one with good access to water. Deserts are by definition arid, with little rainfall. But the rainfall is not just limited, but irregular as regards time, amount, and location. This irregularity of precipitation means that the timing and location of pasture and surface water is unpredictable for those nomads who depend upon these resources. Desert nomads often do not know whether or where or when there will be pasture or water. They do not know much ahead of time in which direction they will migrate. Desert nomads rely on an inflow of information from travelers or scouts to report conditions in different parts of their countryside. That is one of the reasons that hospitality is so strong among nomads; guests often bring invaluable information about environmental conditions.

Iranian Baluchistan (Salzman, 2000) is desert country, sand and rocks and volcanic hills and mountains. North of the territory of the Yarahmadzai in the Sarhad highlands is Kuh-e Taftan (Persian), or Daptan (Baluchi), an active volcano, belching smoke from time to time. Rainfall over eleven years had an annual average of 5.1 inches, around half the 10-inch average of the Zagros that the Basseri enjoy. Out of the eleven years, four were droughts, with less than 2 inches, whereas three were years of plenty, with over 7 inches. In average years, there was substantial, if not thick, green plant cover of grass and bushes, and, briefly in the spring, wildflowers. During droughts, there was hardly any pasture. Rare good years saw abundant green cover. There were no trees to be seen.

Rainfall, however, did not fall everywhere, at the same time, in the Yarahmadzai territory, which meant that pasture was not available equally throughout the territory, but appeared here and then there, in an unpredictable fashion. Nomadism involved moving from where the pasture was poor or overgrazed to where the pasture was better. Other factors were involved as well: whether the camp was dirty from accumulated animal feces, whether there was also good water for the households and for the animals, whether there was animal disease in the vicinity, whether there were enemies nearby, how far the location was from any cultivation that the camp members were involved with, and how crowded with other camps and herds the location was.

During the winter of 1967–1968, the Dadolzai herding camp led by Jafar stayed in south central Pusht-e Kamal for three and a half months. In the cold winter at 5,500 feet, down to freezing at night, and in rare years seeing snowfall, there is no fresh pasture, and the animals must make do with the dead remains of the sparse vegetation. The tents are divided into spaces for humans and animals; the sheep and goats are brought into the tent for the freezing night. Some animals receive special treatment: Shams Adin dug up roots to feed to his pregnant camel, to insure a healthy birth; everyone with newborn lambs and kids, which were dropped twice a year, built a mud hut for them inside their tents to keep them warm through the night, and crushed date pits in a stone-on-stone method—a characteristic sound on winter mornings—then soaking the broken pits in water to soften them, to feed to the lambs and kids. By the end of the winter, the camp was fairly dirty, and the Dadolzai were eager to change to a new site.

Everybody in the camp was discussing when to migrate and where their destination should be (Salzman, 2000, ch. 7). Jafar, as headman, had to negotiate the different opinions, and, if possible, elicit a consensus. On February 20, the camp migrated 3/4 of a mile to western Pusht-e Kamal, where fresh pasture was expected to appear, and which was not as crowded as Neelagu farther to the west. But the pasture was disappointing, having not come up as expected. After nineteen days, there was a second migration, three miles to the northeast to Be’dak. The pasture was good, but water for the households was not readily available, and, after some days, animals fell ill and died, which was blamed on the location.

After nine days at Be’dak, the camp migrated two miles southwest to Maraj, which had accessible water but little pasturage, especially that favoured by the camels. The fourth migration, after only five days at Maraj, was 24 miles to Garonchin in the southeast. The pasture was good and water was available, although there were many other camps. The camp remained for sixteen days, until it was thought that the pasture was grazed over, and then it migrated four miles to the southeast, deeper into Garonchin, and closer to the boundary of their tribal territory. The pasture was good, and there was access to a well owned by affines. After sixteen days of enjoying the pasture and water, the demands on the water for flocks was greater than the supply, and the camp undertook their sixth migration, twenty-six miles to the northeast to Kwahashkan, not far south of Pushte-Kamal, where they had spend the winter. Sheep pasturage was only fair, but camel pasturage was good, and there was good access to water.

The seventh migration was two miles northeast to Nugju, next to the irrigated agricultural area at Shagbond. Men of the camp helped harvesting the grain. After twenty-one days, when the harvest had revolved the grain and the animals had grazed away the stubble, the camp migrated 1/4 of a mile onto the fields so that the animals would fertilize the fields with their droppings.

The Dadolzai camp migration pattern of spring 1968 illustrates the irregular and unpredictable arrival of fresh pasture, and the use of nomadic migration to relocate where and when pasture is available. Each year the rain and pasture arrives at different times in different places, so each year the camp migration pattern is different from the previous year. Other camps, however, generate different patterns as they try to find pasture, to avoid disease and enemies, to access water, and so on. If the migration patterns of all Yarahmadzai camps were mapped together, we would see many camps crossing the paths of others, going in different or even opposite directions. This is characteristic of the micro-environmental adjustments in desert nomadism.

The Dadolzai camp completed their pastoral migrations in June at the fields of Shagbond. But their migrations were not over. From then on, the migrations were not pastoral. The Dadolzai by July were migrating away from the high plateau, with their tents in storage, and away from their flocks, which remained on the plateau in the hands of a shepherd, through the Morpish Mountains to the east, and down to the lowland (altitude 1,500 feet) drainage basin of Mashkil, where their date palm groves were located. Note that they were going the opposite direction from the Basseri, who spend summer in the mountains and winter on the plains. The Sarhadi Baluch—the Yarahmadzai, Gamshadzai, and other tribes—all had their palm groves and huts in various settlements of the drainage basin. There was a good reason for this. The Sarhad is too cold for date palms, and the water table is very deep, difficult to use for irrigation. The climate of Mashkil, on the other hand, is suitable for date palms, and the water table is high enough, three or four feet from the surface, for the date palms to sink their roots to water. The Mashkil date palms were self-irrigating! This meant that the tribesmen had to tend them only during pollination and the date harvest.

