How Nomads Shaped Centuries of Civilization

A new book celebrates the achievements of wanderers, whose stories have long been overlooked

Bakhtiari nomads in the Zagros Mountains of Iran in June 2017
Bakhtiari nomads in the Zagros Mountains of Iran in June 2017 Photo by Thomas Schulze / picture alliance via Getty Images

A young man walks toward me with a stick slung across his back and a flock of sheep at his feet, which carry him down the path like a crowd of rowdy children. An older man follows, weatherworn but still strong, a rifle over his left shoulder. He clicks his tongue to encourage the flock. Behind him are two women on donkeys; I guess they are his wife and daughter. They look like strong women, but then it is a tough life beneath the peaks of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran. Other donkeys carry their belongings, bundled inside heavy rust-and-brown cloth that the women have woven and will soon repurpose as door flaps when their goat-hair tents are set up.

There are few trees at this altitude, but the snow has melted, and there is excellent grazing in the valley, which is blanketed with irises, dwarf tulips and other spring flowers. The family smiles as they lead their sheep and goats along the rock-strewn track toward me. I smile in return, swept up by the excitement of the Bakhtiari tribe’s annual migration from the lowland plains into the mountains in search of summer pasture.

Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World

The remarkable story of how nomads have fostered and refreshed civilization throughout our history

Everywhere there is beauty. Slanting sunbeams tint the mountains pink and cast gold across the surface of the stream. The rumble of water is punctuated by the clunk of stones, the buzzing of bees, the whistling and whooping of men bringing the flocks in for the night. Barefoot and slightly sunstruck, I pull out a pencil to note the pure quality of light in the blue sky, the way yellow flowers pop in the green valley and the sudden chill that descends as soon as the sun drops behind the crest.

Over the next couple of days, the nomad family introduces me to their valley and their people. They talk about their lives, the tribal lands they know, the animals they raise, the children they worry about—should they send them to a state boarding school or raise them as nomads without formal education?—and the many other challenges of being a herder in the 21st century. They tell me about plants in the valley, what could grow there, what to encourage, what to fear. They talk about the journey they made from the hot lowlands into the mountains and how they would walk back again when the earth began to freeze beneath their feet, a journey their ancestors made long before anyone began keeping records.

I have heard similar stories from Bedouins and Berbers in North Africa and the Middle East, where I have spent much of my adult life; from Tuareg and Wodaabe beyond the mud houses and libraries of Timbuktu; from swift young Maasai, flashes of orange across the red East African bush; from nomads on the edge of the Thar Desert in India, on boats in the Andaman Sea, in the uplands of Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Asia. With all of them, conversation tends to settle on the same issue—of continuity, of pride in belonging, of being in harmony with their surroundings and respecting what nature offers. Also, of the difficulties of living a nomadic life when governments want you to settle.

Nomadic Maasai people in East Africa
Nomadic Maasai people in East Africa Osama Almangosh via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

These people remind me of a harmony that exists with the natural world. They know their environment in a way that can only be acquired through living on equal footing with the natural world, not in domination—through a recognition that humans are dependent on our surroundings, something those of us who live in towns and cities too easily forget. The Bakhtiari of Iran know the significance of each tone of their herds’ bleating—when the animals are content, or hungry, or threatened, whether a birth or death is near—just as they know how to read the clouds and the scents carried on the winds. The more I watch and listen, the more I’m reminded that we all lived this way once—and not so very long ago, in the greater scheme of human things.

Nomad. The word’s roots run through the human story back to an early Indo-European word, nomos, which can be translated as “a fixed or bounded area” or a “pasture.” Out of this root-word grew nomas, meaning “a member of a wandering pastoral tribe” and implying “someone looking for a place to graze their herds.” Later, the root split. After towns and cities were built, and more people settled permanently, the word nomad came to describe those who lived without walls and beyond boundaries. Nomad is now used by settled people in two very different ways. For some of us, the word is imbued with a sense of romantic nostalgia. But very often it carries an implicit judgment that such people are drifters, migrants, vagrants, people on the move or even on the run. They are people who are not known.

