AskDefine | Define pastoralism

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the state of being pastoral
  2. animal husbandry; the raising and herding of farm animals

Extensive Definition

Pastoralism or Pastoral Farming is the branch of agriculture concerned with the raising of livestock. It is animal husbandry: the care, tending and use of animals such as camels, goats, cattle, yaks, llamas, sheep etc. It may have a mobile aspect, moving the herds in search of fresh pasture and water.
Pastoralism is found in many variations throughout the world. Composition of herds, management practices, social organization and all other aspects of pastoralism vary between areas and between social groups. Many ‘traditional’ practices have also had to adapt to changing, modern circumstances. Also the ranches of the United States and the sheep stations and cattle stations of Australia are seen by some as modern variations.


Some researchers believe that pastoralism followed mixed farming (rainfall-dependent agriculture with animal husbandry). A model presented by Bates and Lees suggests that it was the introduction of irrigation to farming which resulted in the selective pressures for specialization (Lees & Bates, 1973). The increased productivity of irrigation agriculture ultimately resulted in population growth and pressure on resources, which lead to greater land and greater labour requirements for intensive farming. Marginal areas of land were often all that was left for animal rearing. To acquire enough forage, large distances had to be covered by herds. This resulted in a higher labour requirement for animal tending. As a result of the increasing requirements of both intensive agriculture and pastoralism, the two practices diverged and specialization took place. Both developed alongside each other, with continuing interactions (Lees & Bates, 1974). Other proponents of this view include Levy (1983) and Hole (1996).
Another theory is that pastoralism derived directly from hunting and gathering. In this view, hunters of wild goats and sheep already had knowledge of herd dynamics and the ecological needs of the herd animals. These groups were already mobile, and followed wild herds on their seasonal round. The process of domestication began before the first wild goat or sheep was tamed as result of the selective pressure of hunter prey-choice acting upon the herd. In this way, wild herds were selected to become more manageable for the proto-pastoralist nomadic hunter and gatherer groups. In order to become fully fledged pastoralists,


As explained in the origins section, pastoralism takes place mainly in marginal areas, where cultivation (and the higher energy achieved per area) is not possible. Animals feed on the forage of these lands; an energy source which humans cannot directly utilize. The herds convert the energy into sources available for human consumption: milk, blood and sometimes meat (Bates, 1998:105).
There is a common conception that pastoralists exist at basic subsistence. This assumption is not true; groups often accumulate wealth and can be involved in international trade. Complex exchange relationships exist with horticulturalists, agriculturalists and other groups; pastoralists rarely exist exclusively with the products of their herd.

Resource management

Pastoralism is well adapted to the environments where it exists; it is a successful strategy to support a population with the limited resources of the land. Important components of the pastoralist adaptation include low population density, mobility, and dynamism, and complex information systems.


Mobility allows pastoralists to simultaneously exploit more than one environment, thus creating the possibility for arid regions to support human life. Rather than adapting the environment to suit the “food production system” (Bates, 1998:104) the system is moved to fit the environment. Pastoralists often have an area with a radius of 100-500km. This is not to suggest that pastoralists and their livestock have not altered the environment. Lands long used for pastoralism have evolved under the pressures of regular grazing on one hand and, on the other, anthropogenic fire. Fire was a method of rejuvenating pasture land and preventing forest regrowth. Over time, the combined environmental pressures of routine fire and livestock browsing have transformed landscapes in many parts of the world. With fire as the main tool, pastoralists have deliberately tended the land, keeping it in forms of pasture suited for their herds. An example such a landscape is the Maquis shrublands of the Mediterranean region, which are dominated by pyrophytic plants that thrive under conditions of regular fire and browsing (Pyne, 1997).
Different mobility patterns can be observed:
Nomadic pastoralists: 1) it is a generalized food-producing strategy with its main base relying on the intensive management of herd animals for their primary products of meat and skin, and for their secondary products such as wool or hair, milk, blood, dung, traction, and transport; 2) because of the different climates and environments of the areas where nomadic pastoralism is practiced and because of the ecology of their herd animals, this management includes daily movement and seasonal migration of herds; 3) because a majority of the members of the group are in some way directly involved with herd management, the household moves with these seasonal migrations; and 4) while the products of the herd animals are the most important resources, use of other resources, such as domesticated and wild plants, hunted animals, goods available in a market economy, is not excluded.
Transhumance: where members of the group move the herd seasonally from one area to another, often between higher and lower pastures. The rest of the group are able to stay in the same location, resulting in longer-standing housing.
Mobility throughout altitudes and the resulting precipitation differences is important. In East Africa, different animals are taken to different regions throughout the year, to match the seasonal patterns of precipitation.
The actions of herders are carefully planned, but also constantly adjusted, to match changing conditions. The system is dynamic, to suit the unpredictable landscape (Fagan, 1999). All pastoralist strategies exemplify effective adaptation to the environment.


