Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Nomadism: A socio-ecological mode of culture

R. Merkle

Centre for Development Studies, Institute of Geographical Sciences, Free University of Berlin, Germany


The paper presents the concept of nomadism as a socio-ecological mode of culture as developed by Scholz (1995) in his landmark work throughout the Old World Dry Belt of northern Africa, and across western and central Asia. He defines nomadism as a region-specific, temporally and spatially ubiquitous survival strategy that was based on subsistence and coexisted as an alternative to the sedentary cultures of agricultural and urban societies. The disruptive changes that have taken place in the life of nomads will be described and perspectives for a sustainable development of their environment, the drylands of the Old World, will be given.

Keywords: Old World Dry Belt, pastoral nomadism


Land degradation and ecosystem decline in drylands have prompted major changes in global perceptions of land use in these regions. Consequently, such perceptions found their expression in the formulation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. These drylands are mainly distributed in the great arid belt of the Old World, commonly referred to as the 'Old World Dry Belt', which stretches from Mauritania in western Africa to Mongolia in Central Asia, which FAO (1993) classified 91% of its surface as potential rangeland (Figure 1).

Source: Scholz (1995).

Figure 1. Distribution of namadism in the world.

Apart from scattered and locally concentrated oasis farming, this region has been traditionally used by pastoral nomads. In a generally inhospitable physical environment, pastoral nomads have developed a very complex system of using rangeland resources and maintaining grazing capacity of these barren lands to survive. Increasingly, however, pastoralists find themselves confronted with expanding insecurities in a rapidly changing world, caught between a mobile past and a sedentary future. In the ensuing discussion, I will briefly introduce the concept of nomadism formulated by Scholz (1995).1 Pastoral nomadism is seen as a 'socio-ecological mode of culture' and is seen as the only way to guarantee a sustainable livelihood that exploits the extensive but seasonal grassland of the steppes and the mountains of this region.2 I will then describe the two aspects of the concept-the 'thesis of origin' and the 'thesis of decline', then sketch the present situation of nomadism, and finally present future scenarios for nomadism in the future.

Nomadism as a socio-ecological mode of culture

With the domestication of wild graziers of the Old World Dry Belt, pastoral nomadism has been the dominant livelihood throughout most of the region's history. Nomadism is a strategy to optimise use of available natural resources and capitalise on socio-political conditions. While often ridiculed as primitive or even 'incomplete' by outsiders,3 it is in fact a highly sophisticated adaptation for exploiting energy captured in the grasslands of the region. Livestock most effectively harvest the limited vegetation that humans cannot eat, and can harvest it over large distances. Livestock thus was and still is the central and functional link between human necessity and the social and physical environment. The specific characteristics of livestock, in turn, contribute decisively to the diversity of nomadism in the region. For example, yak survive better at high altitudes than lowland bovines and arid regions favour camels compared to horses. In addition, the compositions of herds reflect both ecological variables and cultural preferences.4

It was mobility that was the very essence of herding. Pastoral nomads in the Old World Dry Belt, whether in the savannahs of Africa, the steppes of central Asia or the high altitude pastures of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, have always needed to move their animals regularly to make use of the spatial and temporal patchiness of grassland resources. Nomadism was therefore more than just an ecological adaptation or an adaptation to the political environment. It was a 'region-specific, temporally and spatially ubiquitous survival strategy, an independent socio-ecological mode of culture' (Figure 2) which was based on subsistence and coexisted as an alternative to the sedentary cultures of agricultural and urban societies (Scholz 1995).

Source: Scholz (1995).

Figure 2. Model of the ontological theory of nomadism as a socio-economic mode of culture.

The thesis of origin and of decline

On the basis of ideas, viewpoints and findings of economic and social history, and of anthropological archaeology, Scholz (1995) comes to the conclusion that, given a certain regionally specific, ecological and socio-political setting, nomadism as a strategy developed repeatedly in new and original forms, in a variety of settings. In the vast literature on the topic, changes between a sedentary lifestyle and a nomadic lifestyle are often described. The reasons for the rise of one and the decline of another were mainly economic or political crises. To mention just one example, for the Turks of southern Kazakhstan, it was common for a nomad to settle down and farm after loss of livestock, and a rich farmer to buy livestock and again shift to nomadism (Scholz 1995, p.49).

