Pastoral Societies Research Paper Starter

Pastoral Societies

This article will provide an overview of pastoral societies. The article describes the development of pastoralism, from its early roots as an emerging form of civilized society, to the various types of modern pastoralism, to the outlook for the future of pastoral societies. The article also explores the characteristics of the social organization of pastoral societies. These characteristics include a predominantly patriarchal society where men and women have clearly defined roles, and internal means by which social rules are enforced and traditions preserved. This overview also explores the economic systems of pastoral societies. Although pastoral societies historically have been largely economically self-sufficient, they are increasingly engaging in trade and commerce. Some of the most common forms of commerce utilized by pastoral societies include protecting land tenure rights, selling animals and animal products, and developing channels and systems to facilitate trade. Pastoral societies also engage in many forms of labor that this article describes, such as hunting and fishing as well as carefully breeding their livestock and herds to promote the heartiest animals that may also be sold or traded in their local economies. Finally, this article discusses some of the issues facing modern pastoral societies, including pastoralists and the environmental movement, the rise in competing uses of the world's rangelands, and the need for protecting and preserving the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which pastoral societies roam.

Keywords Adaptation; Agrarian Societies; Artifact; Biodiversity; Conservation; Cultivation; Drought; Ecosystem; Fodder; Indigenous; Land Tenure; Land Use; Livestock; Natural Resources; Nomads; Pastoral Societies; Territory

Pastoral Societies


Pastoralism is the raising of livestock on natural pasture that is unimproved by human intervention. Pastoral societies roam vast expanses of rangelands according to the seasons, environmental conditions, and needs of their livestock and individual members. These societies are closely associated with their animals. Pastoralists carefully guide their livestock to the best conditions for grazing on the open range and keep a watchful eye for predators, disease, infestations, and other hazards that could harm their herds. Thus, pastoralism is contrasted with the provision of cultivated fodder for domesticated livestock that are kept in pens or sheds, a practice that is often associated with more developed societies. Pastoral societies have been in existence for centuries, and while they have largely disappeared from most urban or developed regions, they continue to utilize vast land areas in Australia, parts of South America and Asia, and the open plains of Africa.

Pastoralism is most often found in countries with semiarid open lands on which farming could not be easily sustained without extensive irrigation channels for importing water. In the dry conditions that would devastate crops, pastoralists are able to relocate their herds by moving them to new areas. In addition, the rangelands used by pastoralists often cannot be developed with conventional agriculture techniques because the land is too remote from a water source. However, as technical advances have enabled cultivation capabilities to encroach further into land once deemed unfit for agriculture, pastoralists have often been forced off of rangelands and into increasingly inhospitable terrain. In spite of the remote nature of their lives, pastoralists make substantial contributions to the economies of the regions and countries in which they live. For instance, pastoral societies generally support the households of their individual members, and they supply important protein sources, such as meat, cheese, yogurt, and milk to villages and towns.

In the twenty-first century, pastoral societies are under increasing threat from many fronts. Trade globalization in livestock products has resulted in competitive pricing and import policies in many countries. Also, marginal lands that were previously used by pastoralists are being seized as reserves for biodiversity and conservation efforts. The governments of many developing countries are also facing pressure to declare large regions of land to be protected areas in response to the lobbying efforts of conservation groups and the realization that these lands can be lucrative sources of tourist income. The future of pastoralism will depend in many respects upon the political and economic decisions made by national governments in countries with extensive grasslands.

Development of Pastoralism

Types of Pastoralism

According to O'Neil, there are two types of pastoralism: nomadism and transhumance.

Pastoral nomads follow a seasonal migratory pattern that can vary from year to year. The timing and destinations of migrations are determined primarily by the needs of the herd animals for water and fodder (O'Neil, 2007).

These nomadic societies never live in permanent settlements, but rather in tents or other portable dwellings that can be moved and reconstructed with relative ease. Pastoral nomads are usually self-sufficient in terms of food, basic necessities, and culture (O'Neil, 2007).

Transhumance pastoralists follow a cyclical pattern of migration in which they move from cooler, elevated regions in the summer to warmer, low-lying valleys in the winter. Generally, transhumance pastoralists migrate between the same two places, enabling them to have regular encampments or stable villages, often with permanent houses at both locations. Because they are more settled than pastoral nomads, transhumance pastoralists are less dependent on their animals for food and often engage in small-scale vegetable farming at their summer encampments to supplement their diets. They also are more likely to trade animals and animal products for grain, tools, or other items that they do not produce themselves (O'Neil, 2007).

Modern Forms of Pastoralism

In the twenty-first century, most pastoralist societies follow a way of life that is a blend of nomadic and transhumance pastoralism. In addition, pastoralism has taken various forms, depending on the needs and geography of various regions. A modern type of pastoralism can be found in western North America, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and a few other areas of the world where contemporary cattle and sheep ranchers still practice traditional methods. These ranchers are not subsistence pastoralists; they have made a significant investment in land, buildings, and livestock, and view their work as an industry rather than a survival tactic. Many of these ranchers are also businessmen who produce meat and other commodities for national and international markets using mechanized equipment and modern transportation to move livestock to more favorable conditions. In spite of these modern resources, though, there are still significant similarities between modern and traditional pastoralists. Their livelihoods can quickly be lost to theft, disease, or natural disaster. For the modern pastoralists, it is often worth the risk, as herds can double in a few years, yielding tremendous financial gain (O'Neil, 2007).

