Nomads are mobile people with no fixed settlement and whose livelihoods integrally involve frequent movement. There are many manifestations of nomadism. Perhaps the most common is pastoral nomadism, but hunter-gatherers can also be nomadic, and shifting cultivators are sometimes described as seminomadic. Throughout the world, Gypsies (and in the West, Travellers) also lead nomadic lifestyles.
For anthropologists in search of “the other,” nomads have been clearly fascinating. In this century, nomads have seen many restrictions on their livelihoods, particularly changing property rights that make temporary access to the space and resources they require problematic. Nomads’ politics and relations with other groups have been dominated by the evolution of these contests.
In part, the conflicts reflect the fact that nomadic use and tenure of property fits uneasily within state frameworks. States have sought to settle and control populations (Maasai pastoralists in Kenya and Tanzania). They have also sought to expropriate resources perceived to be unused (Barabaig pastoralists in Tanzania). Other conflicts arise because of nomads’ antipathy with the values of modern society (the conflict between the San Bushmen and the Botswanan government) or because of long-running hostility and suspicion between them and their settled neighbors (Gypsies and Travellers in Europe). Equally, their unintensive use of space and resources and their rejection of modern values provides fertile ground for potential collaborations with conservation interests.
Herding in many parts of the world requires moving animals to the best pastures, particularly if herds are large. Pastures in dry and semiarid lands may be inaccessible outside the rainy season for want of water, and pastures in temperate mountains and cold regions may be closed in winter. Good herd and pasture management will require moving stock according to the availability of pasture. Nomadic pastoralism is practiced in the drier regions of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as mountainous regions of South America and Europe. There are no clear estimates of nomadic pastoralists’ numbers, but global populations could be about 30-50 million.
It is useful to distinguish between nomadic pastoralists, who can move to a wide variety of places within a given range according to the availability of pasture, and transhumant pastoralists, who move between fixed places each season. This is particularly appropriate in mountainous regions, or in less arid rangelands where precipitation is more predictable. However, providing a robust categorization of the pattern of movements is not straightforward. Within one group in one area, the type of stock moved, the herding arrangements employed, and the reciprocal access arrangements to pasture can be enormously diverse.
Pastoral nomads are generally marked by their specialized production systems, which focus principally on livestock products that are sold or exchanged for agricultural crops and other goods. Their trade and pasturing arrangements can rely upon longstanding, but individually negotiated, exchanges. In West Africa, for example, the southerly migration of the pastoral Fulani is facilitated by arrangements with local farmers to graze their cattle on the crop residues in fields.
Pastoral nomads have faced increasing pressure on their pastures, in particular because their seasonal use is rarely well recognized in formal law. In East Africa, there is a long history of pastoralists being evicted from their lands in the face of development or conservation projects. Land titling now threatens further subdivision and possible restrictions on movement. In Mongolia, however, the collapse of collectivized agriculture has seen the revival of nomadic practices.
Like pastoralists, hunter-gatherers are found in many places around the world: in arid lands, tropical forests, and the far north. Once widespread, there are now approximately 250,000 hunter-gatherers in the world. Their migration patterns reflect the need to follow migrant animals on which they depend, and to avoid excessive hunting in one place. The latter is driven by the need for a successful hunt, not by any conservation ethic.
Hunter-gatherers’ diets are dominated by plants and wild foods that are collected on hunting expeditions. Although they do not generally cultivate or herd, they do regularly and deliberately alter their environments, planting edible or medicinal crops, protecting useful trees, and burning rangelands and forest.
African anthropologists are locked into a bitter dispute as to the history of hunter-gathering. For analysts such as Marshal Sahlins, hunter-gatherers were the “original affluent society” who have little work that they must do in order to meet their needs. For Wilmsen and others, hunter-gatherers are the impoverished relations of pastoral and agricultural groups who have been forced into this livelihood after losing wealth and livestock.
Gypsies and Travellers
These nomads are found throughout the world. The most well-known are the Roma, who originated in northern India, from where their language (Romani) derives. There are approximately 12 million Roma throughout the world. Romani slavery was abolished in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, prompting a migration to the New World. In the 20th century, some 500,000 Roma are believed to have been killed by the Nazis, and they suffered further under Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania. Irish Travellers, or Tinkers, are a minority group of some 50,000 who live in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States and are a distinct ethnic group from the Roma with their own language.
Both groups live from trade and short-term work but have long had strained relationships with settled people, which threatens their lifestyle. Years of marginalization have enhanced their exclusion, but also their attraction to people disillusioned with mainstream society. Recently, the term Travellers has been applied more generally to people who live lives similar to the Roma and Tinkers, but who do not have the tradition or family history of doing so. In western Europe, Gypsies and Travellers live in caravans and are allocated marginal unwanted lands, often in unpleasant areas. Recently, British gypsies have sought to buy land on which they rapidly construct the facilities they need for their homes, occasioning conflict with locals and planning authorities.
- Chatty, D., & Colchester, M. (2002). Conservation and mobile indigenous peoples: Displacement, forced settlement and sustainable development. New York: Berghahn.
- Dyson-Hudson, R., & Dyson-Hudson, N. (1980). Nomadic pastoralism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 9, 15-61.
- Faser, A. (1995). The Gypsies. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.