views updated May 17 2018


Nomads are people who move in order to survive. True nomads have mobile housing and no settlements, although many mobile populations group together for parts of the year and many have some form of fixed settlement. There are three main types of nomads: hunter-gatherers, livestock herders, and travelers (Roma, or gypsies). Few demographic data are available for any of these groups for a variety of reasons: They are often despised minorities, their mobility hinders demographic data collection, they usually live in low-density remote areas, and they frequently refuse to provide information.

Nomads are found throughout the Old World. It is impossible to quantify their numbers past or present, although these populations probably decreased substantially throughout the twentieth century as a result of forced (e.g., Iran, Mongolia, China) or voluntary (Middle East, Africa) sedentarization. Many nomads still live in central Asia and Africa, with a few reindeer herders living above the Arctic circle and a few Bedouin residing in the Middle East.

Pastoral nomadism, whatever the animal species kept, is highly specialized and, at least in more recent decades, usually exploits environments that are unsuitable for agriculture. However, all pastoralist populations depend substantially on mutual exchanges with agricultural and urban communities, and the boundaries between them are often blurred; this hinders the study of the demography of nomads. People and communities may slip in and out of nomadic lifestyles, depending on particular political, economic, or climatic situations.

African Pastoral Nomads

This article focuses on African pastoral nomads, the only populations for which reasonable demographic data are available. African pastoralists move throughout the year, as the essential resources required for their herds fluctuate over time and space. A range of theories have been developed about the demography of African pastoral nomads, and this may explain the relative wealth of data on them.

Colonial administrators were interested in the demography of their subject populations as sources of labor and for purposes of taxation. That colonial understanding of nomad demography continues to influence perceptions of nomads' demographic behavior. Nomads were thought to have low fertility, high mortality, and often a high prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. These ideas were rarely based on reliable data and reflected a mistrust of these populations, with their uncontrollable mobile lifestyle. The belief that nomads had low fertility probably was a result of colonial administrators' inability to find and count mobile people; however, the perception of low nomad fertility and relatively low population growth rates persists today.

Traditional pastoral nomads have decreased in number over recent decades, although mobility remains an integral part of survival strategies for many groups. The nomadic proportion of the population has declined as a consequence of sedentarization, diversification out of pastoralism, government pressure, droughts, war, and impoverishment. With the exception of Mauritania and Somalia, African pastoral nomads are national minorities and are usually both politically and spatially marginal, living far from capital cities in low-population-density environments where the provision of public services is poor. Low educational opportunities and participation have reinforced their marginalization. Largely untouched by family planning and health interventions, they represent some of the few "natural fertility" regimes left in the world.

This marginalization has repercussions for researchers understanding of their demography, as nomadic populations are frequently excluded from demographic sample surveys: Sampling frames for them are difficult to establish, and interviewing is expensive. Census data on nomads are also poor. For example, in Mali most nomads live in the northern regions of the country, which have been omitted or only fractionally covered in all principal demographic surveys since 1963. In Kenya the 1998 Demographic and Health Survey excluded the seven districts dominated by nomadic pastoralists. Demographic data for these nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralist groups usually come from small community studies.

Environment and Mobility

Contemporary African nomadic pastoralists generally live in semiarid areas that are unsuitable for agricultural production and have extreme seasonal variation. This spatial peripheralization has been exacerbated in the last half of the twentieth century by population growth and expansion of agricultural areas, pushing nomadic pastoralists farther toward arid areas where extensive livestock production is the only way of exploiting the erratic rainfall.

The disease burden might be expected to be low because of low population density, fewer problems of fecal disposal, less water-borne disease (especially malaria), and population groups of insufficient size to maintain disease epidemics. That may have been the case in the past. However, because of scant investment in health, education, and transport infrastructure, most nomadic populations in the early twenty-first century are severely disadvantaged in terms of health and related services relative to countrywide averages, and this is likely to be reflected in their morbidity and mortality. Strong seasonal variation in energy balance (nutritional intake and energy expenditure) has a substantial impact on conception rates of the Turkana (Kenya) and the nutritional status of the WoDaaBe (Niger). R. A. Henin (1968) suggests that the physical demands of mobility may lead to an increased incidence of miscarriages.