Intrinsically linked with mobility is the complex “maps” that pastoralists keep in their minds, marking out the usefulness of certain areas at different times of year. Pastoralists have a detailed understanding of ecological processes and environmental inputs (Wilson, 1992). Information sharing is essential for creating such deep knowledge. This is made possible by formal visiting rules and networks, keeping dispersed societies linked.
Elders discuss and cautiously plan in advance, using the knowledge they acquire, in order to act in the most appropriate way.

Disruption of management strategies

This ability for careful control and planning was wiped away with colonialization. In the Sahel region of Africa, mobility was restricted, settlement was encouraged and the population tripled with improved sanitation and medical care (Fagan, 1999). The previous balance of the pastoralist system was disturbed.

Tragedy of the commons?

Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968) described how common property resources, such as the land shared by pastoralists, ultimately become overused and ruined.
Following this paper, the pastoralist land use strategy suffered criticisms of being unstable and a cause of environmental degradation (Fratkins, 1997).
A particularly strong example of this is based in the Sahel zone in Africa, where human mismanagement by pastoralists was blamed for desertification and depletion of resources (Fratkins, 1997). The problems were actually due to previous interference and particularly severe climate conditions. However, Hardin’s paper suggested a solution to the problems, offering rational basis for further privatization of land. This encouraged more intrusion and the transfer of land from tribal peoples to the state or to individuals (Monbiot, 1994). However, modernization and privatization programmes negatively affected the livelihood of the pastoralist societies and actually worsened the ecological impact (Wilson, 1992).
Examples of this throughout the world are believed to provide further evidence that the pastoralist way of life is an efficient system; one of the few ways of supporting a population in a difficult environment and representing a sustainable approach to land use (Wilson, 1992). With traditional pastoralist strategies, the “tragedy” is avoided through the management practices described above.

Social organization

Each pastoralist adaptation occurred in different contexts; there is therefore no specific form of social organization associated with pastoralism. However, pastoralist societies are often organised in tribes, with the ‘household’ (often including extended family) as a basic unit for organization of labour and expenses (Bates, 1998). Lineages can be the basis for property rights. An in-depth discussion of one particular nomadic pastoralist social structure can be found in the Bedouin article.
Mobility allows groups of pastoralists to split and regroup as resources permit, or as desired with changes in social relations.


One of the consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the subsequent political independence and economic collapse of its Central Asian republics is the resurgence of pastoral nomadism. Taking the Kyrgyz people as a representative example, nomadism was the centre of their economy prior to Russian colonization at the turn of the C19/C20, when they were settled into agricultural villages. The population became increasingly urbanized after World War II, but some people continued to take their herds of horses and cows to the high pasture (jailoo) every summer, i.e., a pattern of transhumance. Since the 1990s, as the cash economy shrank, unemployed relatives were absorbed back on the family farm, and the importance of this form of nomadism has increased. The symbols of nomadism, specifically the crown of the grey felt tent known as the yurt, appears on the national flag, emphasizing the centrality of their nomadic history and past in the creation of the modern nation of Kyrgyzstan.

See also

  • Pastoral -- literary treatment of pastoralists


  • Alvard, M. S. and L. Kuznar (2001). Deferred harvest: the transition from hunting to animal husbandry. American Antiquity 103(2): 295-311.
  • Fagan, B. (1999) "Drought Follows the Plow", adapted from Floods, Famines and Emperors: Basic Books
  • Fratkin, E. (1997) Pastoralism: Governance & Development Issues. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26
  • Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, 1243 - 1248
  • Hole, F. (1996). "The context of caprine domestication in the Zagros region'". in The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia. D. R. Harris. London, University College of London: 263-281.
  • Ingold, T. (2000). The Perception of the Environment. London: Routledge.
  • Lees, S & Bates, D. (1974) The Origins of Specialized Nomadic Pastorlaism: A Systematic Model. American Antiquity, 39, 2.
  • Levy, T. E. (1983). Emergence of specialized pastoralism in the Levant. World Archaeology 15(1): 15-37.
  • Monbiot, G. (1994) The Tragedy of Enclosure. The Scientific American
  • Pyne, Stephen J. (1997) Vestal Fire: An Environmental History, Told through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the World. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-97596-2
  • Saltini Antonio, Storia delle scienze agrarie, 4 vols, Bologna 1984-89, ISBN 88-206-2412-5, ISBN 88-206-2413-3, ISBN 88-206-2414-1, ISBN 88-206-2414-X
  • Smith, A. B. (1992). Pastoralism in Africa. London, Hurst & Company.
  • Wilson, K.B. (1992) Rethinking Pastoral Ecological Impact in East Africa. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 8, 4
pastoralism in German: Nomade
pastoralism in Hungarian: Nomád
pastoralism in Japanese: 牧畜
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