The Dadolzai camp made their 124-mile journey to Mashkil in July, around the northern end of the Morpish Range and through the Mad Shadi River bed, then turned southeast to Gorani, one of the settlements. The trip down by camel took eight days. After two months of harvesting, pitting, and packing dates, it was time in late September to return to the plateau and the flocks. But first a separate trip was made back to the plateau with the camels burdened by heavy bags of dates and date pits. Only after the men returned with the camels could their families and household equipment make the migration back to the highland Sarhad Plateau.

This Sarhadi migration between pastoral and arboricultural areas is not unusual among nomads, who in some cases migrate between sites of different types of production. A well-known example is that of the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard, 1940) of the southern Sudan (now the Republic of South Sudan), who, with their cattle, migrated in the dry season from the hillocks on which they lived and cultivated millet to the rivers where they fished; when the rainy season covered the land with water, the Nuer migrated back to their hillocks, where their cattle could be protected from the water, and they could cultivate millet once again.

Seasonality is a macro-environmental factor, and it affects even desert nomads. We have seen that the Baluchi camps tended to stay settled through the winter, when no new pasture was grown, but then engaged in multiple pastoral migrations in the spring, only to migrate away from their herds entirely for the summer date harvest season. Desert nomads often move out into distant pastures during spring to take advantage of fresh green pasture, but then return to permanent water sites once the torrid summer sun dries up water and pasture.

The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Desert, Steppe, and Mountain Nomads

The influences of seasons and altitude—the “macro-environmental” factors—and annual variations in the amount and timing of precipitation—the “micro-environmental” factors—can be seen among the Bedouin of Cyrenaica, the northeastern third of Libya (Evans-Pritchard, 1949). There are four main geographical zones: in the north, the green, forested plateau at altitudes of 600 to 1,600 feet, with average rainfall between 16 and 20 inches; below 600 feet, the narrow zone of steppe just south of the plateau, averaging 6 inches of rainfall; further to the south, the semi-desert, with an average of 4 inches of rain; and some 150 miles to the south of the plateau, the desert, averaging 2 inches of rain, merging with the rest of the Sahara.

Almost all of the inhabitants of Cyrenaica, leaving aside the small number of townsmen on the coast, have been Bedouin since the Beni Hilal invasions from Arabia in 1050 ce displaced the indigenous Berber tribes, although Arabs first arrived during the invasion of 643 ce. Tent-dwelling Bedouin inhabit all four geographic zones south of the coast. The Bedouin who inhabit the green plateau and the steppe specialize in raising goats, which can thrive on the bushes and trees on the plateau, but they also keep sheep and cattle. They move south off of the plateau in December, and return in May. Evans-Pritchard (1949, p. 35) comments:

There are many advantages in this annual [read: seasonal] move to the south. Rain falls and the grasses spring up in advance of the plateau, and grazing is more abundant and of a better quality. On the other hand, the grasses of the plateau and its southern slopes are still green when the desert grasses, except in specially favoured depressions, are withered. By their annual oscillation the Bedouin thus give their animals the best grazing at all seasons of the year.

Bedouin of the steppe and semi-desert raise sheep and camels, there being no bushes or trees for goats to browse, and insufficient water for cattle. The Bedouin of the desert, “although they possess their own territory or recognized centre, emigrate [read: migrate] for long periods to distant, and not always the same, objectives, and are almost always fractionized into small groups for reasons of watering and pasturing; or … who normally wander in desert territories, giving themselves exclusively to rearing camels” (Evans-Pritchard, 1949, p. 40).

Some authors address the differences among pastoral nomads, such as among the Cyrenaican Bedouin living in different environmental zones, by making classification distinctions among them such as “semi-sedentary,” “semi-nomadic,” and “nomadic,” based on degree of stability and extent of movement. These distinctions do not seem particularly useful. The Bedouin of Cyrenaica, except for the few in towns, are all, whether from the plateau or the deep desert, tent dwellers who move as part of raising their livestock. It is worth noting differences in stability and movement, but to reify them into different “types” of nomads seems artificial, rigid, and a priori. If nomads who differ in stability and movement also differ in other respects, such as bellicosity, then identifying the specific factors involved would be more enlightening than reducing the explanation to types. For example, perhaps the bellicosity of desert Bedouin tribes is not so much a result of their long-distance and erratic migration patterns as it is of being in the deep desert, far from any restraining hand, unlike, say, the plateau Bedouin, closer to the Ottoman authorities, then the Italian authorities, and more recently the Libyan state authorities.

The Rwala Bedouin

The Rwala Bedouin (Lancaster, 1997) of the central Arab lands illustrate well the historical nature of nomadic life. Nomads are not fixed in space or practice according to some ancient pattern, but rather respond in new ways to new circumstances. For example, when in 1958 the Syrian state under the Ba’ath socialist party came down hard on nomads, abolishing tribal law and nationalizing tribally owned agricultural interests, the Rwala sheikhly Sha’alan family, who had not only herding camps but permanent villas, as well as their flocks, fled to Jordan, abandoning their property in Syria (Lancaster, 1997, p. 112). In Jordan, they set about recovering from their losses, undertaking new activities (see section The Rwala Bedouin).

