The Pastoralist Challenge to Agriculturalism

13 April 2014


Tamerlane enjoying a feast near Samarkand after a victory in battle.

Tamerlane enjoying a feast near Samarkand after a victory in battle.

The great age of horse nomads

In discussions of the large-scale historical structure of civilization I often have recourse to a tripartite distinction between pre-civilized nomadic foragers, settled agriculturalism (which I also call agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization), and settled industrialism (which I usually call industrial-technological civilization). I did not originate this tripartite distinction, and I cannot remember where I first encountered an exposition of human history in these terms, but this decomposition of human history serves the purposes of large-scale historiography — call it the “big picture” if you like, or Big History — so I continue to employ it.

In this model of the descent with modification of civilization, agriculturalism proved to be so successful a way of life that it eventually (after a period of several thousand years of transition) displaced nomadic hunter-gatherers, who became a minority and a marginalized population while agriculturalism came to literally dominate the landscape. Agriculturalism in turn has been and is being supplanted by industrialism, which holds such potential for economic and military expansion that no agricultural people can hope to stand against an industrialized people. As a result, agriculturalism in its turn is becoming a minority and marginalized activity, while the world continues its industrialization — a process which has been underway a little more than two hundred years (or, say, five hundred years, if we date from the scientific revolution that made this new civilization possible).

Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization persisted for more than ten thousand years, but these ten thousand or more years were in no sense static and unchanging. Agricultural civilization, especially pure agriculturalism, is an intensely local form of civilization, and as it is subject to the variability of local climatic conditions, it is subject to periodic famine. Thus agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization repeatedly fell into dark ages, sometimes triggered by climatic events. Socioeconomic stress is often manifested in armed conflict, so these low points in the history of civilization, besides being wracked by famine and pandemics, were also frequently made all the more miserable by pervasive, persistent violence. But agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization not only rebounded from its dark ages, but also seemed to gain in strength and extent, so that subsequent dark ages were shorter and less severe (thus perhaps making civilization itself an example of what Nassim Taleb calls antifragility).

What is missing in this narrative is, that prior to the industrial revolution, settled agricultural civilization underwent a great challenge — a challenge to its socioeconomic institutions almost as wrenching as that of the industrial revolution, although this challenge came in a very different form than machines. It came in the form of horses, that is to say, mounted horse warriors from the steppes of Eurasia, who brutally plundered the vast inland empires of the medieval and early modern periods as the Vikings had earlier brutally plundered the coastal areas of early medieval Europe. History mostly remembers these peoples as barbarians, but that is because histories are mostly written by settled agricultural peoples. The miseries and sufferings of settled agricultural peoples at the hands of these barbarians was at the same time the great age of nomadic pastoralists, when the latter came close to seizing the momentum of history.

A distinct form of civilization

As western civilization stumbled with the collapse of Roman power in the west, and was repeatedly prevented from full recovery due to famine, plague, and violence, a very different form of socioeconomic organization was consolidated in the steppes of Central Asia: nomadic horse warriors. Whether one wishes to call this a distinct form of civilization — say, nomadic-pastoralist civilization — or a non-civilization, if civilization is understood to consist, by definition, of settled peoples, the form of social organization that emerged in Eurasia represented by nomadic pastoralists was both distinct and unique. It was also, for a time, highly successful, especially in armed conflict.

The nomadic pastoralists were not without precedent. In my post The Nature of Viking Power Projection, I wrote, “Ships came out of Scandinavia like horses came out of Mongolia.” I have elsewhere argued that Viking civilization represented a unique form of civilization not often recognized in histories of civilization. Here I would like to argue that nomadic pastoralists also represent a unique form of civilization; like the Vikings, this civilization is not based on settlement, but unlike the Vikings, it is a way of life based on the land and not the sea.

Nomadic pastoralists often adopt a semi-settled way of life called transhumance, which involves an annual migration between winter and summer pastures, ascending to higher elevations for summer pasture and descending into the valleys for winter pasture. Thus they may be considered to exemplify a transitional way of life between pure nomadism and settled life. But this is not the only difference between horse nomads and foragers. One important feature of life that distinguishes nomadic pastoralists from nomadic foragers is that the economy of the former is based on domesticated animals (generally, the horse) while that of the latter involves following herds of non-domesticated animals (generally, reindeer). The nomadic pastoralist exercises a far greater control over the landscape in which he makes his life, and a much greater control over the animals upon which he is dependent. It is in this sense that the nomadic pastoralists deserve to be called a civilization, because the relationship between these peoples and their horses was as central to their way of life as the relationship between settled peoples and their crops — only it was a different relationship of dependence.

