The nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes have always fascinated me. Although these nomads have maintained a relatively primitive lifestyle up until the nineteenth century, they have also given rise to many of history’s largest land empires. Despite the fact that the Eurasian steppes were seen by many as the edge of the civilized world, many prominent peoples in history – most noticeable the Indo-Iranians and the Turks – have migrated from there. What exactly makes these ‘primitive’ peoples from these ‘desolate wastelands’ so successful? This question has consumed anthropologists for decades. The successes of these nomads seem to defy the notion that only economically complex societies can form states and empires. Luckily, there has been a movement among anthropologists dedicated to studying these nomadic societies, in order to find out in which ways these economically simple societies may evolve to a high level of political complexity. Their findings have been published in a bundle titled Nomadic Pathway in Social Evolution (2003).
A multilinear approach
Ever since the science of anthropology originated during the nineteenth century, there has been a tendency to ‘measure’ the level of political complexity of societies. The simplest societies were thought to be small bands of hunter-gatheres and the most complex were the modern state societies with an industrialized economy, a complex bureaucracy and preferably a large colonial empire. It was thought that societies developed according to a fixed, universally applicable pattern towards political complexity; from bands of hunter-gatherers to small farming communities or tribes to chiefdoms to states. This evolution towards political complexity was thought to be driven by an increase in economical complexity. Economical complexity creates differences in wealth, which leads to stratification, and economically complex societies also require more central organization. Ever since it’s conception, however, this unilinear approach to social evolution has been problematic. Many societies simply do not fit this model. Some nomadic peoples of Eurasia, for example, are known to have had a complex hierarchy, a well organized army and the ability to exert control over a huge area, yet they did not live in a fixed spot, they did not farm and they were still organized along tribal lines. In order to do justice to these nomadic societies, the authors of Nomadic Pathway in Social Evolution have taken a multilinear approach. The multilinear approach aims to identify ways in which a society can grow towards a high level of complexity without growing in economical complexity.
The nomadic lifestyle
The nomadic pastoralists of the Eurasian steppes have a very simple economy. Their flocks provide them with meat, dairy products and furs and all they have to do is herd these flocks towards the best pastures and protect them from raiders and animals of prey. These nomads are largely self-sufficient, but in order to get grains, vegetables, and luxury products they do need to trade with their sedentary neighbors. The nomadic herdsmen and the sedentary farmers are highly dependent on each other and they usually try to maintain peaceful relations with each other. If the needs of the nomads aren’t met, however, or if they have trouble finding good pastures for their herds, they may resort to raiding the settlements of these farmers and demanding tribute from them. The nomads usually have an edge over their sedentary neigbors, because every member of their tribe is a warrior. Every man learns how to protect his flocks against raiders and animals of prey, how to survive and thrive in rough terrain and how to ride horses, so they fare well in battle.
Political power in nomadic societies
Because the nomads have such a simple economy, they do not need strong centralized leadership. They are organized in tribal units and clans based on presumed relatedness and usually these family bonds are enough to keep the society from falling apart. These tribes do have chiefs, usually the head of a prominent clan, who leads the tribe in battle, distributes the loot and tribute among his people and acts as an arbiter in internal conflicts, but the power of the chief doesn’t go much further than that. Furthermore, the position of the chief is based entirely upon his personal skills and charisma and if he lacks these, he is easily replaced by a more capable leader.
How do tribal federations form?
Although there is no internal need for centralized leadership among nomads, there may be external reasons why nomadic societies become more complex. First of all, when several nomadic tribes are faced with a common enemy they may join forces to form a tribal federation. This is what happened when the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang tried to subjugate the nomadic tribes to the north, which resulted in the rise of the Xiongnu federation. Secondly, they may be driven by food shortages – either due to climatological circumstances or by the economical decline of neighboring states – to form a tribal federation. This enables them to defend themselves more easily and to conduct raids and demand tribute more efficiently. Such tribal federations may become worthy rivals of state societies and they may even conquer them.
How do tribal federations function?
The tribes within a tribal federation remain mostly autonomous and economically self-sufficient. Within the tribe itself there is little change. Only the chiefs of these tribes submit themselves to a higher, ‘paramount chief’ or ‘khagan’. These chiefs may form complex hierarchies among themselves, based on their closeness to the khagan. As long as these chiefs see enough reason to follow the leadership of the khagan, the khagan may effectively rule a huge territory and command massive armies of skilled warriors. If the skills of this khagan are called into doubt, or if there is no external need for cooperation anymore, these chiefs may just as easily leave the tribal federation or even revolt against their khagan. Because of the dynamic nature of power within tribal federations, such federations may rise, expand, change shape and collapse very quickly.
Different kinds of nomadic empires
There are many different kinds of tribal federations, ranging in complexity from loose coalitions of tribes who do not have a central leader and only work together occasionally, to true steppe empires like the Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan’s empire had many characteristics of a state, including codified law, taxation, an intelligence agency, a complex military organisation and a transcontinental trade network. Furthermore, there are important differences between nomadic empires that rule only over other nomads and nomadic empires that rule over a large sedentary population as well. A very different way of governing is required when dealing with a population of sedentary farmers. The khagan has to find a way to make himself acceptable to these sedentary subjects and to tax them without destroying their economy, which often leads to state formation among the nomads themselves. Each type of these nomadic empires poses a different set of questions that have yet to be answered.
Nomadic pathway in social evolution
Nomadic Pathway in Social Evolution is an interesting read for everyone who is interested in learning more about nomadic societies. The book is written by anthropologists and for anthropologists, so the use of technical terms might be confusing to some. Nevertheless, since anthropology focuses on concrete case studies there are plenty of examples to illustrate these technical terms. Because this book is a bundle, it does not form a narrative whole but consists instead of various articles of varying lengths by various authors with varying writing styles. One should therefore not expect to find a concrete conclusion at the end of the book. You have to find the information you want for yourself and this can be difficult if you don’t know where to look. Nevertheless, if you’re a university student with some prior knowledge of the subject who wants to learn more, this book offers plenty of high quality cases studies that approach the problem of political complexity in nomadic societies from various interesting angles.