Dr. Schuyler Jones, CBE




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Defining Transhumance

The term transhumance occasionally turns up in the writings of anthropologists, geographers, and historians in reference to certain economic systems in which livestock need to be moved to different grazing areas at different times during the year as either the herds are too numerous or the grazing too poor to permit them to remain in a single area throughout the seasonal cycle. The seasonal movement of livestock from one area to another or to a succession of such areas is undeniably a characteristic of pastoral nomadism; it is also characteristic of another, quite different, economic system, namely, transhumance. In my view some writers have committed the error of placing these different economic systems together, simply because both systems depend on livestock and because they find it necessary to move the herds from one area to another at different times of the year in order to meet the needs of their animals for water and grazing. As the aim of research, whether historical, geographical, or cultural, is to better understand the system under investigation, this bringing together of different economic systems under one heading, such as ‘pastoral nomadism’, obscures, rather than illuminates the problem under investigation.     

 The 1933 edition of the OED does not list the word transhumance, presumably because it is a French term, but it does appear in later editions such as the Shorter OED (1973) where it is defined as “The seasonal moving of live stock to regions of different climate.”  The latest edition of the OED informs us that transhumance is “The seasonal transfer of grazing animals to different pastures, often over substantial distances.” If one consults Larousse one finds a brief: ‘Seasonal migration, transhumance,’ which is of little help. Under ‘transhumance’ the Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology asks the reader to ‘See NOMADS, PASTORAL NOMADS’, which would appear to indicate some confusion on the part of the compiler. Consulting the term ‘nomad’ in that same dictionary, we find that nomads (among other things) are “characterized by the lack of a permanent residence or settlement” This is interesting in view of the fact that a primary characteristic of transhumant economic systems is precisely that they do operate from a permanent residence or settlement. Further along in that same entry we are told that “Populations who move around seasonally according to the pasturing needs of their animals are said to be TRANSHUMANT.”  Herein lies the confusion between nomads, pastoral nomads, and the economic system known as transhumance, the key word in the above quotation being ‘populations’.  

Whatever various authorities, even the venerable OED, may tell us about the meaning of the word transhumance, it should be noted that anthropologists working in various parts of the world have found it necessary to make a clear distinction between ‘nomadism’, ‘pastoral nomadism’, and ‘transhumance’.  This need has arisen from a great many detailed first-hand field studies of these different economic systems carried out in the 20th century and the resulting distinctions are derived from observation and analysis by trained investigators. In the latest anthropological jargon, by the way, ‘nomadism’ appears to have given way to – get this – mobile indigenous peoples, which causes me to wonder if another term is really necessary and whether such a term actually clarifies anything. All it does is to replace one perfectly good and fairly well-understood word – ‘nomadism’ – with three. And, of course ‘mobile indigenous peoples’ will soon be replaced by the acronym MIP and we may expect that in future nomads all over the world will simply be known as Mips.  

In 1934 C. Daryll Forde wrote a book entitled Habitat, Economy, and Society which some anthropologists, presumably out of jealously (his book has remained in print for some 70 years and is still widely used as an introductory text for students of anthropology), have tended to dismiss as (a) written by one who was overly influenced by geographical considerations, and (b) a book which is now outdated in the light of more recent research. Neither of these criticisms is necessarily valid and, as an introductory text to general anthropology, it has much to recommend it. In his book, Forde makes a clear distinction between transhumance and pastoral nomadism, writing, for example, that  

“In Central Persia occupants of the more difficult country frequently winter in permanent villages around lowland pastures. Here they maintain groves of fruit trees, and in the spring they also sow crops of millets and barley. Before the heat of summer, when the grasses at lower levels shrivel, the greater part of the community migrates to the mountains with its sheep, goats and cattle, and even chickens, to live in upland camps where grass for the live stock is still abundant and green” (p. 396).  

He goes on to say that:

“This seasonal migration from winter to summer quarters for the benefit of livestock among the more advanced peoples in semi-arid or mountainous areas, was formerly widespread in southern Europe, and is generally referred to as transhumance from the term used in Spain where it was until quite recent years exceptionally well developed.” (ibid.) 

This description of transhumance clearly makes a connection between permanent villages, arable agriculture, and the seasonal movements of livestock.  

To cite another authority I turn to Douglas L. Johnson and his study The Nature of Nomadism: A comparative study of pastoral migrations in Southwestern Asia and Northern Africa (University of Chicago, 1969). 

He writes:"Transhumance is a term used to describe a spatially limited pattern of movement in mountainous areas which was first recognized in the Alpine regions of Europe. The literature indicates that a village of permanent buildings occupied by all or part of the population all of the year, rather than a mobile tent camp, forms the nucleus of a transhumant society. Although pastoral activities are one of the concerns of a transhumant community, agriculture nearly always remains the dominant interest. In other words, pastoral movements are limited in scale, usually take place in one valley system, and are undertaken by only a small proportion of the total population. None of these features are shared by pastoral nomads.

"Unfortunately, at some point in time the term transhumance began to be applied to regions outside of Europe and to groups that were not properly transhumants. In time nearly every nomadic group that utilizes altitudinal variations in pasture availability has been called a practitioner of transhumance, when, in fact, the use of the tent and the major dependence on animals such as is found among the Qashqai, Yürük, and Arbaa contradict the common connotations of the term. In every sense these tribes and others like them are nomads who simply happen to operate in mountainous areas and herd sheep and goats rather than camels. Some observers define transhumance as a seasonal alternation of two distinct zones of pasture (without any necessary implications of verticality), while for others, a vertical alternation is an essential part of transhumance. Obviously, once the term transhumance was applied to regions and to situations different from those in which it was originally employed, semantic confusion was bound to result." (pp. 18-19). 

Examples of transhumance in Europe are found in the pre-industrial economies of Switzerland, Austria and other Alpine regions as well as the Pyrenees of Southern France and Northern Spain, and in a number of areas, the traditional system is still to be found, alive and well. This economic system involves both arable agriculture and livestock herding. The characteristic pattern is one in which the inhabitants live in permanent villages in the valleys, around which are lands suitable for both arable agriculture and horticulture. During winter both the human population and the livestock are to be found in the villages, the livestock being stall fed on hay cut, dried, and stored the previous autumn. In spring the livestock are taken out of the winter stables and, accompanied by herdsmen, moved up to successively higher grazing areas as the season advances. Those family members looking after the herds and flocks are also responsible for milking the animals and making cheese and other milk products, which are from time to time sent back down to the village. Parallel with this, other family members spend the summer in and around the village planting, weeding, watering crops, cutting firewood, and making hay. In autumn, after the harvest, the livestock return to the village before winter sets in and the economic pattern enters another seasonal cycle.  

It will be noted that the economic activities described above bear but little resemblance to pastoral nomadism, having two characteristics which, by definition, clearly separate it from that system: (1) an emphasis on arable agriculture and (2) a permanent village base. Nor are examples of transhumance confined to Europe. Other well-documented examples exist in Africa and Asia – two continents where pastoral nomadism is also found.  A characteristic of pastoral nomadism which also distinguishes it from the transhumant model is that when livestock are moved from one region to another the entire human population of the community goes along; everyone participating in the seasonal shift from area to area, and this necessitates the use of tents, yurts, ger, or other forms of portable dwelling. This is not the case in the transhumant system which not only has a permanent village base, but is where the majority of the community lives and works throughout the year.


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This site was last updated 08/18/04                                       Copyright 2004 by Dr. Schuyler Jones, CBE