Shepherds of Highland Sardinia: Mountain Nomads

Seasonality and altitudes are decisive factors for some sectoral and individual nomads. The shepherds, pastori, of Villagrande Strisaili town in highland Sardinia, Italy, migrate away from their town seasonally (Salzman, 1999, Ch. 3). Villagrande is on the side of the large semicircular crescent of mountains surrounding the plain of the Ogliastra region, and looking east to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Villagrande town can be hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

To avoid exposing their sheep and goats to these extremes of heat and cold, the shepherds of Villagrande left their families in the town and migrated, in a type of transhumance, with their flocks down the mountains to the warmer coastal plain in the winter, and up to the cooler top of the mountains in the summer. In each location—high mountains and coastal plain—the shepherds had permanent bases, sheep stations, called ovili, from which they would take their sheep and goats to different pastures in the vicinity. An ovile would usually consist of a small, roughly finished main building, and a corral. It was in the ovile building that the shepherds made cheese wheels—pecorino cheese from sheep’s milk, caprino from goat’s milk, and sometimes cheese from a mix of sheep and goat milk—from the milk of their flocks. These wheels of cheese provided food for the immediate needs of the shepherds, but most would be brought to town, where there would be stowed to season in the cool basement cantina, su bashu in Sardinian. As the cheese seasoned, stagionato, it got stronger, and different degrees of strength were deemed appropriate for different categories of people: six-month-old cheese was for women and children; one-year-old cheese was for men; and two-year-old cheese, which had the orange, translucent color of amber, was for shepherds.

Some wheels of cheese receive special treatment. A hole about an inch wide is cut in the top, allowing flies to settle on the cheese. The flies lay their eggs in cheese, and the larvae hatch and live in the cheese, eating cheese and excreting, or processing if you prefer, the cheese into what the Sardinians call crema, a white, soft, thick, smooth product. When Sardinians serve this cheese, they cut it open and scoop up the larvae and crema with bread, enjoying the slightly picante, strong or spicy, taste. The cheese is called formaggio marcio, rotten cheese, and is a specialty of the region.

The Yomut Turkmen of Northeastern Iran: Steppe and Steppe-Desert Nomads

The Yomut Turkmen (Irons, 1975), like the Cyrenaican Bedouin, occupy different geographical zones, and thus follow different migration patterns. Their home region, the Gurgon Plain, lies north of the forests on the north face of the Elburz Mountains that stretch east-west in the north of Iran. To the west of Turkmen territory is the Caspian Sea, moist clouds of which hit the northern face of the Elburz and drop heavy rainfall. The northern provinces of Iran are moist and green, quite different from the dry and brown characteristic of the rest of Iran. The Turkman region north of the Elburz forest zone is, first, steppe, and then steppe-desert, increasingly dryer as you go farther north from the forest zone.

The Yomut, just north of the forest, migrated north to the Gurgan River during the spring and remained during the dry season (summer and fall). Proximity to the river gave them easy access to water (Irons, 1975, p. 25). However, another important reason for this migration was to get away from the predatory flies and mosquitoes of the forest zone, which threaten the health of both Turkmen and livestock alike. They returned south, closer to the forest zone, during the wet season. The Turkmen north of the river also migrated in the spring, but south to the river, remaining there during the dry season, and returning north to the fresh pastures of the wet season (winter and spring). During the wet season, the herds were kept close to the camps so that the animals could be milked daily. Also during this season the lambs and kids were dropped, and they needed their mothers to suckle. When pasture was exhausted in an area, the camp would migrate a short distance to another pasture. During the dry season, when pasture was meager and milk limited, and the lambs and kids were old enough to be mobile, the camps with women, children, and elders remained at permanent water sources, while the younger men, living in a separate, mobile camp, took the flocks out to pasture. The Turkmen farther north in the dryer steppe-desert zone followed a different migration plan (Irons, 1975, pp. 32–34, Figure 5). In the wet season, the camps and livestock made short migrations in all directions to the fresh pastures. During the dry season, the main camps stayed near permanent water sources, wells, and the young men formed another camping group to take them either north to the Atrak River or south to the Gurgan River, to graze on the stubble of cultivation.

The Turkmen mobile dwelling is the yurt, characteristic of Central Asian nomads (Irons, 1975, pp. 22). It is more suitable than the goat-hair tent for the colder winters in the north. The yurt is dome-shaped, with a framework of curved wooden spars connecting at the top and a latticework of wood around the circumference. This yurt frame is covered with thick felt, which is made by pressing wool. Felt is also used for rugs and other household equipment. When young men manned the separate livestock camps, they occupied simple, easily portable, tents similar to lean-tos. All of the Turkmen, whatever their productive regime, lived in yurts. Turkmen did not have stationary dwellings, huts or houses, except when they were forcibly settled by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the king of Iran, in 1936–1941. With the fall of Reza Shah, the Turkmen tore down their huts and returned to living in yurts (Irons, 1975, p. 32).

Among the Yomut Turkmen, every household migrated. The Turkmen were responding to two macro-environmental factors: seasonal change and the presence of rivers. This meant that the migrations were fairly regular and predictable. At the same time, the migrations tended to be short rather than long. Furthermore, family and community migrations were limited to the wet season, while in the dry season some younger men separated from their families and communities to migrate with livestock camps.

The splitting of families contrasts with the family and community migrations of the Basseri, Baluch, and Bedouin nomads. However, separate herding camps manned by young men is a well-established pattern among nomads. For example, we often see this pattern among East African pastoralists. The Karimojong (Dyson-Hudson, 1966) divide into permanent settled communities in the center of their territory and migratory cattle camps run by young men. So too with the Maasai (Spear & Waller, 1993), who maintain largely permanent settlements occupied by elders, women, and children, which the young men, moran, migrate with the cattle and live with them in cattle camps.

Luries of Baluchistan

The Luries (Salzman, 2000) are itinerant craftsmen: blacksmiths and woodworkers. Prior to the arrival of manufactured goods in Baluchistan in the 1940s, tools and pots were made by the Luries on order by the Baluch pastoralists. By the 1970s, manufactured pots and other containers were in use in Baluchistan, but there were still items either particular to tent life or available at lower prices produced by the Luries. The Baluch cooked by placing a Lurie-made metal tripod on legs over the small twig fire in the center of their tents. Bread was baked on a Lurie-made large metal disk, and other dishes cooked in pots resting on the tripod. Luries made scissors, dokarch (“two blades”), the blades attached at the top with a wooden peg, that the Baluch used for fleecing sheep, goats, and camels. Constructed with thin metal teeth fitted in a wooden handle, a beater, or comb, used in weaving to tighten each warp thread against the completed part of the cloth, was made by Luries; Luries also made the wooden, horizontal loom, secured by pegs in the ground, that the Baluch used for weaving, and which was fairly portable, being a half dozen or so wooden poles. The flat wooden blocks at the top of tent poles were made by Luries. Anything that the Baluch needed in iron or wood, the Luries could provide.

