Understanding Pastoral Societies

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  • 0:01 Definition of Pastoralism
  • 0:51 Grazing Herds & Nomads
  • 2:07 Intensive Versus Extensive
  • 2:56 Examples
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the cultural traits of pastoral societies. In doing so, it will also explain the difference between an intensive and an extensive pastoral system.

Definition of Pastoralism

As a young woman, I spent time living in Africa. While there, I'd often see young boys tending to their goats and sheep. Within the small tribe with whom I resided, it was the young boys' jobs to see to the mid-morning needs of the flocks, and they usually did it with a rather joyful song. Listening to them sing was one of my favorite things about living among these people practicing pastoralism, a form of living in which food survival is based directly or indirectly on the maintenance of domesticated animals. In today's lesson, we'll take a closer look at pastoralism, not just in Africa, but around our globe. As we do this, we'll try to nail down some generalities about the pastoralist lifestyle.

Grazing Herds and Nomads

For starters, it's pretty safe to say that many societies keep and raise animals. I don't need to travel very far past my home to see pastures full of cows or fields dotted with horses to prove this point. However, this is not what we mean when we use the term 'pastoralism,' because the farmers in my area live in a climate that allows them to also farm the land.

Unlike the modern farms found in my hometown, those who practice pastoralism depend primarily on grazing herds for their subsistence. Also unlike my neighboring farms, pastoralists are usually found in semi-arid or dry climates that don't lend themselves to farming without the use of modern irrigation. For this reason, their animals provide a means of survival.

Within these dry climates, pastoralists also tend to be arranged in nomadic communities. Simply stated, they live in small communities with no fixed home who move from place to place in search of food and water for themselves and their herds. Within these small communities, individual members may own their own herds, but large decisions, like when to move and when to stay put, are usually made by group consensus.

Intensive Versus Extensive

When studying pastoralism, anthropologists usually like to differentiate between two types. There are those who practice an intensive system and those who practice an extensive system. In an intensive system, a herd is contained within a fenced-in area and regularly cared for. To make it easy, I like to remember the intensive system by thinking the animals are penned in. A great example of those that practice intensive pastoralism are the Basseri of Northern Iran.

On the contrary, the extensive system is one in which animals are allowed to graze over very large open areas. In other words, they're given an extensive area in which to roam. The Lapps of Scandinavia practice extensive pastoralism.


With their dependence on grazing animals, it would be easy to think that pastoralists depend on their herds for meat - that they regularly butcher the animals as a food source. However, this is not always the case. Many times, pastoralists use by-products from their animals in order to make money or to trade for cultivated crops, like wheat or corn.

Yes, they very often live off the milk of their animals; however, the animal is not killed. For instance, while I lived in Africa, there were only a very, very few times that we actually ate goat, and when we did, it was for a special occasion, like a wedding or a birth. The rest of the time, our meals consisted of grains.

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