Variability is the key: thoughts on ancient pastoralisms

Stefano Biagetti, co-editor with Tim Howe of the current Special Issue of Nomadic Peoples on ‘Ancient Pastoralisms’ (Nomadic Peoples 21.2) introduces the issue and reflects on the disciplinary changes it both draws upon and heralds.

When I landed for the first time in my life in the central Sahara I had just obtained my first degree in African Archaeology. I was literally imbued with all the archaeological reconstructions of Holocene cultural trajectories, characterised, at that time, by the paradigm ‘aridity equals abandonment’. Eminent scholars routinely matched the development of regional sequences with climatic oscillations. In wetter times Holocene pastoral societies flourished in Green Sahara periods, and inevitably transformed or collapsed in arid times. In the early 2000s palaeoclimatic data for the Sahara had become more and more refined, and archaeological data were parallel growing fast, thanks to an unprecedented season of multidisciplinary investigations. A huge quantity of data was put together, in a true landscape perspective, combining different disciplines. Undoubtedly, a great leap forward, for our knowledge of the Sahara’s pasts. In a few years, the archaeological maps had become populated by a large quantity of new archaeological sites. In two decades (1990–2010), we moved from a few dozens of recorded settlements (mainly in the form of rock art sites) to thousands of new caves and rock-shelters.

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Stefano Biagetti’s fieldwork in the Sahara

Yet, the interpretations of data related to prehistoric pastoralists from the Sahara were, nevertheless, still largely connected to normative systems or typologies, following older anthropological perspectives on nomadism. It is well known, in fact, that since the first systematic encounters with nomadic societies in Africa and the Near East, European ethnographers had been using labels, mainly based on the type of mobility and the type of stock, and adopted rather normative and static classificatory systems to set the groups analysed into a predetermined framework. In reality, pastoral societies are endowed with close and short-term response mechanisms rather than with predictive schemes. Nowadays, in fact, ethnographers are aware of the flexibility of pastoral societies worldwide, and tend to discard normative approaches in favour of ‘lighter’ perspectives, focused on the variability and opportunism of socio-economic systems based on animal husbandry.

Present-day Saharan pastoralism

I am taking the Sahara as case study, but similar developments occurred in the study of the wide Asian steppes, and other part of the world as well. In general, it is true that the study of ancient pastoralism poses serious challenges for archaeologists. Such scholars, generally Westerners, educated in middle-latitude cities, and fully sedentary (!), have long been searching for clues that will allow them to ‘decode’ sparse and ‘ephemeral’ archaeological landscapes. Apparently set at the periphery of towns and oasis, the mobile lifestyle of nomads has often eluded traditional techniques to detect and interpret the archaeological evidence. Yet, in the last decades the study of mobile societies (including pastoral ones) has been largely re-conceptualised, thanks to a number of research projects focused explicitly on tangible and intangible aspects of pastoral societies. Among those, it is worth recalling a set of micromorphological and geoarchaeological studies on animal dung, along with a series of research projects into pastoral landscapes supported by satellite imagery, and resultant adoption of new perspectives on social and ecological interactions in nomadic societies.

Papers in this special issue on ‘Ancient Pastoralisms’ share a focus on the variability and flexibility of pastoral societies in their historical contexts. Far from being residual or marginalised communities living at the edges of civilised worlds, pastoral societies in the past have played major roles in shaping regional dynamics. Drawing from case-studies from Africa and Eurasia, the authors offer innovative models for recognising local diversity but at the same time seeing commonalities. Papers cover a wide temporal span, crossed by evolving pastoral societies in changing worlds. The authors combine a variety of sources, ranging from archaeological to textual, and from ethnographic to ecological, to depict variable scenarios in the pasts of the Old World. It is our hope that their diachronic focus on variability, flexibility and opportunism will improve our approaches to ancient pastoral societies and allow the conversation to move beyond stale deterministic discourses and offer fresh and prejudice-free perspectives on world pastoral systems.



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