What have Zooarchaeologists ever done for Pastoralists?


Pronunciation: /ˈpɑːst(ə)r(ə)l/

  • 1 (of land) used for the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle

Derivatives: pastoralism (noun); pastorally (adverb)1


What do you think of when you hear the word ‘pastoralism’? A proud Maasai guiding his herds across the savannah? Quechua people escorting their llamas down steep passes in the Puna? A Cornish dairyman tying a gate back on a misty morning so his cows can enter the milking parlour?

Clearly, the word can cover many things. I remember my first geography teacher explaining in a class that there were two basic forms of agriculture (farming): pastoral and arable. One that relied on animals and one that depended on plants. Of course, outside of the modern Western world it’s rare for any subsistence strategy to be completely reliant upon one or the other and it’s perhaps for this reason that the terms have become muddied by archaeologists. ‘Agriculture’ seems to have assumed the role of descriptor for sedentary, plant-dependent, farmers for many; with ‘arable agriculture’ being applied more particularly to cereal crop cultivation. It’s probably no surprise then that ‘pastoralism’ has become almost synonymous with ‘nomadism’ and ‘transhumance’.

Understanding the labels being used is just the first step in navigating the discipline of archaeology though: understanding where they’re being used is just as important. Archaeology is now a huge and occasionally bewildering subject: there is simply too much information and too many new advances to maintain more than a sketchy understanding of many of its facies. It is primarily for this reason that the the discipline fragments with specialist conferences and journals. There is, however, and must be, overlap: without it each sub-discipline, and eventually the discipline as a whole, will become stale.

I was a little surprised when I bumped into a friend at a conference not long after my first field season in Mongolia and she said “so you’re a Central Asian archaeologist now, that’s great!”. She seemed a little hurt when I said “no.” Later that same year I bumped into another acquaintance at a different conference who said to me “I didn’t expect to see another Africanist here”.


The truth is, I’m neither. I’m a zooarchaeologist and also an ethnoarchaeologist. Like most archaeologists I have primary areas of research interest but these are not linked to cultures – or, at least, not to Cultures. I have a strong interest in pastoralism, influenced perhaps by a childhood surrounded by cattle farms and African holidays, and many of my research projects are linked to this theme. Steppic culture is fascinating: as is savannah culture. There are, and must be, links between the two at a fundamental level however. Not in the direct sense usually implied by archaeologists but in the way that people interact with their environments – physical and imagined. If not, why not?

As much as I’ve enjoyed engaging in debates about the development of East African and Mongolian pastoralist societies in recent years I’ve also noticed an alarming insularity – not, I’m sure, a conscious one. In Africa, it often seems that the West and North of the continent are studied separately to the East and South: this is largely a colonial legacy which sees French, German and Italian researchers work in the West and North and publish in those languages. English speaking researchers publish elsewhere and the problem persists and perpetuates. Academic fragmentation means something similar for Africanists and Central-Asianists, meanwhile: conferences and publications are frequently organised along geographical lines and so the two never meet.

I couldn’t help but notice this as I moved in two distinct academic circles over the last few years. It also made me wonder what other comparative research I was unaware of: what about those Quechuas? What about the Saami reindeer herders? The Corsican pig herders? Pastoralism takes a variety of forms around the world but one thing is constant: the interaction of people and their animals. This, I think, places zooarchaeologists in a unique position to comment on pastoralist cultures.

Last week, I proudly announced that my session with Richard Madgwick, ‘Bones in Space’, had been approved for next year’s ICAZ conference, in San Rafael, Argentina. I submitted one other session proposal to the conference committee too, with Robin Bendrey, and I’m delighted to let the world know that ‘Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism’ has also been accepted. I’m really looking forward to this session: I think it represents the first time that pastoralism has been treated in this way by zooarchaeologists and I believe it’s important. Like with my last ‘blog post, this should be treated as a first call for papers and I’m including the session outline below.

lion skeleton



Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism

Pastoralism is a form of agriculture (food production) which is focused on the raising of livestock. Societies that have chosen to engage in pastoralism as a subsistence strategy may find that it becomes the defining feature of their individual lives and their collective culture – at the very least their livelihoods come to depend upon the successful and regular creation of animal based products (either for direct consumption or for trade) and, thus, they form symbiotic relationships with their herds.

The interdependence of people with particular animals has led to the adoption of a broad spectrum of land-use patterns and labour divisions around the world, ranging from full nomadism, through transhumance to more closely managed pasture exploitation as individuals, families and (occasionally) larger groups of humans direct their herds towards the most abundant and best quality sources of food and water.

Zooarchaeologists, with a de-facto research interest in the relationship between people and animals through time, are uniquely placed to investigate the development of pastoralism and its variations. This session aims to investigate issues such as how much variation in pastoralism is culturally driven and how much it is geographically or climatically driven? To what extent do people directly control their animals and to what extent are they equal partners in their enterprise or else animal-led? To what extent does the type of animal define the type of pastoralism (e.g. is it possible to live in the same way with bovids, suids, cervids and camelids)? How and why do the compositions of herds and human-animal relationships vary? How does pastoralism develop through time?


  1. OED, accessed 2/10/13, http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/pastoral?q=pastoralism#pastoral__12

4 Comments on “What have Zooarchaeologists ever done for Pastoralists?”

  1. So is this a conference or a paper at a conference? I am particularly interested inpastoralism transhumance etc developing cooperative relationships, and indeed collective intentionality between human and animals, as a comparitive cognitive ethologist. If it is a conference might like to submit a paper. Dr M K-W

  2. […] What have Zooarchaeologists ever done for Pastoralists? → […]

  3. […] readers of this ‘blog will know that I’m co-organising two sessions at the conference: ‘Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism’ and ‘Bones in Space’. Both sessions are shaping up nicely with some good contributions and […]

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