Making a Living

Generally speaking, nomadism is almost always about making a living by drawing on spatially dispersed resources. Making a living, more formally called “economics,” includes two separate processes: production and distribution, or making things and passing them out to recipients. One general consideration in understanding production is whether everyone in the community or society is engaged in more or less the same kind of production, producing the same products in the same way. Alternatively, we can ask whether different people or different groups in the community or society are engaged in producing different products; in other words, whether there is a division of labor. Of course, there are many gradations between everyone doing the same things and everyone doing different things. This could be reflected in the difference between society-wide nomadism, in which mostly everyone is nomadic, and sectoral nomadism, in which only those engaged in a particular kind of production are nomadic, while others, producing in other ways, are sedentary. In the cases mentioned above, the Basseri, the Baluch, and Bedouin were society-wide pastoral nomads, while the Sardinian pastore were sectoral nomads, those Sardinians not pursuing pastoralism being sedentary.

A second issue related to production is whether the nomads are specializing, producing one main product or a limited range of related products, or generalizing, producing a wide range of different products. The Basseri are quite specialized, producing mainly sheep, while the Baluch are generalized, producing a wide range of products.

A general consideration in distribution is whether the products are consumed by their producers, which is called subsistence production, or whether the products are exchanged with other people for other products, which is called market production. The Basseri and the Bedouin are largely market producers, selling or trading their pastoral products; the Baluch are largely subsistence producers, consuming most of what they produce; and the Sardinian highlanders are perhaps midway between subsistence and market production, consuming half of what they produce and selling or exchanging the other half. Once again, there are many gradations between consuming all of your products and selling all of your products. We would not have trouble finding ethnographic cases to fit many of those intermediate gradations.

The above questions take us more deeply into the lives of nomads than do the labels that we use for them. For example, we say “pastoral nomad,” which indicates that the nomads raise livestock on natural pasture. But such labels simplify, essentialize, and misrepresent a reality that is always more complex. Most people do more than one thing to make a living.

Basseri of South Persia

For the Basseri (Barth, 1961, pp. 6–10) of the Zagros Mountains in southern Iran, raising sheep and goats is their specialization. From their animals they receive milk, which they drink as a staple food, or dried for future consumption, or made into butter, including clarified butter, which can stored without refrigeration. As flocks consist of mainly fertile females, with only a few males to cover them, most male lambs and kids are slaughtered or sold. Sheep’s wool and goat’s hair are spun and woven for rugs and bags, or sold in the marketplace. Hunting and gathering plays a very minor part in the Basseri economy; primarily the object is recreation. Many necessities are bought, including tools and equipment, cloth, leather goods, and food, especially flour (bread being eaten at every meal), dates, fruits and vegetables, and sugar.

The Komachi of Central Iran

The Komachi (Bradburd, 1990, p. 60) specialized in small stock:

Komachi raised both Kashmir goats and fat-tailed sheep. These animals produced meat, which the Komachi sold (on the hoof) and occasionally ate, wool and cashmere (kork) that the Komachi sold, and a variety of dairy products including milk, which the Komachi converted to yogurt for their own consumption, clarified butter, which they both sold and ate, and a dried whey, kashk, which they both sold and consumed as a staple of their diet.

While the Komachi consumed milk products and occasionally meat that they produced, their production was heavily market-oriented. So too with consumption: as Bradburd (1990, p. 61) says, aside from milk and meat, “virtually everything the Komachi consumed was purchased in the market.” Most important was wheat, because bread was a main staple (Bradburd, 1990, p. 62). Other purchases included sugar, tea, rice, salt, onions, garlic, and spices, among food products. They bought goat hair to weave tent panels, and also clothing, blankets, pots and pans, matches, tobacco, and water for animals in winter quarters, plus truck transportation for the fall migration.

The Bedouin of Eastern Libya

The Bedouin of Cyrenaica, Libya, prized their livestock, but engaged seriously in grain cultivation. As Evans-Pritchard (1949, p. 37) says, “Although the Bedouin are by practice and inclination shepherds first and cultivators afterwards, all plough. Barley and some wheat are staple food.” The Bedouin did cover their own needs for wheat and barley, the latter necessary to feed horses, but in times of peace they produced a substantial surplus, particularly of barley, much of which was sold to English brewers, providing a good income (Evans-Pritchard, 1949, p. 38). Their pastoral production also produced a substantial surplus in livestock, most exported to Egypt in the form of live animals, up to 100,000–150,000 sheep and goats and 600 camels, and clarified butter, 91,835 kilograms in 1922 (Evans-Pritchard, 1949, p. 37).

The Rwala Bedouin

At the turn of the 20th century, “the Rwala economy was based on camels. Most food, transport and wealth came from camels” (Lancaster, 1997, p. 139). But the situation was more complex than these statements indicate. Wealth was not equivalent to camel ownership. Camels were the means to wealth, which for the Rwala was reputation. A Rwala family could live on fifteen to twenty camels, and more camels do not increase how much milk you want to drink. With fifty or more camels, a family ran out of labor power and had to employ herders and guards, because raiding for camels was a population Bedouin sport. So large herds were not that useful, and were a precarious possession.

What then was wealth among the Rwala? Lancaster (1997, p. 140) explains: “Useful wealth in the desert must be highly mobile, easily preservable and non-stealable—in other words non-material, like reputation.” How did you gain reputation? By giving camels away to others. Where did the camels come from? From raiding. So success in raiding and generosity in gifting camels was the foundation of Rwala reputation.

