Pastoralism: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the concept of pastoralism, a semi-nomadic lifestyle revolving around animal husbandry. We also explore a few current pastoral cultures.

Herding Steak

In the United States, most of our food is bought in the supermarket or various specialty stores. You can pick up a steak at the butcher, vegetables from the grocery store, and fruit from a local stand all in one day. This example illustrates an important point: not only do we have an extremely varied and nutritious diet, but very few of us actually have a part in the harvesting or preparation of our food.

Considering this, the life of the pastoral farmer would be completely foreign to many Americans. Pastoralism revolves around the herding of animals, often domesticated livestock such as cattle, sheep, or horses. Pastoral communities are highly mobile, as they follow their herds, moving from one grazing area and water source to another according to the seasons or as they exhaust local food sources. Shelter tends to be rudimentary by American standards, often some type of tent which is light and easily movable, in accordance with the demands of pastoralism. According to definition, pastoralist communities do not practice any agriculture, and their herds are their only source of food. To better illustrate these principles of what makes a community pastoralist, let's explore several communities that still practice pastoralism today.

Examples of Pastoral Communities

Masai People, East Africa

The pastoral lifestyle of the Masai people, who live in the borderlands of Kenya and Tanzania, is centered on cattle. The herds of cattle the Masai tend are privately owned by each individual, and owning a large herd of cattle is the primary status symbol in Masai culture. According to Masai legend, God gave all of the cattle in the world to the Masai. What shelter they build tends to be temporary; walls are created with a lattice of sticks and other readily available timber, and patched together with dung and mud.

A group of Masai warriors
A group of Masai warriors

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