Despite the fact that nomadism is the optimal means to utilise the ecologically fragile dryland ecosystem, it is the socio-political environment that often changes the extent to which nomadic people maintain such a lifestyle. These changes are not only a mere consequence of colonial policies, socialist collectivist campaigns or the power-seeking attempts of a nation-state, but also the result of subtle and complex, social and economic, direct and indirect processes, occurring at different levels of society. Since the beginning of the 19th century the constitutive framework for pastoral nomadism has undergone major structural changes so that pastoral nomadism seems likely to disappear completely, especially in light of recent rapid modernisation.

The present situation

Steps toward settlement and enclosures, which have been widespread throughout the Old World Dry Belt in the 20th century, have prompted nothing short of a 'topomorphic revolution'5 across the vast grasslands. That is, rangeland privatisation and parcelling has dramatically restructured local nomadic space and reshaped the socio-ecological environment. The enclosure of pastures that were traditionally held in common exacerbates widespread problems of land degradation and desertification of the physical environment, and has led to new problems in the social environment by broadening the disparities in economic wealth among nomadic households and communities (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Model of the change of nomadism as a socio-ecological mode of culture.

The aim of such rangeland policies was basically to make traditional pastoral land use more efficient through overcoming the 'tragedy of the commons' the term coined by Hardin (1968), and to create an intensive livestock production regime for commercial purposes, characterised by fencing, irrigated forage production, stall feeding, improved breeding, machinery, chemical fertilisers and marketing.

The once dominant experience of mobility has significantly changed to a more settled version of pastoralism. The traditional nomads of the Old World Dry Belt have made obvious adjustments in their traditional lifestyle. Mud-brick houses have replaced tents and yurts, cultivated fields have come to cut across pastureland, and vast barren spaces traditionally used by nomads are now abandoned. Contemporary herders of the region now essentially move the grass to the animals. The traditional system has therefore given way to a new type of spatial mobility, highly restricted and dictated by access to markets and amenities, lacking little similarity to the distant migrations of old. As evidence has clearly demonstrated, these new forms of spatial mobility contribute decisively to the above-described changes in the physical and social environment. In many countries, indigenous knowledge has been disrupted and households have abandoned once effective grazing strategies (Williams 1996).

Future perspectives

A pessimist could easily take the view that the decline of nomadism is irreversible. However, for development planners this would of course be equal to abandoning any hope of dealing with the issue. Therefore it is our duty to maintain a small amount of optimism. This optimism becomes even more important when one keeps in mind that the majority of the countries of the Old World Dry Belt are among the poorest of the world. In addition, the natural resource base is declining rapidly worldwide while population pressures on the overall available agricultural and pastoral land are increasing. Some questions come to mind. For example, what is happening with the vast barren grasslands of the Old World Dry Belt formerly used by nomads? Under the changed conditions described above, what possibilities exist to make economic use of them? What are the preconditions for sustainable pastoral management of the drylands?

To answer these questions fully is too extensive a task to be dealt with here. To date, there is still a lack of successfully implemented strategies in these dry land environments. However, on the basis of traditional modes of appropriate use (such as the informal institutions of the hema in Saudi Arabia) and bearing in mind the negative impacts of primarily market-oriented development projects, Scholz proposes a modern form of mobile livestock-keeping as the solution (Scholz 1995). To guarantee its success, some preconditions have to be acknowledged by policy-makers and planers alike. Priority has to be given to subsistence rather than market-oriented production, to job security rather than increases in productivity, and to resource conservation rather than increasing yields.


FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 1993. Production Yearbook 1992. F AO, Rome, Italy. 281 pp.

Hardin G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162:12431248.

Scholz F. 1995. Nomadismus. Theorie und Wandel einer sozio-ökologischen Kulturweise (Nomadism. Theory and change of a socio-ecological mode of culture). Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany. 300 pp.

Walter E.V. 1988. Placeways. A theory of the human environment. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, USA. 253 pp.

Williams D.M. 1996. The barbed walls of China: A contemporary grassland drama. The Journal of Asian Studies 55(3):665691.