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Title: Pastoralism  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: 2011 East Africa drought, History of Roman-era Tunisia, Pastoralists, History of agriculture in Scotland, Agriculture in prehistoric Scotland
Collection: Economies, Land Use, Livestock, Pastoralists
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Pastoralism 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, and sheep. "Pastoralism" generally has a mobile aspect, moving the herds in search of fresh pasture and water (in contrast to pastoral farming, in which non-nomadic farmers grow crops and improve pastures for their livestock).

Pastoralism is a successful strategy to support a population on less productive land, and adapts well to the environment. For example, in savannas, pastoralists and their animals gather when rain water is abundant and the pasture is rich, then scatter during the drying of the savanna.[1]

Pastoralists often use their herds to affect their environment. Grazing herds on savannas can ensure the biodiversity of the savannas and prevent them from evolving into scrubland. Pastoralists may also use fire to make ecosystems more suitable for their food animals. For instance, the Turkana people of northwest Kenya use fire to prevent the invasion of the savanna by woody plant species. Biomass of the domesticated and wild animals was increased by a higher quality of grass.

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 the changing circumstance of the modern world, including climatic conditions affecting the availability of grasses. Ranches of the United States and sheep stations and cattle stations of Australia are seen by some as modern variations.


  • Origins 1
  • Resources 2
    • Mobility 2.1
    • Information 2.2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Bibliography 5


Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, preparing to move to new pastures. Aquatint by Samuel Daniell (1805). The Khoikhoi practiced pastoralism for thousands of years in southern Africa.

One theory is that pastoralism was created from mixed farming. Bates and Lees proposed that it was the incorporation of irrigation into farming which ensued in specialization.[2] Advantages of mixed farming include reducing risk of failure, spreading labour, and re-utilizing resources. The importance of these advantages and disadvantages to different farmers differs according to the sociocultural preferences of the farmers and the biophysical conditions as determined by rainfall, radiation, soil type, and disease.[3] The increased productivity of irrigation agriculture led to an increase in population and an added impact on resources. Bordering areas of land remained in use for animal breeding. This meant that large distances had to be covered by herds to collect sufficient forage. Specialization occurred as a result of the increasing importance of both intensive agriculture and pastoralism. Both agriculture and pastoralism developed alongside each other, with continuous interactions.[2]

There is another theory that suggests pastoralism evolved from hunting and gathering. Hunters of wild goats and sheep were knowledgeable about herd mobility and the needs of the animals. Such hunters were mobile and followed the herds on their seasonal rounds. Undomesticated herds were chosen to become more controllable for the proto-pastoralist nomadic hunter and gatherer groups by taming and domesticating them. Hunter-gatherers' strategies in the past have been very diverse and contingent upon the local environment conditions, like those of mixed farmers. Foraging strategies have included hunting or trapping big game and smaller animals, fishing, collecting shellfish or insects, and gathering wild plant foods such as fruits, seeds, and nuts.[4] These diverse strategies for survival amongst the migratory herds could also provide an evolutionary route towards nomadic pastoralism.


Pastoralism occurs in uncultivated areas. Wild animals eat the forage from the marginal lands and humans survive from milk, blood, and often meat of the herds.[5]

Pastoralists do not exist at basic subsistence. Pastoralists often compile wealth and participate in international trade. Pastoralists have trade relations with agriculturalists, horticulturalists, and other groups. Pastoralists are not extensively dependent on milk, blood, and meat of their herd. McCabe noted that when common property institutions are created, in long-lived communities, resource sustainability is much higher, which is evident in the East African grasslands of pastoralist populations.[6]


Mobility allows pastoralists to adapt to the environment, which opens up the possibility for both fertile and infertile regions to support human existence. Important components of pastoralism include low population density, mobility, vitality, and intricate information systems. The system is transformed to fit the environment rather than adjusting the environment to support the "food production system."[7] Mobile pastoralists can often cover a radius of a hundred to five hundred kilometers.

Pastoralists and their livestock have impacted the environment. Lands long used for pastoralism have transformed under the forces of grazing livestock and anthropogenic fire. Fire was a method of revitalizing pastureland and preventing forest regrowth. The collective environmental weights of fire and livestock browsing have transformed landscapes in many parts of the world. Fire has permitted pastoralists to tend the land for their livestock. Political boundaries are based on environmental boundaries.[8] The Maquis shrublands of the Mediterranean region are dominated by pyrophytic plants that thrive under conditions of anthropogenic fire and livestock grazing.[9]