The Nuer of the Southern Sudan

The Nuer (Evans-Pritchard, 1940) of the southern Sudan are a famously cattle-centric people. As described by Evans-Pritchard (1940, p. 16),

[A]t heart they are herdsmen, and the only labour in which they delight is care of cattle. They not only depend on cattle for many of life’s necessities but they have the herdman’s outlook on the world. Cattle are their dearest possession and they gladly risk their lives to defend their herds or to pillage those of their neighbours. Most of their social activities concern cattle and cherchez la vache is the best advice that can be given to those who desire to understand Nuer behaviour.

Every important event, such as life cycle rituals and marriage, is expressed through the exchange or sacrifice of cattle. Men are often called by the name of their favourite ox, and women by the name of oxen or cattle that they milk. This obsession of the Nuer with cattle frustrated their anthropologist. According to Evans-Pritchard (1940, p. 19),

Start on whatever subject I would, and approach it from whatever angle, we would soon be speaking of cows and oxen, heifers and steers, rams and sheep, he-goats and she-goats, calves and lambs and kids … Nuer tend to define all social processes and relationships in terms of cattle. Their social idiom is a bovine idiom.

Milk is one of the staple foods of the Nuer, and is eaten every day. A limited amount of blood is also taken from live cattle to be consumed. When a cow or ox dies, or is sacrificed, the meat is eaten. The Nuer do not generally slaughter their livestock, which is their capital resource, but mostly live on the renewable products: milk and blood. The Nuer draw on many other products of their cattle: dung for fuel and construction material; skins for beds, trays, cord, collars, drums, shields, containers; horns for spoons and harpoons; urine for cheese making, for tanning leather, and for bathing face and hands, and brushing teeth (Evans-Pritchard, 1940, pp. 28, 30).

However, even Nuer cannot live on cattle alone. The reality is that the “Nuer must have a mixed economy in the given oecological relations because no one source of food is sufficient to keep them alive” (Evans-Pritchard, 1940, p. 81). Nuer staple foods are milk and millet. Millet is made into a (not very palatable) porridge, and eaten with milk or roasted blood poured over it (Evans-Pritchard, 1940, pp. 21, 28).

[M]illet … is an essential food, … Nuer fully acknowledge that this is so and in no way despise horticulture, but are, on the whole, industrious gardeners.

Nevertheless, they consider that horticulture is an unfortunate necessity involving hard and unpleasant labour and not an ideal occupation …

(Evans-Pritchard, 1940, p. 80)

Millet is grown in the wet season (July–November) on the low mounds that the Nuer occupy. But when the waters recede into rivers during the dry season (December–June), the Nuer leave their village mounds and millet patches and migrate to the riversides. With the decline of millet availability, at the riversides the Nuer draw on a new resource: fish.

In choosing camp sites opportunities for fishing are considered no less than water and pasturage. Nevertheless, Nuer do not regard themselves as water-people, and despise people like the Shilluk who, they say, live mainly by fishing and hunting hippopotami. In spite of this suggestion of superiority Nuer enjoy fishing and the feeling of well-being a full fish diet gives them.

(Evans-Pritchard, 1940, p. 70)

The self-identification of the Nuer as specialist cattle breeders is legitimate—who can tell people how they should think of themselves?—but it does not describe fully their economic and ecological reality. With millet and fish providing necessary staple foods, the Nuer economy has to be considered, as Evans-Pritchard put it, “mixed,” or as we have labeled it, “generalized.” One further source of food for the Nuer is hunting, which they despise, in spite of the fact that there are many wild animals in Nuerland, but will undertake in extremity, for example when many cattle have died in an epidemic, the millet has failed, or the fish have not come.

Unlike the Basseri and the Bedouin, who sell or exchange many or most of their products and thus have market-oriented production, the Nuer neither sell their products or buy products, and so can be considered to have a subsistence economy, consuming all that they produce. Unlike the Basseri, who lived among Persian agricultural villages, town, and cities, and the Cyrenaican Bedouin, who had access to coast towns and caravan routes to Egypt, the Nuer in southern Sudan, surrounded by other peoples with subsistence economies, were geographically remote from towns, cities, and markets. Their first contact with markets was the invasion by Arab slave traders who wished to capture Nuer and sell them at slave markets (Johnson, 1994).

The Yarahmadzai of Highland Baluchistan, Iran

When I asked Yarahmadzai nomads what they did for a living, they would say “I am a wasildar, a property owner, a livestock owner.” The implication was that they were people of substance, independent, able to live on what was theirs. These Sarhadi Baluch (Salzman, 2000, ch. 4) had herds that were around two-thirds goats and one-third sheep. They also had camels, primarily for baggage, but also to ride. I once complained about all of the goat turds in the tents, saying that the goats and sheep dirtied the human living space. The lady to whom I was speaking rebuked me, saying vigorously that I was wrong, the sheep and goats—labeled in Baluchi pas for both (i.e., pas means small stock, both sheep and goats)—were clean, and that the Baluch loved their animals. (In an Islamic ritual sense, some animals are clean, such as sheep, goats, camels, cattle, and horses, while others are dirty, such as dogs and pigs.) Certainly the pas and camels were central to Yarahmadzai productive strategy. They relied on the pas for sustenance consumption and on the camels for mobility.

The primary product of pas was milk, which was consumed at each meal, according to availability. It was drunk fresh and sweet, sour, half sour and half fresh, churned into butter, and separated into clarified butter, and it was dried into solids, which could be stored and restored to liquid when needed. The main style of meal among the Yarahmadzai nomads was hatuk, which consisted of bread broken into a bowl of liquid. A common meal when milk was available was shiri hatuk, or bread broken in milk. In times of drought and famine, bread was broken into water, called abi hatuk. For festivities and guests, when one or more animals were slaughtered, there was gushti hatuk, bread broken into meat gravy, with the meat served on a separate plate. Often on such occasions, guests ate out of the same large bowl. Sometimes some clarified butter, which could be kept even in the heat, would be added to a milk hatuk. Clarified butter, rogani pas, oil of sheep-goat milk, was a delicacy and luxury, consumed in small amounts, and sometimes sold or exchanged. It was made by placing milk in a sheep skin hung from a tripod, and then shaken and shaken. The thrump-thrump-thrump of churning milk was a characteristic sound in spring herding camps.