Constraints of a Pastoral Economy

Unlike subsistence agriculture, pastoralism can achieve substantial economies of scale; therefore, there may be few economic benefits to having many children, although this depends on both herd composition and herding strategies. A nomadic pastoral economy has to balance human population growth with herd growth; this is difficult to achieve when animals reproduce relatively slowly and are subject to rapid fluctuations in a risky environment. Various strategies for coping with this problem have been documented: maintaining low fertility through delayed marriage and social acceptance of many divorcees and widows (Tuareg, Maure, Rendille, Baggara), although other regimes appear to maximize fertility (Turkana, Maasai); out-migration; and economic transformation and sedentarization of surplus population (Tuareg, Rendille, Turkana, Fulani, WoDaaBe, Maasai). Out-migration or economic transformation can provide immediate responses to population–resource imbalances; fertility reduction is a longer-run adjustment. Until recently some West African low-fertility pastoral nomads (Tuareg, Maures) had substantial dependent slave populations who provided labor that otherwise might have been performed by children. In subsistence crises slaves could be jettisoned.

Fertility and Mortality

Aside from the questionable colonial reports mentioned above, there is little evidence that East African nomads have low fertility. Data from 1998 for the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania show very high levels of fertility (total fertility rates of 8.2 and 6.4, respectively). In Kenya the more nomadic pastoral Maasai had higher fertility than did the sedentary agropastoral Maasai; the opposite was true in Tanzania. Completed fertility for the Turkana, another Kenyan nomadic group, in the 1980s was around 6.6, with substantial variation according to whether the population was going through a good (high fertility) or a poor (low fertility) climatic period. In East Africa nomadic pastoral production is relatively labor-intensive and women contribute substantially to the household economy, and there are economic advantages to men in having many wives and offspring. Among Sudanese and some West African nomadic pastoralists fertility may be lower. However, the few studies that allow a comparison of the fertility of nomadic and nonnomadic groups of the same ethnic origins show inconsistent patterns; for example, the nomadic Fulani of Burkina Faso had higher fertility (completed parity 8.0 compared to 6 to 7 in sedentary groups), whereas the Sudanese Baggara and Khawalha nomads had lower fertility than did the corresponding sedentary groups.

Nomadic pastoralists' nuptiality regimes often have a significant fertility-reducing impact. Tuareg and Maures have relatively high proportions of women who never marry and substantial numbers of widowed and divorced women at reproductive ages. In the Rendille traditional marriage system one-third of women are not permitted to marry and reproduce until all their brothers are married, a practice that is rationalized in terms of herd management and raiding but that has long-term consequences for population growth. In contrast, Maasai marriage patterns maximize the time women spend reproducing.

Comparatively little is known about nomads' mortality. Data problems are compounded by the fact that many nomadic groups, particularly Maasai and Samburu, have strong taboos against discussing dead people. Paul Rada Dyson-Hudson and Peggy Fry (1999) put together a series of estimates (direct and indirect) of child mortality in East and West African pastoral populations spanning 40 years, finding probabilities of death up to age 5 (5q0) ranging from 0.21 (for Turkana and Rendille in the 1990s) to 0.48 (FulBe in the Malian inner delta, an exceptionally unhealthy environment). In Burkina Faso overall Fulani 5q0 was about 0.23 in the 1990s, but that of the more nomadic population was substantially lower than that of the sedentary. Recent studies of previously nomadic Tuareg in Mali suggest that 5q0 declined substantially from about 0.35 in the 1970s to around 0.2 in the late 1990s. This variability indicates that there is not a single nomadic mortality regime but context-specific mortality, a conclusion confirmed by the existence of substantial mortality differentials by Tuareg social class.

