Are Nomadic Pastoralists Non-Rational?

Herskovits[1] showed that cattle were a dominant element among East African pastoralists’ culture and life. Cattle were important in many ways, e.g. as a symbol of wealth, dowry, and in ceremonies.

As such, the preoccupation with having large herds have been explained as having nothing to do with economic considerations, but rather with values lying outside the economic domain.

This was not Herskovits intention, however, he merely wished to stress the importance of cultural values.

Subsequently, the term the “East African cattle complex” was coined to point to the social value of cattle, often without reference to the consumption requirements of households[2].

Consequently, nomadic pastoralists have been viewed as non-rational, having an economically unreasonable attachment to livestock.

A Saami reindeer herd in Norway
A Saami reindeer herd in Norway

Professionals and governments often view problems, such as dramatic droughts causing the death of animals and humans, and pasture degradation in many pastoral areas, as inherent in the nomadic pastoral adaptation itself:

”Their [the pastoralist themselves] retention of pastoral economic structures based upon the maximal increase of herd size, under new conditions of limited movement and growing dessication because of rainfall failure, were seen to have led to overgrazing of pastures, environmental degradation, and the physical decline of livestock. Eventual economic collapse and famine were thus seen to follow the logic of the ‘tragedy of commons’, the inevitable outcome of lack of individual restraint on livestock production in the face of collectively owned pasture resources”[3]

This is contrast with the many anthropological studies, starting with Evans-Pritchard[4] study of the cattle keeping Nuer in Africa, showing the underlying rationale of nomadic pastoralism by focusing on the “[…] unique fit between livestock-keeping peoples and the arid lands they inhabit, between their particular social organizations and the demands of mobile livestock production”[5].

Tibetan herd of sheep and goats
Tibetan herd of sheep and goats

In 1976 Dahl and Hjort wrote in the introduction to their seminal book Having herds: pastoral herd growth and household economy:

“a preoccupation with the cosmological aspect of cattle easily leads to a misunderstanding of the rationale for an individual household keeping many cattle […]; the focus is then rather on the prestige aspects of having large herds, beautiful cattle etc.”[6].

In contrast,

“The tendency that pastoralists try to keep as large herds as possible is not, however, solely a result from the value system. […]. For example the unreliable rainfall leads to great fluctuations in the availability of water and grazing, both seasonally and over longer periods. For a pastoral household it is necessary to keep a margin against the risk of having part of the herds killed from a drought or an epidemy [sic]. The number of animals needed to maintain a longtime continuous production is also much larger than the number of animals immediately utilized at a certain period.”[7]

The economic rationale for having relatively large herds have been summarized by Coughenour et al.[8]:

  1. Milk requirements necessitates a large fraction of mature females, giving herds excessive reproductive capability.
  2. Lactating animals must provide milk to both humans and young animals.
  3. Pastoralist herd 50 to 100% more animals than required for subsistence purposes only to secure survival of some animals during droughts to form the basis of a new herd[9].
  4. Individual animals are, in general, characterized by low productivity, necessitating more animals per person.

In short, one compelling reason for pastoralists to keep a large herd of livestock may be viewed with reference to risk management.

Dead livestock2
A goat (or sheep, not really easy to tell, but looks like goat based on the horn) killed during a blizzard illustrating the “riskiness” of rearing livestock on the Tibetan Plateau.

Risk may be defined as unpredictable variations in ecological or economic parameters, and outcomes are viewed as more or less risky depending on their degree of variability[10].

Societies in general employ a wide range of strategies or ‘buffering mechanisms’ to counteract environmental induced scarcities. These strategies can be grouped into four major categories:[11]

  1. Diversification, from the keeping of multiple livestock species  to investing in non-pastoral activities;
  2. Exchange, livestock exchange networks such as stockfriendship;
  3. Mobility, taking advantage of spatial and temporal heterogeneity in available forage (see also the post Climate Change, Risk Management and the End of Nomadic Pastoralism); and
  4. Storage, large herd size

The efficiency of herd accumulation as a buffer strategy has been quantitatively demonstrated for the Saami reindeer husbandry where studies have shown that herders with large herds also have comparable larger herds from one year to the next[12] and during crisis periods[13] (also check out the post Why Herd Size Matters – Mitigating the Effects of Livestock Crashes).

