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Nomads are greedy


In Bruce Chatwin’s marvellous book, The Songlines, we hardly notice that the author runs together hunter gatherer and nomadic peoples in his argument. He once or twice makes a nice point of saying all nomads are pastoral nomads but all that does is distract us from comparing the very different lifestyles of hunter gatherers and nomads. The real argument of his book concerns people who move around a lot versus people who don’t.

Movement confers advantages- some of the time. With settled agriculture nomads and settlers come into an uneasy truce. Chatwin assumes nomads are less warlike than settlers. I think they may be more warlike, but that doesn't mean they will be more destructive. 

Recently some fascinating research using number crunching methods and ideas derived from evolutionary biology and virology have been applied to the study of language spread. The attraction is that their results coincide with suggestions made by archeologists that indo-european languages spread on the back of the invention of farming 8-9000 years ago in Anatolia.

It knocks out a suggestion that Indo-european was spread by Ukrainian nomads 5-6000 years later.

So what were those Turks doing inventing agriculture? Well, we know that forest gardening, wild agriculture so to speak, had been practised before then. Hunter gatherers very early on learnt to cultivate bushes that provided food they liked. These would be planted in places where they didn’t need tending but could be visited when the fruit was ripe.

You still get the remnant of this in parts of island Indonesia. All palm trees ‘belong’ to someone, even if you find one deep in a public forest.

The invention of agriculture that required staying in one place with everything nearby in fields is a step further. Gone is the wander around familiar bushes while looking out for game at the same time.

Someone somewhere started domesticating animals, growing wheat, staying in one place.

But not all environments can sustain year round living. Europe can, but not its mountains- where transhumance farming- nomadism took place. In places with poorer soil but suited to large herds- the steppes of Asia- then nomadism was a development of farming in one place- you went on a circuit farming in several places. You could say slash and burn farming is a kind of nomadism.

Non- slash and burn forest gardeners are probably more in alignment with their environment than any other group. What interests me though is that the invention of agriculture traded lifestyle and health for greater food production. We know that historically hunter gatherers have well developed bodies, are generally long lived if they survive the first five years and typically die with a full set of teeth. Agriculture brought RSI type defects to the physique through over work in a way that lacked variety. Monoculture and over dependence on grain brought tooth decay. Stores of food activated man’s acquisitiveness and allowed control to pass from the producers to the men with swords.

Battle success is about movement and firepower. Rommel has greater movement and beats the Maginot line with all its superior firepower. Men on horseback- nomads- are ideally placed to wreak vengeance on the men with swords who have captured the grain of early farmers.

The story as presented by Chatwin omits this aspect. That the warrior advantage of nomadism is crucial, that nomadism will initially attract warlike types. I am saying that warlike people adopt nomadism because it offers an evolutionary advantage not just a more pleasant lifestyle.

In Egypt, before the success of the militarist ruler Mohamed Ali in the early C19th. Bedouin tribes commanded a great deal of Egypt. They lived in a truce with the Nileside dwellers and extracted tribute from them. Mohamed Ali employed the organisation and firepower derived from Napoleon’s invasion. He massively reduced the Bedouin as military power in Egypt.

Warlike people match their acquisitiveness with bravery. Now you don’t have to be quite so brave to be a businessman for example. But you do need to be acquisitive, or driven by some ideology that spurs you to succeed, perhaps for the greater good or some other altruistic purpose.

Modern nomads- technomads, van people, perpetual travellers, live as they do to get ‘more’ for less. They want it all- and who can blame them? But isn't it a bit greedy to want better than everyone else? Live in a big city now and rich or poor you’ll be stuck in traffic jams from time to time. Rich or poor you’ll be breathing the same air and enduring the same weather. That's democracy of a kind. What constitutes enough in your mind?


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