This sense that nomads are “not known” has long allowed settled people to dismiss the achievements of nomadic peoples. Although we tend to see their story as the shadow side of our own, the history of nomadic peoples is neither less wonderful nor less significant than our settled one. Their diverse and remarkable stories are set in some of the world’s most extreme landscapes, along a chronological line that stretches back to what we now believe was the beginning of monumental architecture, at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey around 9500 B.C.E.

A Sámi family of nomadic reindeer herders in Norway around 1900
A family of nomadic reindeer herders in Norway around 1900 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

And yet there is a prevailing sense, usefully crystalized in the neat observation by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, that “nomads have no history; they only have a geography.” But whether we acknowledge it or not, nomads have always been at least half of the human story. Their contributions have been essential to the march of what many historians have traditionally called civilization.

Take the Pars, a nomadic Indo-European tribe that rode off the great Eurasian steppes and settled on the upland plateau that is now Iran. Under a dynamic leader called Cyrus, in the sixth century B.C.E., the Pars established sovereignty from Macedonia to the Indus Valley, from what is now Oman up to the Black Sea. In the age when the Buddha was said to have found enlightenment, when the first Singhalese king ruled Sri Lanka and China was divided among numerous princes and kings, Cyrus was master of some 40 percent of the world’s population, befitting a man with titles such as the Great King, the King of Kings, and King of the Four Corners of the World,

Seventeen years after Cyrus’s death, one of his successors, Darius I, a man of nomadic stock whose kingdom had no cities, built a new kind of monument, which the ancient Greeks called Persepolis. The city of the Pars was not a city as we understand the word. Darius did not live there. Instead, Persepolis served as the sacred, ceremonial and diplomatic center of his empire, as well as its treasury. Raising the city’s great stone platform in front of a holy place called the Mountain of Mercy was a sacred act. Each year at Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the realm’s 27 subject tribes and nations sent representatives bearing gold, horses, linen and other tributes. But perhaps the most significant and revolutionary aspect of Persepolis lies in the way it fused art and architectural styles drawn from Egypt to the Caspian Sea and across to the Fertile Crescent. Persepolis, in other words, was a celebration in stone of the racial and cultural diversity of the Persian Empire.

The ruins of Persepolis
The ruins of Persepolis F. Couin via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Four hundred years later, in the second century B.C.E., after the Roman Republic defeated Carthage and became masters of the Mediterranean, and as China flourished under the Han Emperor Wu, trade inched its way along the nascent Silk Roads across the vast nomadlands between the Yellow River and Europe. In the east, this territory was home to Xiongnu nomads; in the west, to Scythians and other nomadic tribes with whom they found common cause, a huge confederation of people who herded, traded, and lived lightly and on the move.

From one end to the other, their territories stretched from the Black Sea across the Eurasian steppes and past Kazakhstan’s Altai Mountains all the way to Manchuria, an area larger and more powerful than the empires of both Rome and the Han Dynasty. These nomadic peoples shared in common a homeland that was alive with spirits, across which they roamed with slow, heavy-wheeled carts, driving horses, cattle and sheep in search of pasture. Challenging the familiar claim that early mobile people were primitive and isolated, we know from burials that their leaders dressed in Chinese silk robes trimmed with cheetah fur, sat on Persian carpets, used Roman glass, and fashioned exquisite jewelry from Greek gold to decorate themselves and their horses. All this raises the possibility that these nomads were the masters of a linked-up trading world that brought goods and cultural traditions from the East China Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

More than 1,000 years later, high up on the Mongolian plateau, Genghis Khan established a camp of yurts that came to be known as Karakorum. The yurts were set up before his arrival and taken down when he moved on. Under his successors, solid structures were built and divided into neighborhoods, which were occupied by people from across the empire.

At a time when Europe was riven by fighting at home and swept up in the religious wars of the Crusades, Genghis Khan’s descendants opened their markets, lowered trade tariffs, and guaranteed protection for merchants moving goods along the Silk Roads and across their lands. From the Middle East came gold, pearls, spices, medical cures, musical instruments, damascened steel and gold-embroidered damask fabrics; from Russia came silver, amber, furs and fighters; from Korea, otter skins and paper; from Europe, wools, swords and glass; and from China, bolts of silk and crates of porcelain, among many other products.

