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The Ecology of Pastoralism

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

The Ecology of Pastoralism

Edited by P. Nick Kardulias. Pp. xviii + 291, figs. 37. University Press of Colorado, Boulder 2015. $70. ISBN 978-1-60732-342-6.

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This volume offers readers a broad collection of works that detail the complexity and variation of herding and animal husbandry systems across the globe. The book is dedicated to the memory of Professor Mark Shutes, a key organizer and contributor of the volume who passed during the early phases of its planning. The original idea for the volume was developed in 1999 (from papers presented at the Annual Meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society, and the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association); the volume came to fruition with contributions from several new authors in 2015.

The book uses historical, archaeological, and ethnographic approaches to identify shared and distinctive characteristics of societies that make a living from domesticated animals. Following Kardulias’ introduction, which summarizes the history of studies in pastoralism since the 1970s and the key aims and major themes of the volume, are five chapters covering Central Asia and five chapters on Africa, North America, and Europe. The closing chapter (Hall) outlines where the book might contribute to the field of pastoral studies (e.g., world-systems analysis), along with suggestions for future studies on the role of pastoralists in shaping macro-social change. The Central Asian contributions include archaeological, ethnographic, and ethnoarchaeological approaches to Iron Age Kazakhstan (Chang), Asia in general (Kradin), modern-day Pakistan (Sidky), Bronze/Iron Age Mongolia (Johannesson), and medieval Uzbekistan (Negus Cleary). Ensuing chapters focus on relatively modern societies of Cameroon (Moritz), North America (Kuznar), Ireland (Shutes), and Greece (Kardulias).

Foremost, the volume aims to identify unifying features of herd-oriented economies to be used as a basis for future comparative studies. The authors provide detailed ethnographic, archaeological, and historical accounts of different economic strategies that pastoralists perform, as well as how they manage their herds, organize labor, divide resources, and shape social relationships. In doing so, they demonstrate the complexity of pastoral systems across the globe. Authors outline the activities of specialized mobile herders (Kradin), nomadic polities (Johannesson), groups engaged in mixed subsistence and seasonal transhumance (Sidky), sedentary specialized dairy farmers (Shutes), remote island herders (Kardulias), and part-time ranchers (Kuznar). The wide variety in topics hints at the ambitious nature of the book, which aims to locate core elements of this complex economic strategy.

The papers in the volume examine pastoralism within an ecological framework and consider both the biological and cultural elements that contribute to the development of pastoral systems and group organization. Shutes emphasizes the importance of flexibility in social relationships where an ongoing need for resource and labor sharing in specialized dairy farming ensures group solidarity. Several other papers consider how pastoralists combine economic strategies to minimize risk in the face of larger social processes and pressures. Whether this economic flexibility is brought about through ecological stress (Sidky), political corruption (Moritz), or colonial interference (Kuznar), the authors collectively adopt a fairly positive tone for the future survival of pastoralism, even if the changes it undergoes in the face of external forces can be severe and render it almost unrecognizable in a contemporary world. Other contributors provide examples of how mobile pastoral societies convey power and status through materiality and monumentality. Johannesson locates political maneuvering efforts of nomadic powers in Mongolia through the changing placement and construction of burial forms through time. Negus Cleary surveys the spatial patterning of fortified sites of ancient Uzbekistan and suggests some were the work of nomadic groups. These studies revisit old assumptions that nomadic pastoralists keep few belongings and do not build substantial architecture, as compared to their sedentary neighbors; whereas another contributor (Kradin) reinforces them. Other contributors examine pastoralists through the lens of core-periphery and world-systems theory. Kardulias conducted an ethnographic study of pastoralists on the island of Dokos, off the southern coast of the Argolid, to observe how events on the mainland affect their economic and subsistence security. Kuznar examines changing economic activities of Navajo groups in a capitalist world economy and argues that their participation and flexibility in this realm underlies their economic success. Overall, the collection suggests that contrary to pastoralists being the exploited party in core-periphery relationships, they possess a driving role in the functioning of world-systems.

Kardulias and his colleagues provide an important contribution to a growing literature on pastoralists and human behavioral ecology that unites various perspectives on how pastoralists relate to their social and natural world, as well as how they alter basic subsistence measures to cope with various ecological, political, economic, and social pressures. For some contributors, there was also the task of bridging conflicting academic paradigms and research orientations (e.g., Chang, Kradin, Negus Cleary). In doing so, a number of positive contributions emerge from this volume that help to situate studies of pastoralists in contemporary academic literature on human systems. However, with the book being more than 15 years in the making, some themes will fall short of providing readers with novel perspectives. Each chapter dedicates attention to defining “pastoralism” by drawing from classifications that increasingly lack analytical weight (e.g., nomadic pastoralist, transhumant pastoralist). Over the past several years, as scholars have moved attention away from macro-narratives toward more localized investigations of pastoralists, it has become widely acknowledged that pastoralism shows considerable variation across time and space beyond conventional categories. The sheer breadth of topics covered, structural differences contained across chapters, moderate lack of citations, and analytical approaches used compromise the cohesiveness and strength of the volume overall. In addition, Central Asia, although an important center for pastoral research, is overrepresented, while other important centers for pastoralism (e.g., east Africa and South America) are overlooked altogether. The authors might also have considered the effects of climate change on pastoral ecologies, as adaptability surely provides a significant advantage for group survival in such cases.

Despite these drawbacks, the volume demonstrates the extreme variability of pastoral ecologies, and as a result it offers a sound contribution to the literature on human-environment interactions and pastoral systems more broadly. Moreover, edited works in recent anthropological literature concentrate more often on specific time periods or world areas; Kardulias’ contribution should therefore interest researchers and students of pastoral systems who want to study the spectrum of pastoral lifeways. A number of uniting and defining factors of societies that engage in herding and animal husbandry practices also emerge from the book that allows us to move toward a working definition for the “ecology of pastoralism.” These defining factors include: the focus of a group’s schedules being above all else on making a living from herd animals; a necessarily symbiotic relationship between herders and the animals they keep; and the presence of various measures that help groups mitigate risk and survive long-term. Overall, an ecology of pastoralism refers to a resilient system that through various innovative measures has managed to survive through a range of constraints and pressures from the outside world. As a whole, this book demonstrates the wide variability of pastoral ecologies and in doing so pushes for more detailed analyses of individual groups.

Paula N. Doumani Dupuy
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte

Book Review of The Ecology of Pastoralism, edited by P. Nick Kardulias

Reviewed by Paula N. Doumani Dupuy

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.DoumaniDupuy

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