In short, herd accumulation maximizes long-term survival for pastoralists.

This again provide the rationale for why both reindeer herders[14]  and pastoralists in general[15] invest labour to increase herd size.


[1] Herskovits, M. J. (1926). The Cattle Complex in East Africa. American Anthropologist 28(4):633-664.

[2] Dahl, G., and Hjort, A. (1976). Having herds: pastoral herd growth and household economy. Stockholm studies in social anthropology, Stockholm.

[3]  Galaty, J. G., and Salzman, P. C. (1981). Change and development in nomadic and pastoral societies. Vol. 33. International studies in sociology and social anthropology Brill, Leiden.

[4] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[5] Fratkin, E., Roth, E. A., and Galvin, K. A. (1994). Introduction. In E. Fratkin, E. A. Roth, and K. A. Galvin (eds.), African Pastoralist Systems: An Integrated Approach, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, London.

Dyson-Hudson, N. (1972). The Study of Nomads. In W. Irons and N. Dyson-Hudson (eds.), Perspectives on Nomadism, E. J. Brill, Leiden Netherlands, pp. 2-29.

Dyson-Hudson, R., and Dyson-Hudson, N. (1980). Nomadic Pastoralism. Annual Review of Anthropology 9:15-61.

[6] Dahl, G., and Hjort, A. (1976). Having herds: pastoral herd growth and household economy. Stockholm studies in social anthropology, Stockholm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Coughenour, M. B., Ellis, J. E., Swift, D. M., Coppock, D. L., Galvin, K., McCabe, J. T., and Hart, T. C. (1985). Energy Extraction and Use in a Nomadic Pastoral Ecosystem. Science 230(4726):619-625.


  • Fratkin, E., and Roth, E. A. (1990). Drought And Economic Differentiation Among Ariaal Pastoralists Of Kenya. Human Ecology 18(4):385-402
  • Hjort, A. (1981). Herds, Trade and Grain: Pastoralism in a Regional Perspective. In J. G. Galaty, D. Aronson, P. C. Salzman, and A. Choiunard (eds.), The Future of pastoral peoples: proceedings of a conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, 4-8 August 1980, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, pp. 97-103
  • McPeak, J. (2005). Individual and collective rationality in pastoral production: Evidence from Northern Kenya. Human Ecology 33(2):171-197.
  • Roth, E. A. (1996). Traditional pastoral strategies in a modern world: An example from northern Kenya. Human Organization 55(2):219-224.
  • Templer, G., Swift, J., and Payne, P. (1993). The changing significance of risk in the Mongolian pastoral economy. Nomadic Peoples 33:105-122.

[10] Cashdan, E. Editor. (1990). Risk and Uncertainty in Tribal and Peasant Economies. Boulder: Westview Press.

[11] Halstead, P., and O’Shea, J. (1989). Bad year economics: cultural responses to risk and uncertainty. New directions in archaeology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. See also Næss, M. W., and Bårdsen, B.-J. (2010). Environmental Stochasticity and Long-Term Livestock Viability-Herd-Accumulation as a Risk Reducing Strategy. Human Ecology 38(1):3-17.

[12] Næss, M. W., and Bårdsen, B.-J. (2010). Environmental Stochasticity and Long-Term Livestock Viability-Herd-Accumulation as a Risk Reducing Strategy. Human Ecology 38(1):3-17.

[13] Næss, M. W., and Bårdsen, B.-J. (2013). Why Herd Size Matters – Mitigating the Effects of Livestock Crashes. Plos One 8(8): e70161.

[14] Næss, M. W., Bårdsen, B.-J., Fauchald, P., and Tveraa, T. (2010). Cooperative pastoral production – the importance of kinship. Evolution and Human Behavior 31(4):246-258Næss, M. W., Fauchald, P., and Tveraa, T. (2009). Scale Dependency and the “Marginal” Value of Labor. Human Ecology 37(2):193-211.

[15] Næss, M. W. (2012). Cooperative Pastoral Production: Reconceptualizing the Relationship between Pastoral Labor and Production. American Anthropologist 114(2):309-321—. (2010). Contradictory Evidence as a Guide for Future Research – Investigating the Relationship between Pastoral Labour and Production. Nomadic Peoples 14(1):51-71.


One thought on “Are Nomadic Pastoralists Non-Rational?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s