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READ: Pastoralists, Nomads, and Foragers

Farming was a major development, but not all humans began farming immediately. Here, we look at the lives of the pastoralists, nomads, and foragers who did not farm.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. In what ways was farming “uneven?”
  2. What is the relationship between living a sedentary life and cultivating or domesticating food?
  3. What was central to nomadic pastoralists’ way of life? Why?
  4. How did different kinds of food production affect community structures?
  5. What networks were pastoralists, nomads, and foragers a part of? How did these networks affect the communities of people involved in trade?
  6. What are some advantages that nomadic communities had over settled communities?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. You may remember that the production and distribution frame narrative seems to suggest that people were foragers, and later became farmers. How does this article, and the primary source, cause you to think about that narrative?
  2. Looking at the primary source excerpts in this article, what claims do you think are credible? What are the limitations of these sources, and how does the author, audience, or purpose of the source influence your evaluation of this source?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Pastoralists, Nomads, and Foragers

Painting of Native dwellings in a golden field against a backdrop of snowy mountains. Two people are on horseback.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
Farming was a major development, but not all humans began farming immediately. Here, we look at the lives of the pastoralists, nomads, and foragers who did not farm.
Historians have long asked whether agriculture was a positive development for humans. It's equally important to ask: did everyone adopt agriculture? Actually, many communities didn't begin farming right away—or at all. Historians agree that agriculture did not take over fully or evenly. While the debate continues about whether or not farming improved humans' way of life, it's worth considering how non-agricultural communities differ from agricultural ones.
Photograph of dried wheat berries, rice, and other grains
Grains like wheat and rice form the basis of most diets around the world today, but they weren't always staple components of human diets. By IRRI, CC BY 2.0. 
What does it mean that farming was not adopted evenly? It's uneven because it spread to some places and not others. Many communities began farming independently, and they did so at very different times. Some began farming over 12,000 years ago, but other groups didn't farm for millennia after that. Today there are still communities who don't rely primarily on farming.
Adoption was also uneven in the sense that it wasn't always adopted fully or linearly. Some communities did a bit of farming, domesticated some animals, but remained largely nomadic. Others farmed some of the year and relied on trade at other times. Some communities who had previously farmed, like those occupying the Sahara region in Africa, became nomadic pastoralists as the region became more arid. Non-agricultural societies didn't disappear after the Neolithic Revolution. They still populated much of the world, played important roles in trade networks, and had unique social structures.

Different kinds of communities

As those who adopted agriculture settled into villages, towns, and cities, how did other communities live? Generally, their lives weren't as sedentary. But that doesn't mean that they didn't cultivate or domesticate anything. In fact, it's a mistake to think of agriculture and domestication as the same thing. Many groups domesticated animals and plants but didn't rely on them entirely or settle down permanently to cultivate land. Others, called pastoralists, domesticated animals but didn't grow plants regularly, and they remained mostly nomadic. Still others mainly foraged, as their ancestors had for millennia. The distinction between these groups is blurry. Most communities during the early agrarian era relied on multiple ways of food production. Even settled farmers continued to hunt and fish.
In the Americas, people mostly hunted and gathered and grew some plants. Herd animals like the alpaca and the llama were domesticated. Marine resources were abundant in some areas. In coastal South America, as well as in the Baltic region of northern Europe, fishing sustained large, wealthy settlements. These communities became sedentary about 5,000 years ago. They didn't rely on farming, but they also weren't nomadic.
Animals were critical to nomadic pastoralists' way of life. The horse was perhaps the single most important animal for pastoralist groups from the Eurasian steppe. The dry grasslands made farming difficult. Horses and other livestock provided protein in the form of dairy and sometimes meat. Their dung provided fuel, their hides clothing and shelter, and they were the primary transportation technology.
Pastoralist groups like the Scythians were known for their expert command of horses and their military strength. Tools like saddles and stirrups made horses indispensable. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 –425 BCE), who encountered many nomadic groups during his travels in the Eurasian steppe, described Scythians as:
"Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go: accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback: and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even."
This passage from Herodotus' Histories gives us some insight into the lifestyles of nomadic pastoralist groups during this period. But as with any source, we have to think about perspective. Many of the sources we have about nomadic groups were written by people from outside groups, like Herodotus. There are barely any first-hand accounts, as most nomadic communities didn't develop strong systems of writing and record-keeping. So, we must rely on outside sources and also study modern-day nomadic groups. Neither of these methods are perfect, but they allow scholars to gain a basic understanding of how some of these groups were organized. It's important to remember that in situations where sources are scarce, historians have to generalize.
How were these groups generally organized? We know that family structures were important. Pastoral communities, like foragers, often moved in groups of five to a dozen families. They cooperated to manage labor and defend each other from outside groups. Their families weren't necessarily as defined as those of settled farming families. In many cases, children born to married and unmarried parents who had the same social status. Of course, nomadic groups were diverse and had varying levels of complexity. Some pastoralists formed small confederations, and others, like the Xiongnu, built empires.
Gender roles in nomadic groups—whether pastoralists or foragers—were usually relatively freer than in agrarian communities. Men typically cared for cattle, made weapons and other tools, hunted, and defended the communities. Women and children organized households, made food and clothing, and took care of small children. But when men were absent, particularly when they were away on military excursions, women took on almost all of the responsibility. When the group moved, women often took down and set up dwellings. They were also trained in riding and archery, as they sometimes had to defend their communities from outsiders. Women's graves sometimes contained weapons, suggesting they had a role in military life as well. One Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) Chinese historian, in describing a neighboring nomadic group, wrote that, "When drawing the calculations and plans, the males (men) defer to opinion of females (women) and settle on their own only the military affairs."
Carpet depicts a man in a dotted scarf on horseback
A felt carpet depicting a horseman from a central Asian nomadic group, c. 300 BCE. Public Domain.