The Baluch extracted many other important products from their animals. Goat hair was spun and woven into tent roofs. Sheep’s, goat’s, and camel’s hair and wool was spun and woven into many household items: rugs to sit on, large envelopes to store foodstuffs and other materials, large bags for storage and transportation, saddlebags, and ropes to hold the tent up, to tether the animals, and to make a web separating animal from human areas in the tent. Goat and sheep skins were treated and made into water and milk containers, for storage, travel, and churning. Meat was eaten on special occasions, either ritual or hospitality events, or if an animal was likely to die.

Those not in the livestock business can be satisfied referring to small and large stock, or sheep, goats, and camels. But the Baluch needed a more refined way of thinking and talking about livestock. It is no surprise that they had elaborate categories and labels for their animals.

Table 1. Categories and Labels for Pas Small Stock.

Age & Sex

Sah Pas (Black small stock: goats)

Sepid Pas (White small stock: sheep)

<6 months







6 months–2 years







2–7 years







>7 years


Pir Gwarant

Pir pachen




Source: (Salzman, 2000), p. 95

Table 2. Categories and Labels for camels.







6 months



1 year



2 years



3–8 years



>10 years

Pira jurt

Pira lira

Source: (Salzman, 2000), p. 103

Unlike small stock, where a sex ratio heavily weighted to reproductive females is maintained, male camels are highly regarded for their strength and speed, so the sex ratio maintained for camels is more or less evenly balanced between males and females. However, not all camels are the same; some are elegant, highly prized riding camels, mahri rud bari; some are good riding camels, mahri dashti; and some are less refined beasts of burden, bari, which, while not prized, are necessary for migration. These differences are reflected in prices of the different categories; for example, a two-year-old female riding camel might claim more than twice the price of a two-year-old female burden camel. But even in the case of camels, a fertile female is worth more than a male of the same category.

The main staples of the Sarhadi Baluch, other than milk and butter, are bread and dates. The Baluch, like the Bedouin, all cultivate. Many cultivate grains—wheat and barley—on the high plateau, in a small-scale, opportunistic fashion. Double cropping of winter wheat and summer barley is sometimes followed. The problem with cultivation on the plateau is the same as the problem with pasture: too little rain, too irregularly. Ideally, the Baluch would be able to irrigate. The traditional form of irrigation in Iran is the qanat, an underground tunnel that taps the water table at an altitude higher than the area to be cultivated and brings water through gravity to a lower altitude at a gradation slightly less than the land is falling, so that the tunnel gradually comes to the surface and its water is available for irrigation. Such tunnels in many cases are ten, twenty, or even thirty miles long. Qanat require a large capital investment and the maintenance costs are high, and for this reason they were beyond the means of Sarhadi Baluch. So the expedient followed by the Yarahmadzai was to look to runoff water from natural channels in hills and mountains, building a mud fence, called a gwarband, around a small area at the bottom of the channel and sowing that area with seeds. If it rained, there would be a small crop; if it did not, only the seed would be lost. This method of cultivation did not require ongoing attention from the planter, who could carry on with nomadic movement without having to return to his patch of cultivation except for a happy harvest. This cultivation provided at least a partial source of grain for bread.

Date cultivation was a rather different matter: it was reliable, and there was always a good harvest. Dates are full of nutrients, and they can be stored and eaten throughout the year. But the date groves were located down off the plateau, on the other side of the Morpish Mountains, at the lowland drainage basin, the Hamuni Mashkil. Going there was the longest migration of the year for the Sarhadis. Date palms grew at Mashkil because the temperature was warm, warmer than the cold plateau, and because the water table was close to the surface, so the palms could irrigate themselves by sinking their roots into the water. Palms would throw up new plant suckers at their bases, and these could be removed and replanted as separate palms.

There are male and female date palms, and for the production of dates, the pollen of the male must reach the flower of the female. The Baluch did not leave mating to the uncertain wind; in spring they systematically pollinated their palms by cutting off the male flowers and inserting female flowers. By the end of summer, the palms were rich in bunches of dates. The Baluch secure them to the palms in large, palm-frond woven baskets, so that they will not fall as they ripen. When the dates are ripe, the bunches are cut and lowered in their basket. Then there is a big packing job, using sheepskins for dates that can be stored with their pits and large wool bags for dates that have been pitted.

The Sarhadi tribes were fierce and ruthless predatory raiders, striking out, not against other Baluchi tribes, but against Persian villages and caravans. General R. E. H. Dyer, who during World War I led an expedition against the Sarhadi tribes, especially the Yarahmadzai, called his book, published in 1921, Raiders of the Sarhad. Coleridge Kennard (quoted in Salzman, 2000, p. 134) was caught during the 1920s in the path of a Yarahmadzai raid, and had to scurry away to escape. Rosita Forbes says in her 1931 book (quoted in Salzman, 2000, p. 134): “Throughout the ages Kerman [Province in south central Iran] has suffered from locusts and Baluchis. The former destroyed the crops and the latter carried off the women. There is a Persian proverb which affirms that ‘Isfahan will be destroyed by water, Yezd by sand and Kerman by horsehoofs.”

