Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 1: Nomads

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 1: Nomads

Unread post by fireflydances » Mon Jul 08, 2019 10:11 pm

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Tibetan Nomads on Horseback (copyright: Gunter Deichmann)



Nomads


The wind has dropped, the air is clear, I count as I ride: twelve tiny figures on the side of a rise, and far behind them the faintest ghostly intimation of the blue of the mountains. Then I watch the figures begin to move. They group in a file and like ants climb the rise. On the crest they halt. A swirl of dust obscures them, then they reappear: twelve mounted men on the skyline. (79)

Then, climbing a ridge, coaxing the horses, straining and pushing and hauling, we are all of a sudden upon them. From behind the rocks, from out of a hidden gully, they emerge, men mounted on shaggy ponies, twelve or more, dressed in sheepskin coats and caps, brown-faced, weather-beaten, narrow-eyed, the barbarians in the flesh on native soil. (80)

We are well into the book when we come face to face with the Empire’s chosen foe -- their barbarian. Wild, savage, primitive in all things that matter, the barbarians are brutes and thugs that threaten to upend all that civilization promises.

The word “barbarian” has an ancient etymology. βαρ-βαρ (bar-bar) in Greek, like our blah blah, has to do with the incomprehensible blathering of the stranger. The Greeks described any non-Greek as bárbaros, a babbler -- he who is unable to make himself understood. The Sanskrit term was barbara meaning non-Aryan, a stammering blockhead. The Romans used barbarous likewise to describe the foreigner, but with a tighter edge. Barbarous describes basically any group perceived as threatening life as defined by the Roman Empire.

“Shapeless figures in their sheepskin coats” (23) One of the first descriptions we are given of Colonel Joll’s barbarians. The Colonel also used the phrase “strange horsemen (24)” when interrogating the fisherfolk. And more than once, the term assigned is “nomad” or “the nomad people.”

And the Magistrate’s descriptions:
“It used to be that groups of nomads would visit the settlement in winter to pitch their tents outside the walls and engage in barter, exchanging wool, skins, felts and leather work for common goods, tea, sugar, beans and flour.” (43)

‘On the other hand, would we have been lucky enough to find the barbarians? This very day, I am sure, they are folding their tents, packing their carts, bringing their flocks under the whip for the spring migrations.” (83)

This tidbit is one of a pair, this first one explores the flesh and blood characteristics of the Empire’s imagined barbarian in the form of the nomad. The second tidbit will dig into the psychological context of the nomad as ‘the other.’ In other words, what was it inside the mind of the Empire’s citizenry that allowed them to ‘see’ the nomad as barbarian?

The nomad is clearly an essential player in Coetzee's book, but the context within which the nomad moves is, by design, vague. Instead of a realistically painted canvas that contains familiar landmarks, we are in a twilight place, a displaced world. During the process of writing this novel Coetzee explored a variety of settings. He conducted extensive research on Mongolia. And then other settings: the Amazonian jungle, central Asia, colonial North America, even the Roman Empire. Coetzee also considered southern Africa and particularly Namibia as a possible setting and “wondered whether he should throw in a few Afrikaans names to create a mélange of situations that would emphasize fictionality -- but these temptations were resisted.” (Atwell)

In the end, Coetzee creates a setting that embeds readers in an interior landscape. A South Africa “on the near side of revolution,” as Attwell puts it. And as Peter Lewis states in his Times Literary Supplement review (1980) “Coetzee has developed a symbolic and even allegorical mode of fiction -- not to escape the living nightmare of South Africa but to define the psychopathological underlying the sociological, and in doing so, to locate the archetypal in the particular.” (Attwell 92)
This final, more mythopoetic setting allowed Coetzee to draw upon elements in his own background, things of a uniquely personal nature: the semi-desert region of the Karoo, and the research he did on the ethnography of the Khoikhoi and the Nama before writing Dusklands, his debut novel.

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Mbuti, Ituri Forest, Congo


Nomad culture is categorized by lifestyle: hunter-gatherers forage in the wild, pastoral nomads herd animals, and peripatetic nomads, such as the Romani and Irish tinkers, provide for themselves by trading or performing a service, such as painting. All nomads move, whether such movement is seasonal, driven by forage, or the marketplace. Migrants, who journey in search of a new home, are not defined as nomads. The impetus of the migrant’s movement is the search for permanency whereas the nomad sees the journey as an end in itself. Today, worldwide, there are roughly 30 to 40 million people who can be described as nomads.

Because Coetzee's take on the nomad feels so archetypal and thus embraces all nomads across time, I decided that we should start our survey with the very earliest nomad.

The earliest humanoids were hunter-gatherers. To survive, they had to move. Whether it was cyclical movement over familiar terrain, or long treks into the unknown, the objectives were the same -- fill the stomach and guarantee safety. Early on the process was less structured: whatever could be gathered from the ground, or brought down by rock, club or bow was worth pursuing. With time foraging groups learned to depend on the seasonal arrival of grasses or fruits, and developed a system for hunting, be the prey insect, fish, bird, reptile or mammal.

