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The Facts



The term nomadic is now a common metaphor for aimless wandering. In fact the movement of traditional nomadic peoples is far from haphazard: it is both predetermined and systematic. Most nomads live in marginal areas like deserts, steppes and tundra, where mobility becomes a logical and efficient strategy for harvesting scarce resources spread unevenly across wide territories.

Total Population Nomadic Pastoralists

Who they are
There are three main groups of nomads:

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Pastoralists The word ‘nomad’ is derived from the Greek word for pasture – nomos. Pastoral nomads move with their households in search of pasture for their animals. There are an estimated 30-40 million of them in the world. Livestock is central to their livelihood and the basis of their culture. Their movement is seasonal, linked to rainfall and the availability of good forage for their animals.

[image, unknown] Goat herders in the Peruvian Andes graze their animals on richer grasses at lower altitudes during the wet season, then move to higher altitudes during the dry season.2

[image, unknown] Of the 60,000 Sami in Scandinavia only 6,000 are still nomadic. They may migrate with their reindeer up to 300 kilometres from sheltered forests in the winter to coastal grasslands in the summer.3

Hunter-gatherers Groups like the San of the Kalahari Desert, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, native people of the Amazonian rainforest and various hill tribes of Southeast Asia are nomadic in that they move in search of particular animals to hunt or foodstuffs to gather. These hunting cultures are now disappearing or changing under the influence of modern consumer society and the cash economy.

Traders and Craftworkers Other groups may have nomadic lifestyles although they are neither pastoralists nor hunter-gatherers. In the West the best known of these are the Rom or Gypsies, sometimes known as Travellers.

Originally from northern India, the Rom moved north-west about 1,000 years ago and scattered across Europe, working as petty traders, musicians, farm workers and day-labourers.


Animal mythology and symbolism permeate all aspects of nomadic society. Animals provide milk, meat and blood for food; hides, hair, wool, horn and bone for clothing, shelter and tools; and dung for fuel and fertilizer. Nomads also use animals for transport, freight carriage and traction (milling, threshing and ploughing).

  • The Bedouin of Saudi Arabia have a special vocabulary to describe their camels. The Arabic word for camel (jamal) comes from the same root as the word for beautiful (jamil).4

  • In Somali, the word raadraa which means ‘to track down animals’ is now used to describe modern research. The word layis which means ‘to tame a young camel’ is also the term given to exercises in a student work book.5

  • Mongols use different words to describe the age, colour and size of horses. The word saaral is used for a white horse, ke’er for a bay and je’ered for a reddish-brown steed.6

Cattle as Capital

  • Almost all English words for money come from the world of pastoral nomads. Cattle, chattel and capital come from the same root. Pecuniary comes from the Latin word for cattle, pecus.7

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Threat to movement

Nomadic peoples face many threats today, but the most serious is the attempt to stop them moving around.

  • Over the last 40 years the Raika camel nomads in Rajasthan, India, have lost access to half of the common lands previously used as pasture.8

  • In Kenya, Government attempts to bring traditional Maasai lands under private title have ended up removing large areas of land from grazing. In some cases nearly half the land is now in the hands of non-Maasai.9

  • In Inner Mongolia much of the best grazing land has been turned over to irrigated farming. With privatization nomads have to contract for the right to graze traditional lands. More and more are becoming semi-nomadic and even sedentary ranchers.10

Survival strategies.
  • Mobility Because nomads live in areas of climatic extremes they’ve had to be flexible and opportunistic. Mobility allows them to profit from widely-dispersed resources whose availability varies from year to year.

  • Mixed Economies Pastoral nomads raise several kinds of animals: usually one large prestigious species and several smaller animals like goats and sheep. Disease or drought affects each species differently, thus increasing the nomads’ chances of survival. They also combine animal raising with small-scale farming, fishing, petty trading or migrant labour. And though nomads are subsistence-oriented, they have strong commercial skills, trading or selling animal hides, milk and meat in exchange for grain, tea and modern consumer goods.11

  • Tribal Sharing Most nomadic peoples are organized into tribes or clans which have a customary claim over a specific territory. Tribal elders control who has access to common property like water, pasture, game or wild foodstuffs. Outsiders have to ask permission if they want to use resources on land which traditionally belongs to another group. Strong tribal identities are also one way pastoral nomads have of banding together to defend their livestock against theft by their neighbours.

1 NI estimates compiled from Nomads at the Crossroads, UNESCO, 1989 and various other sources.
2 Nomadic Peoples, Commission on Nomadic Peoples, No 28, Uppsala, 1991.
3, 4, 6 Nomads, Peter Carmichael, Collins and Brown, London, 1991.
5 Aman, The Story of a Somali Girl, Janice Boddy and Virginia Lee Barnes, Bloomsbury, London, 1994.
7 Beyond Beef, The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture, Jeremy Rifkin, Dutton/Penguin, 1992.
8, 9, 10 Nomadic Peoples, Commission on Nomadic Peoples, No 30 1992 & No 33 1993, Uppsala.
11 Nomads and the Outside World, AM Khazanov, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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