Pastoralism in Ancient Inner Eurasia
Pastoralism is a lifestyle in which economic activity is based primarily on livestock. Archaeological evidence suggests that by 3000 B.C., and perhaps even earlier, there had emerged on the steppes of Inner Eurasia the distinctive types of pastoralism that were to dominate the region's history for several millennia. Here, the horse was already becoming the animal of prestige in many regions, though sheep, goats, and cattle could also play a vital role. It is the use of horses for transportation and warfare that explains why Inner Eurasian pastoralism proved the most mobile and the most militaristic of all major forms of pastoralism. The emergence and spread of pastoralism had a profound impact on the history of Inner Eurasia, and also, indirectly, on the parts of Asia and Europe just outside this area. In particular, pastoralism favors a mobile lifestyle, and this mobility helps to explain the impact of pastoralist societies on this part of the world.
The mobility of pastoralist societies reflects their dependence on animal-based foods. While agriculturalists rely on domesticated plants, pastoralists rely on domesticated animals. As a result, pastoralists, like carnivores in general, occupy a higher position on the food chain. All else being equal, this means they must exploit larger areas of land than do agriculturalists to secure the same amount of food, clothing, and other necessities. So pastoralism is a more extensive lifeway than farming is. However, the larger the terrain used to support a group, the harder it is to exploit that terrain while remaining in one place. So, basic ecological principles imply a strong tendency within pastoralist lifeways toward nomadism (a mobile lifestyle). As the archaeologist Roger Cribb puts it, "The greater the degree of pastoralism, the stronger the tendency toward nomadism." A modern Turkic nomad interviewed by Cribb commented: "The more animals you have, the farther you have to move."
Nomadism has further consequences. It means that pastoralist societies occupy and can influence very large territories. This is particularly true of the horse pastoralism that emerged in the Inner Eurasian steppes, for this was the most mobile of all major forms of pastoralism. So, it is no accident that with the appearance of pastoralist societies there appear large areas that share similar cultural, ecological, and even linguistic features. By the late fourth millennium B.C., there is already evidence of large culture zones reaching from Eastern Europe to the western borders of Mongolia. Perhaps the most striking sign of mobility is the fact that by the third millennium B.C., most pastoralists in this huge region spoke related languages ancestral to the modern Indo-European languages. The remarkable mobility and range of pastoral societies explain, in part, why so many linguists have argued that the Indo-European languages began their astonishing expansionist career not among farmers in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), but among early pastoralists from Inner Eurasia. Such theories imply that the Indo-European languages evolved not in Neolithic (10,000 to 3,000 B.C.) Anatolia, but among the foraging communities of the cultures in the region of the Don and Dnieper rivers, which took up stock breeding and began to exploit the neighboring steppes.
Nomadism also subjects pastoralist communities to strict rules of portability. If you are constantly on the move, you cannot afford to accumulate large material surpluses. Such rules limit variations in accumulated material goods between pastoralist households (though they may also encourage a taste for portable goods of high value such as silks or jewelry). So, by and large, nomadism implies a high degree of self-sufficiency and inhibits the appearance of an extensive division of labor. Inequalities of wealth and rank certainly exist, and have probably existed in most pastoralist societies, but except in periods of military conquest, they are normally too slight to generate the stable, hereditary hierarchies that are usually implied by the use of the term class. Inequalities of gender have also existed in pastoralist societies, but they seem to have been softened by the absence of steep hierarchies of wealth in most communities, and also by the requirement that women acquire most of the skills of men, including, often, their military skills.