Yarahmadzai informants confirmed that raiding was one of the main columns of their economy prior to 1935. Their sardar, or chief, led two large expeditions each year, and other Baluch were free to form their own raiding parties and ride off at their convenience. There was an elder in the Dadolzai camp called Walli Mahmud. He had as a young teenager, maybe fourteen years old, gone on a raiding expedition again Persian villages in Kerman Province, captured a young girl, brought her back to Baluchistan, and married her, without, of course, paying any bride price. She had lived with him for many decades, was a matriarch of the Dadolzai, and was a great-grandmother, this couple having many descendants. This turned out to be a happy result for this lady, but for many others the results were less fortunate. For the Baluch were slave raiders, selling some of their captives to others, and keeping some to do undesirable tasks such as cultivation.

Wives and slaves were not the only products of raiding. Livestock was captured and brought back. Valuables such as jewelry and carpets were swept up. Stores of grain were valuable prizes. In all, raiding brought back to harsh Baluchistan many assets of value to the Baluch trying to scrape a living there. Baluch could bridge drought and famine years with the income from raiding. The Baluch were not, of course, alone among pastoral nomads in their depredations. Many other pastoral nomads engaged in predatory raiding, including Bedouin (Lancaster, 1981), Nuer (Evans-Pritchard, 1940), East African nomadic tribes (McCabe, 2004), Turkmen (Irons, 1975), Iranian Zagros tribes, and the tribes north of China (Barfield, 1989). Some tribes, such as the Bedouin (Lancaster, 1981) and the Turkmen (Irons, 1975), also engaged in extortion, the protection racket, through threats of predatory raiding. This too was lucrative, without being as risky or messy as raiding. These tribal raids was one of the main reasons that states have always tried to conquer and suppress independent tribes; states need to exploit villages and merchants themselves in order to balance their budgets, and do not want tribes stealing their loot.

Highland Sardinians

Until the 20th century, highland Sardinians were in most ways isolated from the wider world. In fact, the reason that many Sardinians lived in the mountains was to avoid the impositions of the wider world, and to maintain their independence and autonomy. Economically, highland Sardinian communities were autarkies, disengaged from those outside their communities, having a closed economy. The large agro-pastoral towns had large territories, from which plots were allocated on a usufruct contract (they could be held as long as they were used, but could not be sold) to community members for sheep stations and for cultivation.

Within highland communities, such as Villagrande Strisaili, economic production was, to a large degree, subsistence-oriented, with the Villagrandesi consuming most of what they produced. However, not all Villagrandesi produced exactly the same things. One division was between shepherds, pastori, who specialized in raising sheep and goats and who produced cheese especially favored to be grated on pasta, and cultivators, who specialized in grain cultivation. But most Sardinian families produced a wide range of products.

Shepherd families had gardens tended by the women where they produced vegetables and herbs, as did the families of grain cultivators. Some women also tended smaller grain fields. Many families had fruit trees, and olive trees were widespread for the production of olive oil. There were many vineyards, and many households made their own wine. One or two pigs were raised by many families, to provide prosciutto and sausage for the family throughout the year. Chickens provided eggs and meat.

A typical basement—cantina in Italian, su bashu in Sardinian—of a highland stone house contained pigs’ legs covered in salt hung from the rafters air-curing, great bottles of homemade wine, shelves holding wheels of sheep’s- or goat’s-milk cheese, large jars of preserved tomato paste, jars of preserved vegetables and fruits, and bottles of olive oil. Of course, not every household produced everything, and lacks were filled by small-scale trading within the community: cheese for grain; olive oil for vegetables, wine for sausages, and so on. But mainly this was a subsistence production regime.

The ideal meal in Sardinia in the late 20th century drew on all the elements of local production. First, there was the antipasto, which commonly consisted of slices of prosciutto or salami, and olives. Wine always accompanied the meal; men always drank red wine, women always watered their wine, and children were given watered sips. Next there was the primo piatto, the first dish, which was almost always one of the many kinds of pasta, or a soup with pasta. Very often the pasta was embellished with tomato sauce, its sharpness cut by the grated pecorino cheese. This was followed by the secondo piatto, the second dish, which was a meat dish, often pork of some variety, sometimes lamb or mutton. The secondo was joined by contorni, side dishes of vegetables. After the secondo came the formaggio, eating cheese, always a wedge of pecorino. Then the dolce, the sweet, usually baked cake or cookies. Finally, fruita, fruit. This ideal meal—which might have been influenced by mainland Italy, or, as the Sardinians say, the peninsula—was always served at festas (holidays) and for guests. Daily meals could be somewhat more truncated, for example, if the padrone (male head of household) was off in a sheep station, or if the household was poor. This meal, ideal or truncated, is only for the main meal of the day, pranzo, served at midday, commonly in early afternoon, such as 2:00 p.m. Breakfast is often only a cup of espresso, not uncommonly taken in a bar. Children often get little more than some dry cookies. Dinner, in early evening, is light and modest.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were important changes, especially for the shepherds. The large Italian emigrant population that landed in North and South America still wanted cheese to grate on their pasta, but, as there was no local production in the Americas, or at least no local production that was comparable, pecorino, sheep’s-milk cheese, became a serious export market for Italy, and the demand increased exponentially. In the 1930s, cheese factories were set up in Sardinia to produce pecorino. Shepherds began to sell milk to the dairies, and to increase their flocks so as to increase their milk production. Sardinian shepherds sold their winter milk to the factories, but made their own cheese from summer milk, which benefits in taste from the mountain herbs the flocks consume. There was a large increase in the sheep population in highland Sardinia, and communal lands become overgrazed. When after World War II the peasant population of Tuscany abandoned the fields on which they had been employed to work, escaping to Milan and Turin to work in factories and stores, many Sardinian shepherds made a permanent migration with their flocks to Tuscany, putting the land to work as pasture.

