Horse People and Nomadic Pastoralism: What is Civilization?

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  • 0:06 Civilization and Its…
  • 1:12 The Pros and Cons of…
  • 3:06 The Horse Peoples
  • 3:55 The Supremacy of the…
  • 5:04 Battle Strategies of…
  • 7:40 Endurance of Horse…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

This lecture examines the downsides and limits of settled agriculture and civilization. It then explores how 'civilized' forces are able to displace other systems. Horse people are introduced as a counterpoint to civilization and nomadic pastoralism as a successful alternative method of living. Finally it follows the conflict between nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists throughout history.

Civilization and Its Alternatives

Much of this lecture series is devoted to the history of agricultural, city dwelling, literate peoples. We call this complex of technology and culture 'civilization.' Yet though civilized cultures would come to dominate the world, civilization was just one of many successful survival strategies available to humanity.

Humans have survived in many ways: as nomadic hunter/gatherers, following herds and collecting fruits and vegetables along the way; as fishers, expanding across the world's seas; as seasonal agriculturalists, staying put only long enough to plant and harvest a crop before moving on to follow the herds for winter; and as nomadic pastoralists, driving flocks of sheep or herds of cattle across vast distances in search of green pastures. In many respects, all of these systems could be considered just as successful as civilization. Each approach was well suited to its environment. Though they may lack the comfort and security of civilized life, they make up for these shortcomings with sustainability.

Settled agriculturists burn forests to create fertile soil
Forest Burning

The Pros and Cons of Settled Agriculture

Settled agriculturalists take a different approach. Rather than living within the constraints of their environment, they alter their environment to maximize food production. They clear forests, grow specific crops, and dig irrigation canals. These approaches work well in the beginning; a freshly burned forest makes for fertile soil, focusing on a single crop allows selective breeding, making for greater surpluses, and irrigation allows dry areas to grow food. But in the long run, these decisions prove disastrous. Without the shade and nutrients provided by the forest, the soil quickly begins to degrade. Focusing on a specific crop creates monocultures, which are vulnerable to disease and changes in the environment. Even irrigation accelerates erosion, and precious nutrients are washed out to sea. In short, settled agriculturalists sacrifice sustainability for surpluses.

As we saw in our lecture on the agricultural revolution, these surpluses kick off a positive feedback loop. Surpluses create larger populations and enable the division of labor. Specialization leads to new technologies, which in turn lead to greater surpluses. It was this surplus loop that allowed civilization to displace competing systems over time, not just through superior war technology, which it did not always have, but with sheer numbers.

Yet there were limitations to this tide. Settled agriculture requires fertile land and LOTS of water. Where these factors were present, civilization expanded to fill them. Yet it could not expand into the deserts of Arabia, the steppes of modern day Russia, or any of the cold, hostile, inhospitable places on Earth. And it was to these places that competing systems fled, some surviving to this day.

The Horse Peoples

Yet there was one sort of society that was not so easily dismissed from the fertile lands civilization had claimed its own. Those were the horse peoples. As the name implies, the history of horse peoples is inextricably tied to the horse. As you may recall from our lecture on the horse and chariot, around 3500 BCE, the nomadic pastoralists of the Eurasian steppe figured out how to ride a horse. This made the task of driving their herds about the steppe much easier. Atop a horse, they could outrun almost any animal. They could also manage much larger herds than a man on foot could ever hope to.

Horse archers were excellent shepherds and dangerous warriors
Horse Archer

With their subsequent invention of the short horse bow, the horse people created the most dangerous shepherd anyone had ever seen: the horse archer.

The Supremacy of the Horse Archer

Shepherding is generally boring work, so your horse archer has ample time to practice and perfect his skills. A good one could hit a moving target at 500 feet while riding. With horse archers, any threat to the herd, from man or beast, could be dealt with quickly from a distance. If the threat pressed on despite a hail of arrows, the horse archers could withdraw to a safe distance and begin firing again until their foe either died or retreated.

What made the horse archer the perfect shepherd also made him a most formidable warrior. For the next 5 thousand years, horse peoples would be the bane of civilization.

'But Max,' you might say, 'didn't you just tell us how civilized peoples' huge populations allowed them to overcome their rivals? Don't civilizations have better technologies, like walls, roads, and bronze? Civilizations even have horses - in fact, they have chariots! How could a handful of horse archers be any threat to such a civilization?' Watch and learn!

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