A thousand years after the Scythians and their allies helped move Chinese silks to Rome, the Mongols created the largest trading zone the world had ever seen. It wasn’t unusual to find Venetians in Beijing, Mongolians in northern England, a French silversmith in Karakorum, or traders from Lucca and Siena driving hard bargains in Persia.

But trade goods were hardly the only assets that traveled. Across the great Asian mountain ranges drifted advances in technology, mathematics, medicine and religious traditions. Perhaps the most significant idea to travel west was the realization that in the East, which had stood for too long in the European imagination as a place of barbarism (an image that would, unfortunately, persist afterward), there were nevertheless people of great skill and learning and leaders who were enlightened and ambitious.

The Matthias Church in Budapest
The Matthias Church in Budapest was built to commemorate the end of a Mongol invasion. David Spigiel via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

This period of open exchange led to numerous world-shaping trends, including not insignificantly a freeing of the European imagination, which is perhaps most beautifully expressed in Europe’s great cathedrals of the age, from Chartres and Canterbury to Borgos in Spain and Budapest’s Matthias Church, commissioned to mark the end of a Mongol invasion. These architectural wonders expressed something of the new world order in their structures, their great spires pointing to the heavens, their interiors flooded with light; they demonstrated the inheritance of advanced mathematics from Persian and Arab scholars, which had made their construction possible, and the benefits of trade, which had funded them.

And yet, because nomads kept few records, raised few monuments and left scarce evidence of their passage through the world, much of what we know about them has been written by people who were not nomadic. Until archaeologists uncovered some of their burials in the 20th century, much of what was known about Scythians came from the Greek historian Herodotus. In East Asia, Sima Qian, the “Grand Historian” of Han China, remains a primary source for the Xiongnu. The 13th-century Flemish missionary William of Rubruck, who traveled to visit the Mongol khan, provided one of the most detailed accounts of remote central Asia at least until the 19th century. And the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s notebooks were the largest contemporary depository of 19th-century knowledge about Native Americans.

All of these are immensely valuable as historical records, but they are not always impartial nor objective. As a result, the nomads who frequently feature in Western histories—the Hun leader Attila, the Mongol emperors Genghis Khan and Timur, the ancient Scythians—are most often presented as barbarians. These prejudices run deep, as we know from a 3,500-year-old story in which a Sumerian princess considers marrying a nomadic pastoralist. “Their hands are destructive,” her friends tell her of nomads. “They never stop roaming about. … Their ideas are confused; they cause only disturbance.”

A gold Scythian neckpiece dated to the fourth century B.C.E.
A gold Scythian neckpiece dated to the fourth century B.C.E. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The dearth of records about nomadic history is compounded by the lack of presence and detail about women, which is perhaps unsurprising given that much of what we know about older nomad peoples comes from men. Yet we do know that nomadic women had great influence in their societies. This is borne out by the grandeur with which Scythians buried some of their women, and by the stature given to Attila’s senior wife, Kreka; a Roman emissary recorded that the only solid structure in the Hun capital was the empress’ bathhouse. We know of the anguish that the young Genghis Khan suffered when one of his brides, Börte, was kidnapped, and the central role she played after her safe return in building and running the Mongol Empire. The Mughal Emperor Babur, for his part, relied on the brilliance of his grandmother, Aisan Daulat Begim, as a strategist in both military and social affairs. The fact that few of their voices reach us today is our loss, but we should not assume from their silence that they did not play a central role.

Most reports of nomadic peoples relate to times of conflict, as if war were the only instance settled chroniclers thought it worth mentioning these “other” people. These misrepresentations reflect neither the reality of nomadic life nor the totality of the relationship between nomadic and settled people, which has been both complimentary and interdependent for most of the past 10,000 years. Reevaluating our wandering “other half” allows us to see what we have learned from people who live on the move and shows us how much we have gained from cooperation. It also lets us glimpse another way of living, one that is nimble, flexible and in balance with the natural world—the way the “other” branch of humankind has chosen from the time that we all hunted in the gardens of the deep past.

Excerpted from Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World by Anthony Sattin. Text copyright © 2022 by Anthony Sattin. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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