Data are even scarcer for adult mortality. Indirect estimates from 1981–1982 data based on orphanhood proportions show extremely high adult mortality for Tuareg (Mali) men and women compared to neighboring sedentary populations but with substantial differences both within and between Tuareg groups. A later restudy (2001) of the same Tuareg population suggests little improvement in adult female mortality in the interim and an estimated lifetime risk of dying from maternal causes of one in eight.

Despite limited and low-quality data, the picture of African nomad demography is one of "natural fertility" populations in which nuptiality is the main factor constraining fertility. As would be expected in isolated populations with little formal education and limited access to health services, mortality is relatively high. The substantial variation between and within nomadic populations suggests that this is not a consequence of nomadism per se, although a contributory factor is the fact that a nomadic economy in the early twenty-first century is possible only in marginal isolated zones.

See also: Hunter-Gatherers; Indigenous Peoples.


Hampshire, Kate, and Sara Randall. 2000. "Pastoralists, Agropastoralists and Cultivators: Interactions between Fertility and Mobility in Northern Burkina Faso." Population Studies 54(4):247–261.

Henin, Roushdi A. 1968. "Fertility Differences in the Sudan." Population Studies 22(1): 147–164.

Little, Michael A., and Paul W. Leslie, eds. 1999. Turkana Herders of the Dry Season Savanna. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Muhsam, H. V. 1966. Beduin of the Negev: Eight Demographic Studies. Jerusalem: Academic Press.

Randall, Sara. 1993. "Issues in the Demography of Mongolian Nomadic Pastoralism." Nomadic Peoples 33: 209–230.

Randall, Sara C. 1994. "Are Pastoralists Demographically Different from Sedentary Agriculturalists?" In Environment and Population Change, ed. B. Zaba and J. Clarke. Liège, Belgium: Ordina editions.

Sara Randall


views updated Jun 11 2018

no·mad / ˈnōˌmad/ • n. a member of a people having no permanent abode, and who travel from place to place to find fresh pasture for their livestock. ∎  a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.• adj. relating to or characteristic of nomads.DERIVATIVES: no·mad·ic / nōˈmadik/·mad·i·cal·ly / nōˈmadiklē/·mad·ism / ˈnōmaˌdizəm/ n.


views updated Jun 08 2018

nomads, nomadism Terms used to refer to groups who move from place to place, without a year-round permanent residence; bedouins are an example. Anthropologists have distinguished two broad types based on hunting-gathering and pastoralism respectively. The extent to which hunter-gatherers or pastoralists are independent of other sedentary groups is empirically variable. In the ideal type they are economically self-sufficient. A third nomadic group, excluded from the classical typology, are Gypsies, who are always interdependent with another economy, within which they provide occasional goods and services. Groups may be semi-nomadic—as in the case of some contemporary Lapps. See Judith Okely , The Traveller-Gypsies (1983


views updated May 23 2018

nomad Member of a wandering group of people who live mainly by hunting or herding. Nomadism is an intermediate state between hunter-gatherer and farming societies. Today, nomadic groups survive only in the more remote parts of Africa, Asia, and the Arctic. See also Bedouin; Eskimo


views updated Jun 08 2018

Nomads ★★½ 1986 (R)

A supernatural thriller set in Los Angeles about a French anthropologist who is mysteriously killed, and the woman doctor who investigates and becomes the next target of a band of strange street people with nomadic spirits. Nomad notables include pop stars Adam Ant and Josie Cotton. 91m/C VHS, DVD . Pierce Brosnan, Lesley-Anne Down, Adam Ant, Anna Maria Monticelli, Mary Woronov, Hector Mercado; D: John McTiernan; W: John McTiernan; C: Stephen Ramsey; M: Bill Conti.


views updated May 23 2018

nomad XVI. — F. nomade — L. Nomas, pl. Nomades pastoral people wandering about with their flocks — Gr. nomás, nomad- roaming about, esp. for pasture, pl. Nomádes pastoral people, rel. to némein pasture; see -AD.
So nomadic XIX. — Gr. nomadikós.


views updated May 29 2018

nomad (in cytology) A cell that migrates or wanders from its site of formation. Certain types of phagocytes are nomads.