The Yomut Turkmen of Northeastern Iran

Different Yomut pursued different ways of making a living. Many were rainfall grain cultivators, specializing in wheat and barley (Irons, 1975, pp. 22–25). These Yomut were called chomir. They lived in the south of the Yomut territory, south of the Gurgan River, adjacent to the forest zone occupied by Persian- and Turkic-speaking sedentary peasants. Sometimes, near a river or spring, they could grow a small patch of rice. There was plenty of land, so the amount of land cultivated could expand to the limits of labour available. The chomir also kept livestock, and the surplus of land to population meant that there were pastures available. Yomut specializing in livestock were called charwa (Irons, 1975, p. 25). They lived north of the Gurgan River. The charwa cultivated barley and rarely grain, depending on depressions that collected water in rainy years.

Chomir and charwa were not social or political categories, still less caste categories. They were all Yomut tribesmen and kinsmen. Every Yomut tribe had both in its territory. However, herding as an occupation was preferred to cultivating. And charwa herders tended to be wealthier than chomir cultivators. Successful cultivators might buy more livestock and move north to become charwa, while charwa who fell on hard times might move south and take up cultivating (Irons, 1975, pp. 26–27). One factor was disease: malaria was endemic in the forest and adjacent zones, so the southern chomir area was considered more unhealthy than the northern, pastoral zones.

Both chomir and charwa produced for subsistence and for market exchange. Internal to the Yomut, the chomir could offer barley and wheat for exchange, while the charwa could offer livestock, wool, felts, and carpets (Irons, 1975, p. 26). Some chomir produced the wooden frames for yurts for the internal economy. Many other products were purchased from external, urban markets or traveling merchants: “rice, sugar, tea, salt, cloth, metal tools, rifles, and gunpowder (Irons, 1975, p. 26).” The charwa had also to acquire wheat, because bread was their staple. For grinding grain into flour, the Yomut depended upon mills in peasant territory to the south.

The Yomut, like the Sarhadi Baluch, were not just mild-mannered cultivators and meticulous husbanders and herders; they were also ruthless and brutal armed predators. During the Qajar dynasty in Iran, up to 1925, the government was weak and unable to impose effective control over the Turkmen, as it had been unable to impose effective control over the Baluch. The left the Turkmen able to engage in predation against the surrounding Persian and Kurdish populations. One Yomut initiative was extortion. The Yomut practiced the protection racket against communities in the forest zone. They would say something like: “Oh, what a lovely village and mill you have there. It would be an awful shame if anything happened to it, such as burning down. Let us help you. For only twenty-four large bags of wheat flour per year, we will protect you against attackers [such as ourselves] and you can rest easy in security. No, no, do not thank us; it is our pleasure [and profit].” To perform this extortion, the otherwise egalitarian Yomut appointed a special official, the thaqlau, “protector.” Irons (1975, p. 68) describes the procedures:

The thaqlau of each tribe collected an annual tribute from the sedentary Welayet [forest zone] villages immediately south of his tribe’s territory and in return he agreed not to raid those villages and to protect them from raids by other members of his tribe or by other tribes. To prevent raids by his own tribe, he would give a share of the tribute collected to the more successful organizers of raids among his own tribe in return for a promise not to raid the villages protected. To prevent raids by other tribes, he would call on the assistance of those with whom he shared the tribute, and he would also, in some cases, hire armed retainers to act as additional deterrents. The thaqlau would also agree that, if he were unsuccessful in preventing raids, he would compensate the protected villagers at an agreed rate.

Of course, the Yomut Turkmen are not the only nomads who have used their military prowess to extort riches from settled populations. The Rwala Bedouin of northern Arabia, Syria, and Jordan (Lancaster, 1997, pp. 121–123) worked an elaborate system called khuwa:

[Khuwa] is not extortion, it is not ‘protection’ money (although for ease I’ve used this word previously), it is not a tax. It is (or rather was) the payment of a negotiable sum of money or goods to opt out of the economy of raiding … [R]aiding was the mainstay of the Rwally economy, so those who did not wish to take part paid ‘brotherhood’ to those most likely to raid them.

(Lancaster, 1997, p. 121)

As among the Yomut, “for the payment of a fairly moderate sum [to the Rwala strongman] the khuwa-payer had the territory fully policed with compensation for those who suffered from breaches of the peace (Lancaster, 1997, p. 122).” Irons calls payment for not being raided “protection,” while Lancaster calls it “opt[ing] out of the economy of raiding.” This seems to me a distinction without a difference. Peasants, caravans, and towns paid likely attackers not to be attacked; this is a pretty clear case of extortion.

The Yomut did not limit themselves to extortion. They had another lucrative enterprise: slave raiding (Irons, 1975, p. 67). The Turkmen raided widely among Persian- and Kurdish-speaking peasant villages and towns in northeastern Iran. In many villages, keeps (strong fort-like constructions) had been built as a defense against Turkmen raids. In northern Khorasan, what appeared to be approaching sandstorms were caused by the horse hoofs of threatening Turkmen. Prior to the imperial expansion of Russia into Central Asia in the late 19th century, Turkmen transported their many captives to Central Asian slave markets in Khiva, Bukhara, and Merv. Even after the closing of the great slave markets, Yomut slave-raided for small children, especially among the Kurdish peasants in the vicinity of Bujnurd, because those captured as small children were less likely to escape Yomut territory. Adult captives were held for ransom.


Nomadism, the repeated movement of the residence, is an important technique in making a living. Nomadism allows people to exploit dispersed resources, such as grass, bushes, and trees for livestock consumption and water for both human and livestock consumption. Nomadism also allows exploitation of spatially separated resources, such as pasture in dry areas and cultivation in wetter areas. Nomadism therefore facilitates production in regions of low production where sedentary strategies of production would be at risk.

In some communities and societies, everyone is nomadic. In others, there are different productive sectors, for example one engaged in cultivation with the other pastoral, so that only members of one sector are nomadic. In other communities and societies, some members of families are nomadic, while others remain stationary.

Nomadic communities can put their mobility to nonagricultural uses, such as military attack, escape from threats, imposition of extortion on sedentary communities, and trade. Nomadism is a technique that has a wide range of uses, and it is common that nomadic peoples will use it for more than one purpose.


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