The Future of Pastoralism

Pastoralism will likely continue to survive, especially in poor countries, because it is an efficient means for developing a subsistence living in remote and semiarid regions. Pastoral societies do face resistance from some governments that have tried to minimize the migrations of pastoralists and required reductions in the size of their herds in order to prevent overgrazing.

These efforts have been consistently resisted by pastoralists because large herds are often seen as symbols of wealth and as security against unpredictable climates and the periodic epidemics among their animals. Further, conservation has not been traditionally important for pastoralists because, up until the twentieth century, they migrated over vast regions and could easily move on when grasses and water were depleted in one area (O'Neil, 2007).

However, the future of pastoralists holds substantial hurdles. Throughout Africa and the Near East, pastoralists are being driven into increasingly remote and undesirable areas through the gradual expansion of arable terrain. Global trade in livestock production also threatens pastoralists, and marginal lands that were previously roamed by pastoralists and their herds are being demanded for use as protected lands or biodiversity sanctuaries. Because pastoralists remain a valuable resource for producing meat and milk products inexpensively on land that is otherwise difficult to exploit, these societies will remain in some form. However, the preservation of pastoral societies will also depend upon the political, social, and economic policies implemented by the countries they inhabit and upon the ability of these countries to understand and value the contributions pastoral societies make to their own members and to the larger society (Blench, 2001).

Further Insights

Social Organization

Pastoral societies are often managed by a complex set of traditions, ranging from the simple to the complex, to coordinate and regulate the actions of individual members. These traditions are based on an intimate and highly developed knowledge of the physical and social environment that the pastoralists inhabit. Their main objective is to preserve societal hierarchies while ensuring the success of future generations. The most fundamental pastoral social systems are often based upon climatic changes, which can affect wet and dry seasons, and thus direct the informal rules of land occupation and tenure and grazing rights. In addition, pastoral societies are almost always patriarchal, with limited roles for women. The traditions of these societies run deep and are enforced through both spoken and tacit societal rules. The following sections will describe these various characteristics of the social organizations of pastoral societies in greater detail.

Patriarchal Structure

Pastoralists often have the same distinct characteristics of social organization regardless of the region of the world in which they live. Pastoral societies are almost always patriarchal and are led by a key group of men who are generally the offspring of dominant or wealthy families. The men in pastoral societies tend to be cooperative with each other, yet aggressive toward outsiders. Pastoralist leaders often have developed keen abilities to direct the movements of their herds while gaining optimal use from scarce resources. They can make important economic and survival decisions quickly, and they generally have a profound emotional attachment to their animals. Thus, male leaders in pastoral societies develop qualities such as self-containment, personal control, and bravery at a young age, and boys in these societies are encouraged to emulate these qualities as they grow up.

Beyond a patriarchal structure, the basis of most pastoral societies is the clan, which is “a set of patrilineally related households traced to a common ancestor” (Blench, 2001, p. 41). Such groupings are based upon a family lineage that may be relatively short or so great that the ancestral figure becomes something of a myth. The preservation of these genealogies is very important, especially to the aristocratic classes of nomadic societies because their lineages legitimate their positions of wealth and power.

Role of Women in Pastoral Society

The great majority of pastoral societies are male-dominated. In addition, many pastoral societies practice pre-inheritance, in which the father disperses his herds among his sons prior to his death, although the animals generally remain in the same physical herd after the inheritance is transferred. In some pastoral societies, daughters may inherit some animals upon the death of the household head, but these are then "managed" by the women's brothers (Blench, 2001).

In most pastoral societies, gender roles are strongly marked, with social patterns consistent across the world (see also Dahl, 1987). Women are typically responsible for milking and dairy processing; they may or may not sell the milk, but they usually have control over the proceeds in order to feed the family. Men are responsible for herding and selling meat animals (Blench, 2001, p. 42). In systems in which herds are split, women usually stay at fixed homesteads while men go away with the animals.

According to O'Neil,

Men in pastoralist societies usually acquire prestige and power by being brave and successful in predatory raids as well as by accumulating large herds of animals. Teenagers and young men often are the community's warriors and generally do not begin to acquire their own herds until they become elders. As a result, there are often great status differences between young and old men (2007).

Further, because of the labor demands of pastoral societies, for a pastoral household to be viable there must be a wife to carry out key domestic tasks. This system becomes unwieldy if there are multiple wives with their own children and households. However, there are exceptions to this rule, particularly in pastoral societies where older men may marry younger women to enhance their lineage, wealth, and influence.

Enforcement of Societal Rules

Most pastoral groups do not maintain an internal government body or police force, although their societies still function...

(The entire section is 5972 words.)