Farming began during the Neolithic Period, roughly 12,000 years ago. Because of recent advances in DNA research, many long-held assumptions regarding how farming began, and the relationship between farming communities and nomadic pastoralists have proven untrue. First, new research has located multiple sites across the world where farming spontaneously developed (see map). The Fertile Crescent had a head-start on other areas, but even here there is evidence of multiple locations developing farming, even though DNA evidence finds that these sites had no contact with each other. More work is needed on how and why this happened.

Image

Also under revision, the old notion that pastoral nomadism developed before farming, or only where the climate could not sustain crops. Instead, nomadic herding often occurred in tandem with farming. The herder moved with his animals, a lifestyle less bound by the need for arable land, but still engaged with the farmer. Sometimes contact was maintained because of trade. Other times nomad and farmer competed for access to preferred land. There is even evidence of nomadic peoples choosing to settle into villages and then abandoning the settled life because of climate change. This is not to say that there weren’t regions where the nomadic lifestyle was the only option. Arid lands, cold plains, deserts, icy tundra -- in all these lean-spirited places, human life persisted and carved out another way of being.

A survey of early human development tracks these changes.

In central Asia vast expanses of grassland, savanna and shrubland stretched for thousands of miles. Those who would eventually populate the entire expanse are believed to have emerged from agricultural societies around the Black Sea. These were people who had grown increasingly reliant on domestic cattle, sheep, and horses, and then expanded eastward into the steppe in response to environmental change and the need for increased pasture land.

In North America there are signs of human habitation in the Great Plains going back at least 38,000 years. Roughly 11,000 years ago the climate in the Plains changed, and rainfall and other forms of precipitation declined while temperatures increased. Some species -- mammoths, camels and horses -- died out. Wet marshy areas became grassland. The bison, which had roamed with the mammoth, evolved into a species smaller in stature and grazed across the wide expanse of grass. Nomadic hunters followed the bison as well as deer and elk. A site in Alberta gives evidence that nomads were actively hunting buffalo 5,500 years ago.

Over the course of thousands of years, the lifestyle of the Plains peoples evolved. Some settled into fortified villages along the Missouri River, growing corn, beans and squash, and trading foodstuffs with nomadic hunters for dried meat, hides and flint. Trade networks developed extending from Tennessee to New Mexico. The Apaches moved south from the northern plains. The Omaha and the Osage traveled into the plains from what is today Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa. Domesticated horses, sheep and firearms, introduced by Spanish colonists, filtered into the trading network. The horse created more change, allowing for a more efficient way to kill the buffalo and transport meat and hides. This led some tribes to abandon the settled lifestyle, and others to change what they hunted. The Sioux turned away from beaver trapping for pelts and began specialize in buffalo hunting. The Navaho turned to sheep herding courtesy of Spanish colonists who brought along their hardiest breed, the Churro. And the original source of the Churro? The breed was first domesticated on the Great Steppe and they proved tailor-made for Arizona and New Mexico.

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San Bushmen, Kalahari desert, Botswana


Note the links I've provided. They take you to the site where I found the photo, and they also provide more information on the tribe involved, or the art. Interesting stuff!

We move next to Africa. While East Africa has long been regarded as the cradle of humanity, a 2008 discovery of a huge cache of human fossils at a site just north of Johannesburg, South Africa has thrown that title to the winds. The final verdict regarding which is older -- East or South -- has yet to be determined. There is additional documented evidence, in the form of early Stone Age tools, of humanoid habitation in southern Africa between 2.5 million and 200,000 years ago. This occurred during a period when glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere and created dry climatic conditions in north and west Africa, and a much greater share of rainfall and thus more vegetation, more wild game in the south. During those years of plenty, the population of humans in southern Africa swelled. In fact, there were more humans in southern Africa during this epoch than anywhere else on the planet.

Who were they and how did they live? They were ancestors of the San, nomadic hunters and gatherers. Their lives were organized around tracking wild game -- running them down in hours-long chases -- and foraging for edible grass and fruits. They left behind a massive treasure of rock art in the form of rock carving, etchings and paintings -- literally thousands of sites -- an estimated 250,000 examples of ancient art. The earliest art is between 19,000 and 26,000 years old. There are examples of cave art made 76,000 years ago, and early paintings which date from 73,000 years ago. While some rock art is geometric, other art is devoted to hunting, and a much greater portion of art focuses on the human being. Those who have closely examined the art say it is easy to detect the differing styles of different rock artists, as well as evidence that the art had a religious meaning full of attempts to make sense of the world in which the artist lived in.