An unparalleled weapons system

The military accomplishment of the Mongols and the other horse nomads of Eurasia was remarkable. To train, equip, and maintain a fighting force capable of defeating any other force in the world would be a challenge even for the greatest land empires, but that this was accomplished without the established infrastructure of a settled civilization producing agricultural surpluses, which was what equipped and maintained the armies of settled agricultural peoples. John Keegan, famous for his The Face of Battle, also wrote A History of Warfare, in which he includes much interesting material on what he calls the “horse peoples” (especially Chapter 3, “Flesh”).

The most successful of the nomadic pastoralists from the Asian steppe were unquestionably the Mongols, sometimes called the Devil’s Horsemen. From the historical accounts of Mongol depredations upon Europe and the European periphery, the the attacks of the Mongols sound like a natural disaster, like a plague of locusts, but the Mongols were in fact highly disciplined and employed battlefield tactics that the European armies of the period could not effectively counter for hundreds of years. This is an important point, and it is what accounts for the Mongols’ success: although predicated upon a profoundly different socioeconomic organization than that of the agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization of Europe and the European periphery, the Mongols created a land-based fighting force that for several centuries out-matched every military competitor in Eurasia.

The Mongols perfected a weapons system of mobile fire, which latter I have argued has always been the most potent instruments of warfare in any age. If the Mongols had achieved a level of political organization commensurate with its military organization, their socioeconomic system might have ultimately triumphed in Eurasia, and agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization would have been supplanted by nomadic-pastoralist civilization instead of later being supplanted by industrial-technological civilization.

A uniquely brutal conquest

The Mongols militarily defeated both China and Russia, two of the largest land empires on the planet, and would have permanently subjugated these peoples had they the political structures capable of administering the territories they conquered. Instead of the brutality of horsemen, the Chinese were ultimately subject to the brutality of Chinese emperors and the Russians to the brutalities of their Tsars, which despite being horrific, was less horrific than the depredations of horse nomads.

The conquests of the Mongols were destructive beyond the level of destruction typical of that inflicted by the armies of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and this brutality possibly reached its peak with the depredations of Tamerlane, also called Timur the Lame, who is estimated to have been responsible for the death of about five percent of total global population of the time (the Wikipedia article cites two sources for this claim). In this sense, Tamerlane had much in common with a natural disaster (I noted above the the depredations of horse nomads were often treated like natural disasters by the settled civilizations who suffered from them), as such mortality levels are usually confined to pandemics.

It may have been this brutality and destruction as much as the lack of higher order political organization that ultimately limited the ability of pastoral nomads to rule the peoples they defeated. Notorious leaders of horse nomads such as Attila the Hun, Ghengiz Khan, and Tamerlane seemed to be blind to the most basic forms of enlightened self-interest, as they could have extended their own rule, and had more wealth to plunder, if they have been less destructive in their conquests. This is part of the reason that the peoples that they led are commonly called barbarians, and their way of life is denied the honorific of being called a civilization.

The end of horse nomads as an historical force

If we think of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia as the inheritors of the traditions of horse nomads, the period of the pastoralist challenge to settled agriculturalism continues into the early modern period of European history, up to the two sieges of Vienna, Siege of Vienna in 1529 by the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when in both cases Turkish forces sought to take Vienna and were repulsed.

Western history remembers the turning back of the Turks at the Gates of Vienna as the turning point in the depredations of the Turkish Ottomans on Europe. In the following years, the Turks would be pushed back further, and lands would be recovered for Europe from the Turks. But we might also remember this as the last rally of the tradition of conquest that began with the horse nomads of Eurasia. By this time, the Turks had transformed themselves into an empire — the Ottoman Empire — and had adopted the ways of settled peoples. At this point, horse nomads dropped out of history and ceased to be a force shaping civilization.

The future of nomadic pastoralism

In several posts — Three Futures, Pastoralization, and The Argument for Pastoralization, inter alia — I formulated a kind of pastoralism that could define a future pathway of development for human civilization (note that “development” does not here mean “progress”). If this idea of a future for pastoralism is integrated with the realization I have attempted to describe above — viz. that nomadic pastoralism was the greatest challenge to settled agricultural civilization until industrialization — it is easy to see the possibility of a neo-pastoralist future in which industrial-technological civilization itself is challenged by technologically sophisticated pastoral nomads.

While this scenario of technologically sophisticated nomads sounds more like a script for a science fiction film than a likely scenario for the future, it describes possible forms of existential risk, such as permanent stagnation and flawed realization — the former if such a development took us below the level of technological progress necessary to maintain the momentum of industrial-technological civilization, and the latter if this technological progress continues but issues in a society (or, more likely, two or more distinct societies in conflict, i.e., settled and nomadic) that channels this progress into a new dark age, made the more protracted by the lights of a perverted science.

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The Battle of Vienna in 1683, when the Turks were turned back from further penetration into Europe.

The Battle of Vienna in 1683, when the Turks were turned back from further penetration into Europe.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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