Nomadic Society And Culture
The necessity of regular migration shapes almost all aspects of nomadic society and culture. While often seen by outsiders as "wandering," the seasonal migrations of nomadic herdsmen are generally over fixed routes traveling between established pastures and water resources. These migrations begin in spring, as adequate rainfall or snowmelt (or both) open up additional pasturelands. In Central Eurasia, the general pattern was for nomads to move their herds northward as much as 500 miles as the weather warmed, and then to reverse course and work their way south as temperatures cooled. In other areas, nomads covered shorter distances, often following circular routes, or shifting from lower altitudes to higher pastures in mountainous regions. During these migrations the nomad's animals were vulnerable to dramatic shifts in climate, including droughts and harsh winter freezes, as well as disease. Since they depended on their herds for survival, any significant loss of animals could spell disaster for the nomads themselves.
Socially and politically, most nomadic peoples have been organized according to kinship structures, which generally include legends of origin tracing all members of a particular group to a common ancestor. However, as more recent scholarship has demonstrated, historically these kinship ties have incorporated an element of flexibility, with individuals and even larger groups changing clans due to conflicts and other crisis events. Still, the dominant pattern has been to maintain tight bonds of family loyalty, tested and reaffirmed during economic crisis or during feuds with outsiders. Thus the famous cliché of both scholars and tribesmen themselves: "Me against my brothers; my brothers and me against our cousins; my brothers, cousins, and me against the world." It is this aspect of nomadic life that was emphasized by the great Muslim social historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) in his discussion of 'asabiyya or "group feeling," which he saw as key to the Bedouins' success in warfare against outsiders.
Pastoral societies were frequently resistant to large-scale political organization, at least under a single leader, due to the availability of flight as an option when faced with authoritarian claims to power. In fact, many scholars argue that leadership among nomads was often the creation of sedentary powers who sought someone to deal with in their contacts with nomadic peoples. While the general pattern of disunity limited the political power of nomadic peoples, it also served as an effective political adaptation to outside threats, making it much more difficult to conquer nomadic peoples who, lacking a centralized leadership, simply broke up into ever smaller autonomous units rather than concede defeat.
Among the many distinctive features of nomadic culture, military prowess has no doubt historically attracted the most attention. While many have sought to locate the martial skills of nomads within some cultural essentialism or even genetic predisposition, it is hard to sustain the notion that nomads are more war-like than anyone else. Rather, the military advantages of nomadic populations, as shown, for example, by the horse nomads of Inner Asia, derived primarily from a nomadic lifestyle that was in many ways "paramilitary" in its orientation, including the harshness of life on the move, and constant practice in horsemanship and archery while defending one's herds. This, combined with greater mobility and speed of movement to, within, and (if necessary) away from the battlefield, gave nomadic peoples an advantage over their sedentary opponents.
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