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Drakensburg, South Africa -- Trust for African Rock Art


One last fascinating fact about the ancient hunters and gatherers of southern Africa. For a very long time scientists have been trying to figure out how domesticated herds of goat, sheep and eventually cattle, ended up in southern Africa. When European colonists first arrived in Cape Colony and encountered pastoralists like the Khoikhoi herders, the prevailing belief was that domesticated stock must have been brought independently from Egypt, or come with the movement of herding Bantu tribes from the Great Lakes district of central Africa. Both theories depended on an assumption that only advanced societies would be able introduce domesticated animals, not hunter-gatherers. But research has now determined that domestic animals trickled into the south, likely due to the movement of hunters and gatherers who ventured widely. By 2000 BCE pastoral nomads identified as the Khoikhoi were herding domestic sheep in the Zambesi Valley of northern Botswana. It should be noted that the Khoikhoi are closely related to the San people.

There are still nomadic societies across the world. Some are stripped down to the last surviving members, others almost completely acculturated to our urban way-of-living. These are people whose parents or grandparents routinely moved with their herds and that way of living within the natural world is still treasured. The Fulani, for example, although largely acculturated hold those who pursue the old ways in high regard.

What follows are the names and home countries of those tribes who still practice a nomadic lifestyle.

Among the hunter-gatherers: the Sami of northern Scandinavia and Russia; the Innu of eastern Quebec Province and Labrador, the Baka and Mbuti of the Congo, Cameroon, and Gabon; the Spinifex of Australia; the Pirahã of Brazil, and the San(Bushmen) of South Africa. Hunter-gatherer societies are unique because of the importance they assign to the group. All decisions are made by consensus. These are egalitarian societies. No one leads, and men and women are considered equals. Because survival depends on an ability to react quickly and adapt to a changing ecosysterm, hunter-gatherers must be adaptable and flexible. And with more fluid social organizations which give them a greater ability to shift duties and roles as needed.

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Fulani herder, Nigeria



Among the nomadic herding societies: the Tuareg in the Sahel region of West Africa, the Bakhtiari of southwest Iran, the Nenet of the Yamal Peninsula in Russia, the Fulani of West Africa, and the Navaho in the United States. Pastoralists are acutely aware of scarce resources -- is there a good watering hole, and pasture sufficient to feed the herd? For this reason, these societies tend to be both competitive and more likely to build coalitions. If competition for resources is intense, there will be frequent raids and often outright conquests. These are not egalitarian societies. There are tribal elders, and some societies are organized around strictly defined roles for men and women. Depending on the intensity of resource competition, males might be defined as warriors. However, there is many a society of pastoral nomads who had women warriors of unparalleled ferocity. Consider Boudicca, queen of the Celtic tribe Iceni, whose rampaging warriors almost convinced the Emperor Nero to pull out of Britain.

The intention of this tidbit was to expand our understanding of nomad societies past and present. And of with that in mind, I end with a video I found on a small nonprofit’s website. The organization explores nomadic societies by living with them for brief periods and producing educational videos. Here is the video of their Central Asia trip.

[bbvideo=560,315]https://youtu.be/iPQI9FIuBeY[/bbvideo]




Sources:

“Early Humans of the Richtersveld”


“Early Pastoralists” Time Maps Encyclopedia


Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, editor Wishart, D.


History of the Steppe. Essential Humanities


Hirst, K. “The Ancient Societies of the Central Asian Steppe” March 31, 2019. ThoughtCo


Miller, M. “Khoisan people of South Africa were once the most populous humans on Earth”
December 14, 2014. Ancient Origins - Reconstructing The Story of Humanity’s Past


“Nomad” New Encyclopedia


Nomad Truck Venture video


Sadr, K. “The story of how livestock made its way to southern Africa” October 24, 2016. The Conversation


Solomon, A. “Rock Art in Southern Africa” January 1, 2005 Scientific American


“South Africa” - The Trust for African Rock Art
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 1: Nomads

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Tue Jul 09, 2019 7:47 pm

:girlwave:
Thanks for starting us off, Firefly!

My feet hurt just reading this. :thud: Can you imagine if the early nomads had Fitbits?!

Very interesting history and I enjoyed the way you wove it all together. Well done. :applause2:

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 1: Nomads

Unread post by fireflydances » Tue Jul 09, 2019 8:24 pm

SnoopyDances wrote::girlwave:
Thanks for starting us off, Firefly!

My feet hurt just reading this. :thud: Can you imagine if the early nomads had Fitbits?!

Very interesting history and I enjoyed the way you wove it all together. Well done. :applause2:
:dillingerhello:

Thank you, thank you. It was a fascinating topic to research. Was amazed by the differences AND similarities between all these societies.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 1: Nomads

Unread post by ladylinn » Thu Jul 11, 2019 4:17 pm

Great read of how all the different areas tied in together. Don't think I could have been a nomad. Too much moving and walking. :heat: :thud: