Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

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LinguistCat
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Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

Post by LinguistCat »

What environments factors would make a culture or set of cultures less likely to settle down, permanently or at all? What technology or cultural practices would be unlikely to evolve? I'm assuming metal working would be less likely, especially for a fully nomadic people, but I could also imagine ways of getting around that, either through interactions with settled neighbors or only working small amounts of softer metals. But I'm also not sure what the knock on effects of that would be, especially if an environment had a selective pressure to make settled cultures less likely/adaptive in the long run.

I'd like for this to be a precursor culture for a species that ends up more or less space nomads in a science fantasy story and I'd like to figure out why they were more mobile/less settled than humans tend to be and how that might affect their outlook on their current existence.
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Re: Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

Post by Creyeditor »

Many present-day semi-nomadic groups live at the edge of sessile groups often in an area is located at or crosses borders of nation states. I heard two hypothesis why this could be true. (I once took a seminar where the topic included semi-nomadic groups in the Ilemi Triangle, between Kenya, South Sudan, and Ethiopia.)
The first one refers to the scarce resources that are found in these areas. The idea is that groups become sessile in more fertile areas and semi-nomadic in less fertile areas. The traditional idea is that groups have an urge to become sessile and only become semi-nomadic if there is no other option.
The second hypothesis is that some people (person.pl) chose to be semi-nomadic for various reasons. Other people (person.pl) chose to be sessile. Coexistence of sessile and semi-nomadic can lead to conflicts, especially because of different attitudes towards violence and different conflict resolution strategies. The more powerful sessile groups then push the semi-nomadic ones towards borderlands and therefore conflicts can be avoided. This means that the location and conditions of semi-nomadic groups are influenced by the interaction with sessile groups.
tl;dr: scarcity of ressources and relations to neighbouring sessile groups might be important.
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Salmoneus
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Re: Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

Post by Salmoneus »

LinguistCat wrote: 06 Jul 2022 20:07 What environments factors would make a culture or set of cultures less likely to settle down, permanently or at all? What technology or cultural practices would be unlikely to evolve? I'm assuming metal working would be less likely, especially for a fully nomadic people, but I could also imagine ways of getting around that, either through interactions with settled neighbors or only working small amounts of softer metals. But I'm also not sure what the knock on effects of that would be, especially if an environment had a selective pressure to make settled cultures less likely/adaptive in the long run.

I'd like for this to be a precursor culture for a species that ends up more or less space nomads in a science fantasy story and I'd like to figure out why they were more mobile/less settled than humans tend to be and how that might affect their outlook on their current existence.
A couple of things:

- how are you defining semi-nomadism? In a strict sense, semi-nomadism is extremely common, with most agricultural societies involving at least some seminomadism, in the form of seasonal or annual flock movement. Most of the UK was 'semi-nomadic' in a broad sense all the way up to the modern era (in that large parts of the male population seasonally migrated long distances with their flocks).

- similarly, it's very common for settled but dispersed societies to possess nomadic niches within them, to facilitate economic functions that are not viable within microcommunities - cf Roma and Traveller communities in Europe.

- on the other hand, pure nomadism is rare, at least on a large scale.


Nomadism is likely to arise for one of two reasons (or a combination of the two):
- there is some active advantage to migration, such as following a migrating resource, or escaping resource depletion, or fulfilling an economic niche by linking remote communities to one another
- there is some major disadvantage to non-migration, such as resource scarcity or some external human or non-human threat

The classic situation for nomadism is therefore an environment that is unable to support large numbers of farmers, but is able to support large numbers of pastoral animals, provided that they move around to find fresh grazing areas. But it could also arise as a response to, say, volatile environments (flooding, perhaps, or soils that deplete in nutrients easily), or to external threats (sea nomads, for instance, might move around in order to avoid political conflict with landed societies).


I don't think nomadism rules out metalworking per se. Early metalworking usually involved surface or near-surface deposits, and many metals do not require sufficiently high temperatures as to make portable or temporary kilns unfeasible. It probably does make metalworking less viable as a large-scale industry, though. Then again, a nomadic society could have non-nomadic elements within it, such as mining communities.

The main difference historically is that agriculturalists are violent, whereas pastoralists are psychopaths. I mean, yes, I know, that's an oversimplification. But the violent death rate in pastoralist societies is often exceptionally high - sometimes more than 50% of the male population can expect to be murdered, and that's not even considering what they do to agriculturalists they meet.

More broadly: nomadism leads to low land prices. Control of land is not a major factor of wealth in nomadic societies. That shifts power to holders of nomadic capital - mostly herd animals and transport animals, but also probably worked goods like saddles and ropes and the like - but probably even more so to controllers of labour. Unless you're in a very marginal environment, the number of cows you can milk and slaughter will primarily be limited by the number of cowherds and milkmaids you can deploy to look after them, not simply by the number of cows you claim to own.

So you'd expect nomads in relatively benign areas to be labour-focused societies, encouraging high birthrates. Slavery will probably be open (slaves are acquired through trade or violence, but can often be manumitted and incorporated into the ex-owner's family) rather than closed (slaves are drawn from an inherited pool of slaves who can never stop being slaves). Polygyny may be widespread, at least for the ruling class, because having children is profitable. To defeat a rival, you don't occupy their land, you kill their family members (and steal their cattle). Large and geographically-expansive clan systems will probably be central to social structure.
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Re: Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

Post by LinguoFranco »

I'd take a look at Mass Effect, which is the Quarians, who are space nomads.

Historically, nomadism is common in places where permanent settlements aren't very feasible, such as the soil being too poor for agriculture or the temperature is just too extreme (see the Bedouins or Sami.)

For space nomads, perhaps finding a planet that is habitable by their species standards is just incredibly unlikely, so they have adapted to live in space.
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Re: Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

Post by LinguistCat »

Oddly, I've been reading this but didn't see Creyeditor's response at all until today. But between his and Sal's longer reply, I'd basically want a world that had smaller more fertile areas (at least as far as farming goes) and larger less fertile tracts that would be better for pastoralists. Plus some places that might be fertile but for one reason or another, still would not be conducive for completely settled farming. So, while there might be some smaller settled cultures at different times, pastoralists and maybe even hunter-gatherers would be more common. I think looking at Earth, farming springs up pretty much anywhere that's conducive to it simply because food is more stable, even if it lowers the average quality of life in other ways. But it also gives the advantage of allowing for division of labor to a greater degree and higher population density.

I actually have the reasons they are currently space nomads figured out, but one part was a predisposition to it cross-culturally. The other part has to do with the magic side of the science fantasy setting, as well as how other species view them. So if they're known to be, not so much warlike but, more aggressive and more accepting of violence than most cultures in the galaxy, it wouldn't be a problem for me story wise. Granted, this reputation could have also been cemented in part because the first few contacts with other races weren't off to a friendly start from the beginning.
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Re: Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

Post by Salmoneus »

Space nomadism will involve a lot of other issues - which gives more room for handwaving, but also requires more thought for how they'll affect other things.

The big thing is that a spaceship is probably a vastly larger expense than a tent, which is a big incentive not to become a nomad: why spend a king's ransom on a ship that lets you live as a hobo when you could live as an emperor with the same money on land?

But we can be a bit more systematic...


A: how expensive are spaceships? If they are cheap, nomadism is easy - but also unappealing. Anyone can get a spaceship, so there's little profit to be made by doing so. Indeed, the cheaper they are the less care is taken with them, so the owner probably doesn't want to live on them (although a nomadic class of contractors might be possible, like tanker crew today). If they are expensive, nomadism is difficult. However, once you are a nomad, there's an incentive to keep going, because you control an expensive asset (and probably the more expensive your ship is the more you're going to want to be on it yourself!). If spaceships are valuable and expensive, nomads could fulfill important economic functions as traders and messengers. But:

B: how valuable are spaceships? One problem with space travel is that it's hard to justify it economically - unless it's extremely cheap, it will be easier to source everything locally (particularly with futuristic techology). So is there some reason spaceships, and space travel generally, are valuable in this world?

C: if spaceships are expensive, why? Specifically, are they expensive per square foot (eg because of construction costs), or are they expensive per unit (eg because of complicated FTL drives or life support systems?). If footage costs but units are cheap (i.e. there are minimal economies of scale), you probably want to split up your footage between many, many ships to increase your fleet flexibility. These will be small, cramped (because extra space costs!), businesslike... but can sustain a large class of independent owners and operators (assuming it's not all automated). If units cost but footage is cheap, you can build out each ship with as much cargo space as needed, plus defences, plus plenty of crew and passengers. This could allow entire social units to adopt nomadism - entire civilisations if the unit/footage cost imbalance is high enough! Whereas if both footage and units are expensive, you're still going to want big ships, but now they'll be streamlined and cramped again - oil tankers, basically. This will mean small crews (if any) AND few ships, relatively speaking (although of course ultimate demand for ships will still be critical in this regard).

D: what's the nature of travel? If it's cheap, travel is easier to justify; if it's more expensive, it's going to be rarer. Is it expensive by mile or by trip? Does adding mass make it more expensive? These will affect the economics considerably. And is it slow or fast? This changes culture of travellers greatly: fast trips encourage more people to make trips, and some to make more trips - a big pool of temporary travellers; slow travel makes it less appealing for normal people, allowing a particular class to monopolise it more easily, and results in greater loyalty on ships (because you're trapped with the same people for a long time), but also probably reduces the number of trips anybody takes because it's a bigger chunk of their lives.
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Re: Permanently (semi-)nomadic culture?

Post by Khemehekis »

Salmoneus wrote: 10 Jul 2022 18:39 D: what's the nature of travel? If it's cheap, travel is easier to justify; if it's more expensive, it's going to be rarer. Is it expensive by mile or by trip? Does adding mass make it more expensive? These will affect the economics considerably. And is it slow or fast? This changes culture of travellers greatly: fast trips encourage more people to make trips, and some to make more trips - a big pool of temporary travellers; slow travel makes it less appealing for normal people, allowing a particular class to monopolise it more easily, and results in greater loyalty on shxps (because you're trapped with the same people for a long time), but also probably reduces the number of trips anybody takes because it's a bigger chunk of their lives.
Thanks for posting this. This will give me something to think about in creating the many ufopoleis (whole "cities" aboard spacecraft) in the Lehola Galaxy.
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