Anthropology research seminar: From small-scale cooperative herding groups to nomadic empires – a cross-cultural approach.
Marius Warg Næss (NIKU)
The main question of this research project is: can political complexity evolve from small-scale cooperative groups? The predominant view of nomadic empires – that they are caused by contact with agricultural neighbours – cannot explain how pastoralists transitioned from small, kin-based cooperative herding groups to complex hierarchical groups with the power to conquer their sedentary neighbours. By perceiving cooperative herding groups as the building blocks of nomadic societies, this project aims to develop a theoretical explanation of pastoral political organisation ranging from acephalous societies in Africa to imperial confederations in Inner Asia. While cooperative herding has been documented, previous studies have been based on single case studies. Thus, a cross-cultural investigation of pastoral cooperation is lacking. There is also a view that livestock, as the primary source of wealth, limits the development of inequalities, making pastoralism unable to support complex or hierarchical organisations. However, evidence indicates that environmentally induced livestock losses exacerbate rather than limit the development of wealth inequalities. COMPLEXITY rectifies this situation through three steps. First, by combining a systematic literature review of the ethnographic material with information in the eHRAF World Cultures database, COMPLEXITY will cross-culturally document the prevalence of cooperative herding groups. Second, by using a pluralistic methodology, e.g. experimental economic games, observations and interviews, COMPLEXITY will comparatively investigate to what degree pastoral cooperation is structured by evolutionary factors – such as kinship, reciprocity, social network structure, and norms – and investigate how cooperation affect pastoral performance and inequality. Third, by combining empirical data with modelling techniques, COMPLEXITY investigates whether cooperative herding groups can be considered prototypes for more complex organisations.