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Social and cultural institutions of pastoralism


The basis of pastoral organization almost everywhere in the world is the clan, a set of patrilineally related households traced (in theory) to an apical ancestor. Such groupings can be very small, and the ancestry stretch back for only a short time span, or so great that the ancestral figure is semi-mythical, in which case the working kin group is a lineage. The preservation of these genealogies is very important - especially to the aristocratic strata of nomad society, as Khazanov (1984: 142) points out, because it makes their position legitimate. Well-known exceptions to the rule are the Tuareg, who had matrilineal descent groups in some areas, and subarctic peoples such as the Saami, the Chukchi and the Koryak, who had neither unilineal descent groups nor elaborate genealogies.

One of the most distinctive features of pastoralism in East Africa and the Horn of Africa is the system of age-sets. Among the Boran of southern Ethiopia, for example, men born within a seven-year cohort fall into a named age-set, which has rights and privileges within society as well as acting as a powerful force for cohesion and a calendrical system (Legesse, 1982).

A key aspect of pastoral systems is the strong relationship between wealth in livestock and labour. Herds that grow beyond a certain size cannot be managed with household labour alone, and outside herders must be sought. In the twentieth century, this is generally through hired labour, but formerly it was often through slavery or vassal castes. The great herds of cattle owned today by Fulše herders in the Niger were managed by slave labour in the nineteenth century, and many pastoral societies in Africa and the Near East developed elaborate caste systems based on slaves and non-slaves. In the case of the Tuareg, for example, society was divided into:

Marriages between these groups were formerly forbidden, and even today remain uncommon. When slaves were freed in the colonial era, they stayed with their original camps for some time, but have gradually broken away and now form independent households, often remote from their original site so that traditional authority cannot be brought to bear. Similar systems were found throughout much of the Bedouin areas (Peters, 1990) and in the Horn of Africa.


The role of women among pastoralists has been much discussed, in part because pastoral societies are more male-dominated than most other subsistence systems. Despite the well-known exception of the Saharan Tuareg, the great majority of pastoral societies are patrilineal and male-dominated. The reasons for this are much debated, but the root cause appears to be related to the importance of not dispersing viable herds. In an exogamous system, if women can own significant herds of their own, they will take these away on marriage to a new camp and potentially deplete the herd of an individual household. Many pastoral societies practise pre-inheritance, the father dispersing the herd among his sons prior to his death, since the principle of patrilocality means that the animals will anyway remain in the same physical herd. In pastoral societies, particularly those affected by Islamic inheritance rules, some animals go to daughters on the death of the household head, but these are then "managed" by the women's brothers (see Tapper, 1991 for the workings of this in practice).

In most pastoral societies gender roles are strongly marked, and patterns seem to be extremely similar across the world. Women are typically responsible for milking and dairy processing; they may or may not sell the milk, and they usually have control over the proceeds in order to feed the family. Men are responsible for herding and selling meat animals. In systems in which herds are split, women usually stay at fixed homesteads while men go away with the animals.

Pastoral societies typically tend towards monogamy because of the importance of the division of labour. In other words, for a pastoral household to be viable, there must be a wife to carry out key tasks. If there are too many polygynous households, the system will become unviable. There are exceptions to this rule, the Maasai being one well-known example. The Maasai system of age-sets, in which young men are assigned to a social category, makes it possible for older men to have several wives because moran warriors are not allowed to marry. Only after a young man has graduated from being a moran is he able to marry.


Throughout much of Eurasia, pastoralism is interwoven with the culture of itinerants; groups who move around supplying services to fixed communities. The most well-known of these are the gypsies, who are spread from Wales to India under a variety of names and associated with a variety of occupations. Rao (1982, 1987) calls these groups "peripatetics" and describes some of their activities, notably those concerned with crafts. As with gypsies and horse-coping, some peripatetics play an important role in livestock trade, although they generally do not produce food. Such groups are particularly numerous in the area between Afghanistan and India. They fall into casted, endogamous groups and are often stereotyped as ethnically distinct, as are pastoralists, whom national governments often put into the same catetogory as these other groups (Olesen, 1994: 25). In Afghanistan, both pastoral nomads and peripatetics live in tents; those of livestock producers are made out of black goat-hair, while peripatetic tents are white.


Pastoral systems have been at the heart of many debates on the nature of common property resources. While settled farmers usually develop relatively explicit systems of tenure, many pastoral peoples have fluid systems that are hard to pin down. This is in keeping with their opportunistic grazing strategies. When pasture is extremely patchy and likely to appear at different sites each year, investing heavily in ownership of a specific piece of land is hardly worthwhile. The negative side of this is that farmers can come and cultivate the land that herders regularly use for grazing their stock, without having to ask for permission. Because they are generally operating in remote areas without access to schools, pastoralists rarely have the literacy necessary to register land claims and so are outcompeted by both farmers and urban-based ranchers. In Jordan, the Badia rangelands were the preserve of sheep-herders because agriculture was considered to be impossible. However, a combination of more boreholes and new irrigation techniques is pushing farms ever further into traditional grazing land, and the government is unwilling to halt this process because of its own political constituency.

Tenure is thus divided by both ecology and the potential for agriculture. In much of the snowy steppe, agriculture is not practical, so pastoralists compete with one another for prime sites. The same is true in the subarctic regions, where reindeer herders do not interact with farmers. In much of Central Asia, the command economies overrode traditional access rights and created mapped and demarcated territories for collectivized units. These are in the process of being dismantled, and more traditional access rights are being reasserted. However, legal frameworks for this new situation are only now being developed.

The tenure of pastoralists in all parts of the world is not deemed sufficiently strong to prevent it from being overridden by the State in its search for minerals. Land can be appropriated for building and transport infrastructure, generally without compensation. There is no doubt that, if pastoralism is to survive, effective tenure must be developed in many parts of the world. This is proving difficult, because few governments have the political will to protect pastoralists against the vested interests of urban groups. The usual indicator of tenure in the ranching areas is the fence, a high-investment strategy that is only effective in countries where specific legal frameworks are in place.

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