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7.3: Pastoralists

Pastoralism is a subsistence strategy dependent on the herding of animals, particularly sheep, goats and cattle, although there are pastoralists who herd reindeer, horses, yak, camel, and llamas. This does not mean that the people only eat the animals they raise, in fact, some pastoralists only eat their animals for special occasions. They often rely on secondary resources from the animals for food, e.g., blood or milk, or use the by-products like wool to trade for food. Some pastoralists forage for food while others do small-scale farming to supplement their diet. Like foragers, many pastoralists are forced to live in the world’s marginal environments all over the world.

General Characteristics
  • Production is for more than meat and milk. Some animals are used as beasts of burden, while others are used for their fur. Animal products are for both personal use and trade.
  • Pastoralism is characterized by extensive land use. Animals are moved to pasture; fodder is not brought to them.
  • Generally speaking, pastoralists live in extended families in order to have enough people to take care of all of the duties associated with animal care and other domestic duties.
  • Division of labor is gender based.
  • Most pastoralists are monotheistic (but not all of them); usually the belief is tied closely to their animals.
  • The concept of ownership is restricted to animals, housing and some domestic goods. Land is communal and many pastoralists contend that they have travel rights over lands because of centuries-old migratory patterns that supersede modern land ownership.
  • Wealth is determined by herd size and often the number of wives and offspring a man has.
  • Kin relations are patrilineal, which means that the father’s side of the family is reckoned as kin.
  • While some pastoralists are more sedentary, most are nomadic, moving to temporary pastures as needed or seasonally. Semi-permanent camps are set up with each move. Decisions about when to move are made communally.
  • Because of the low to moderate consumption rate, the sustainability of pastoralism is high if the herders have access to enough land.


Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Dogon pastoralists

The Ariaal are one example of pastoralists. They live on the plains and slopes of modern Kenya. The Ariaal are successful because they practice a highly diversified system of animal husbandry with the key being herd diversity (camel, cattle, sheep and goats) and mobility. The Ariaal split the herd and pasture them in different places, a practice that ensures herd survivability against disease and drought. The herds are used to encourage growth of seasonal vegetation, which provides the group with trade items.

Sheep and goats are used primarily for food, as is camel milk. The blood of the animals is also used. This is a good adaptation because blood is a renewable resource and it is highly nutritious. Cattle are used as bride price (more on bride price in the section on Marriage and Family). The exchange of cattle as part of a marriage helps to maintain herd diversity and distribute the wealth among the people.

Ariaal settlements are widely dispersed, making it difficult to maintain social cohesion. One way the Ariaal have devised to help with social cohesion is age-sets. An age set is a group of individuals of roughly the same age that are given specific duties within the society at large. In the case of the Ariaal, there are three age-sets for each sex: for males the age sets are boy, warrior, elder; for females, girl, adolescent, married. Each age set has a specific set of clothes, diet, duties and socializing rules. For instance, adolescent girls are not allowed to associate with any males, including their father while warriors are not allowed to associate with women, including their mother. This practice not only ensures that labor is distributed among members of the group, but serves as a form of population control.


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