Networks and exchange

Both pastoralist and foraging societies had varying economic systems. Many of these systems included trade with settled communities. Pastoralists often traded dairy, meat, and wool for agricultural products, including carbohydrate-rich grains. Much of this trade was well-organized and continued for long periods of time. In fact, successful trade between non-agricultural communities often resulted in the creation of long-term settlements in some trade centers. Pastoralist nomads supplied and handled animals along the Silk Road. Silk Road travelers needed these nomads for transportation and protection. Many settlements began along the Silk Road. Trade between Anatolia and the Red Sea region resulted in the establishment of trade cities in the Middle East. In the Arabian Peninsula, Arab pastoralists supplied camels and led caravans across the sparse desert, in some cases making wheeled vehicles unnecessary.
Non-agricultural communities benefitted from and contributed to trade networks. But they also had conflicts with settled farming groups. Many of the sources we have about pastoralist nomads describe them negatively. Sedentary agriculturalists were often part of powerful, affluent societies. But they were also vulnerable to attack. Being settled meant being tied to land and possessions; being nomadic meant having a mobile community with a mobile food supply. This allowed nomads to attack and plunder resources. They could gain access to agricultural products without having to farm or trade.
Of course, this angered settled communities. One example of a major conflict was between the Chinese and neighboring pastoralist groups. Many Chinese dynasties launched massive war efforts to subdue these nomadic groups. The Han-dynasty historian Sima Qian (c. 147-87 BCE) wrote about the northern Xiongnu in his Records of the Grand Historian:
"As early as the time of Emperors Yao and Shun and before, we hear of these people, known as Mountain Barbarians, Xianyun, or Hunzhu, living in the region of the northern barbarians and wandering from place to place pasturing their animals. The animals they raise consist mainly of horses, cows, and sheep…. They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture. Their lands, however, are divided into regions under the control of various leaders. They have no writing, and even promises and agreements are only verbal. The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their inborn nature. For long-range weapons they use bows and arrows, and swords and spears at close range. If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat, for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away. Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness."
As we can see from this passage, Sima Qian considers the Xiongnu to be predatory, violent, and without morals. Many nomadic groups were described this way by sedentary societies. However, it's wise to be critical when reading these accounts from outsiders. Certainly, nomadic groups had their own systems of morality and value. Their conflicts with neighboring groups suggest that they were not always well-understood. In the end, we still learn much from these sources about how diverse non-agricultural communities lived, worked, and interacted with others.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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