Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Swinging between Nomadism and Sedentarism: A Case Study of Social and Environmental Change in the Nomadic Society of the Altay Steppes, Xinjiang

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Swinging between Nomadism and Sedentarism: A Case Study of Social and Environmental Change in the Nomadic Society of the Altay Steppes, Xinjiang

Article excerpt

The Altay Steppes are part of the vast Eurasian grasslands where nomadic peoples have lived for thousands of years. Mobile pastoral production is still practised in these steppes. In recent years, however, dramatic changes have occurred in the rangeland society and production system. These have mainly resulted from modernization policies at both state and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region level. Mobile pastoral production is shrinking and herders are switching between subsistence farming and other livelihood alternatives, at times managing to follow specialized livestock production strategies involving seasonal livestock migrations along transhumance routes. This paper uses original ethnographic data in the form of two case studies to describe this flux in a southern Altay Steppe community. Its Kazakh and Altay Uranghay Mongol herders alternate between sedentary subsistence farming and nomadic pastoralism. The paper looks first at the ways people negotiate these swings between different lifestyles and livelihood options. Second, it considers the environmental changes that result from this uncertainty, and particularly the changing patterns of grassland management in the area. Special attention is given to discussion of the complex impact of the national and regional development strategies and of the ways in which those strategies affect the economic and cultural responses of the local community. Study findings suggest a correlation between cultural fragmentation, which undermines grassland management institutions, and grassland fragmentation and pasture degradation.

Keywords: nomadism, sedentarism, grassland, Altay Steppes, Xinjiang


Xinjiang has historically been home to numerous Asian nomadic ethnic groups. The Saka, Huns, Rouran, Dingling, Turks, Uyghurs and later Mongols lived in its grasslands. In modern times, nomadic groups such as the Kazakh, Mongols, Kirghiz, Tajik and a small number of Uyghurs have continued to practise nomadic pastoralism in the region. As a result nomadic society's economy and culture remain an important part of the social fabric in contemporary Xinjiang.

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, nomadic pastoralism remained the major form of subsistence for these various ethnic groups. During the People's Commune period (1958-1984), the pastures were collectively owned within the commune. Nomads were organized into Production Brigades under a commune and tended collectively owned herds on a family basis in exchange for daily necessities. During those years nomads would drive their herds from the winter camp (or 'winter home' located in a valley or basin) to the spring pastures for lambing. When the lambing was completed they would move to the hill pastures and then onto the alpine summer pasture. After spending two or three months on these high mountain pastures, they would return down the same route to the autumn pastures before first snowfall. In many areas the spring and autumn pastures were the same grassland. Herders would sell marketable animals in the autumn pasture and then travel to their winter pasture in late October or early November. Here they over-wintered for five months before departing again in mid-March of the following spring. This yearly cycle has been maintained since ancient times.

The nomads' herds normally consisted of five species: sheep, goats, horses, cattle and camels. Sheep/goats and cattle were the most important sources of income and food (e.g. dairy products, which are indispensable to the nomadic diet). The horses were for riding, and the camels provided the main means for transporting yurts and other belongings. However, the Kazakh and Kirghiz considered horsemeat a choice food and so would slaughter one or two horses and dry their meat for food. Conversely, Mongols and Tajik seldom slaughtered or ate horses. All the nomadic peoples consumed horse and camel milk, and regarded it as a great delicacy (XAHG 2004). …

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