  • 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.
  • Angioni, Giulio (1989) I pascoli erranti. Antropologia del pastore in Sardegna. Napoli, Liguori.
  • 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 (ed.). London, University College of London: 263-281.
  • Lees, S & Bates, D. (1974) "The Origins of Specialized Nomadic Pastoralism: A Systematic Model". American Antiquity, 39, 2.
  • Levy, T. E. (1983). "Emergence of specialized pastoralism in the Levant". World Archaeology 15(1): 15-37.
  • Moran, E. (2006). People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations. UK: Blackwell Publishing.
  • 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.
  • Townsend, P. (2009). Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Policies. United States of America: Waveland Press.
  • Wilson, K.B. (1992) "Rethinking Pastoral Ecological Impact in East Africa". Journal of Tropical Ecology, 8, 4.
  • Toutain B., Marty A., Bourgeot A. Ickowicz A. & Lhoste P (2012). Pastoralism in dryland areas. A case study in sub-Saharan Africa. Les dossiers thématiques du CSFD. N°9. January 2013. CSFD/Agropolis International, Montpellier, France. 60 p.


  1. ^ Moran, Emilio F. (2006). People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. p. 52.  
  2. ^ a b Lees, S & Bates] D. (1974) The Origins of Dogged Nomadic Pastoralism: A Systematic Model. American Antiquity, 39, 2.
  3. ^ "Mixed crop-livestock farming". 
  4. ^ "Hunting and Gathering Culture". Encyclopædia Britannica. 
  5. ^ (Bates, 1998:105)
  6. ^ Moran, Emilio F. (2006). People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. p. 123.  
  7. ^ (Bates, 1998:104)
  8. ^ Moran, Emilio F. (2006). People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.  
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Moran, Emilio F. (2006). People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 51–52.  
  11. ^ Fagan, B. (1999) "Drought Follows the Plow", Chapter 11 of Floods, Famines and Emperors: Basic Books.
  12. ^ Giulio Angioni (1989) I pascoli erranti: Liguori
  13. ^ Townsend, Patricia K. (2009). Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Policies. United States: Waveland Press. pp. 57–58.  
  14. ^ a b c Wilson, K.B. (1992) "Rethinking Pastoral Ecological Impact in East Africa". Journal of Tropical Ecology, 8, 4
  15. ^ a b Hardin, G. (1968) "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science, 162, 1243–1248
  16. ^ a b Fratkin, E. (1997) "Pastoralism: Governance & Development Issues". Annual Review of Anthropology, 26


See also

Pastoralism supports human existence in harsh environments and often represents a sustainable approach to land use.[14]

Pastoralists in the Sahel zone in Africa were held responsible for the depletion of resources.[16] The depletion of resources was actually triggered by a prior interference and punitive climate conditions. Hardin's paper suggests a solution to the problems, offering a coherent basis for privatization of land, which stimulates the transfer of land from tribal peoples to the state or to individuals.[15] The privatized programs impact the livelihood of the pastoralist societies while weakening the environment.[14]

Tuareg pastoralists and their herds flee south into Nigeria from Niger during the 2005–06 Niger food crisis.

According to Hardin's paper, the pastoralist land use strategy suffered criticisms of being unstable and a cause of environmental degradation.[16]

Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons (1968) described how common property resources, such as the land shared by pastoralists, eventually become overused and ruined.[15]

Tragedy of the commons?

Pastoralists have mental maps of the value of specific environments at different times of year. Pastoralists have an understanding of ecological processes and the environment.[14] Information sharing is vital for creating knowledge through the networks of linked societies.


The Afar pastoralists in Ethiopia uses an indegeneous communication method called 'dagu' for information. This helps them in getting crucial information about climate and availability of pastures at various locations.

The flexibility of pastoralists to respond to environmental change was reduced by colonization. For example, mobility was limited in the Sahel region of Africa with settlement being encouraged. The population tripled and sanitation and medical treatment were improved.

Mobility was an important strategy for the Ariaal; however with the loss of grazing land impacted by the growth in population, severe drought, the expansion of agriculture, and the expansion of commercial ranches and game parks, mobility was lost. The poorest families were driven out of pastoralism and into towns to take jobs. Few Ariaal families benefited from education, healthcare, and income earning.[13]

Different mobility patterns can be observed: Somali pastoralists keep their animals in of the harshest environments but they have evolved of the centuries. Somalis have well developed pastoral culture where complete system of life and governance has been refined. Somali poetry depicts humans interactions, pastoral animals, beasts on the prowl, and other natural things such the rain, celestial events and historic events of significance.

Some pastoralists are constantly moving, which may put them at odds with sedentary people of towns and cities. The resulting conflicts can result in war for disputed lands. These disputes are recorded in ancient times in the Middle East. Other pastoralists are able to remain in the same location which results in longer-standing housing.

Pastoralist strategies typify effective adaptation to the environment.[11] Precipitation differences are evaluated by pastoralists. In East Africa, different animals are taken to specific regions throughout the year that correspond to the seasonal patterns of precipitation.[12] Transhumance is the seasonal migration of livestock and pastoralists between higher and lower pastures.


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