Walling the Restless Out and In
Walling the Restless Out and In

Walling the Restless Out and In

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

Sometimes in the human adventure we need to go all the way back to man’s first premises and departures, the first turnings in the trail, and refresh our notions of ourselves by rethinking those first steps. The human situation now as urban man risks making the planet unlivable for all other species is just such a moment, and Anthony Sattin’s book Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World (2022, Norton) is such a refreshing look.

The purpose of living on the move for hunter-gatherers was to keep from exhausting the resources of any one place. To touch this bit of the world lightly and let the living spring back. This strategy also worked well for the first herders who domesticated and followed goats, sheep, camels, horses and cattle.

For the last 12,000 years there has often been a tension between city dwellers fixed in place, building and living monumentally, with their possessions and specialties of knowledge and effort seen as jobs and careers, and those restless nomads, always living more lightly, on the move through nature, with their herds and horses, their daily improvisations, their few but versatile weapons and tools. The city dwellers may create writing and math, refinements of computation and measurement that let them achieve massive structures, but that mindset has by now arrived at the delusion of an alternative reality, that urban man could live in like a bubble while the air and water, foods and lands outside get ever more barren and dirtier.

From the first, hunting-and-gathering as a strategy fed people well, well enough that they would soon have to either move on or find ways to keep their food coming up in familiar places. The Nile River’s annual flooding was a gift of happenstance, as was the lushness of the lowlands and ease of irrigation in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Those first areas gave rise to agriculture, and offered a life that was set in place, with humans soon building with a view to permanence, locked into job specialties, rigid belief systems and social structures.

But on the vast steppes that reach from Europe east to the Pacific Ocean, nomads are responsible for that family of languages and cultures from Sanskrit and Attic Greek, to Latin and Hindu, and include Gothic, Celtic, and Old Persian along the way. These nomadic cultures created epic stories that were committed to memory and retold around campfires for centuries before they were written down. Sattin locates with a fair degree of precision the cultural center of nomadic culture, of the languages that reached out from a single theoretical ancestor, as he says:

“A convergence of linguistic and physical evidence now places the original Proto-Indo-Europeans on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, north of the Black and Caspian seas, and enclosed by the Dnieper and Ural rivers. They lived there after the domestication of the horse and many of them were nomads.” (P. 52)

It was not exactly what we might consider a promising homeland, these grasslands that undulate away forever, where these nomads were eternally on the move, to explore the ends of the earth. Suffice it to say that there is no vast physical shrine to the nomad anywhere within these coordinates, though Sattin takes to the globe and maps to finger many elusive and forgotten places, to tell their stories and feel the throbbing heartbeats of their cultures, to the chanting of Gilgamesh and the Rig Veda, the Iliad and Odyssey, those epic poems conceived and learned by heart from the first, with their references to anchor and perhaps appease the spirits that reside there. He describes the nomads’ huge burial mounds on the steppes, and visits Gobekli Tepe, an astonishing and complex set of structures built at the fanciful dawn of civilization by hunter-gatherers who did not live amid their creation, but well apart from it. Why they built such effortful structures and what it all meant remain enduring mysteries, that lead Sattin to ask:

“Was agriculture a giant step for mankind, or desperate crisis management, the only option for hunter-gatherers whose success had decimated their food supply?” (p. 34)

This book traces the shifting relationships between people who move and those who are settled. Much of the long story it covers is mysterious and sketchy because it is the story of those who lived lightly, moved on, and did not erect monuments or make lasting statements in enduring materials to their beliefs and way of life. But make no mistake: they are and have always been part of us. The ones who live strenuous lives in the open, on the move, as migrants, traders, nomads, share enduring impulses and desires with us and always will.

Sattin spins an often stark and humbling story of human endeavor that runs parallel to the familiar settled urban narrative of what we still call Western Civilization. He records the restless and irresistible human waves that have reached across the steppes and deserts pulsing with lives on the move, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, overwhelming all that stood in their way.

Walling the Restless Out and In

But this is not simply a story of cavalry charges and the sieges of high-walled cities. It may take a while for the reader to realize that Anthony Sattin is speaking to the restless urges and daydreams in all of us. That is his purpose in telling the endless story of those whose lives are lived lightly and on the move. We may think we know its sketchy outlines already, from the Persians and Scythians through Attila the Hun, to the Xiongnu nomads in China, then the Mongols led by Genghis Khan and his ruling dynasty, on through the Ottoman Turks and Bedouins of the Arabian Desert to the Bakhtiari of northern Iran, from the half a billion who were still nomads in the 1970s and 80s, to the 40 million Sattin says are still nomads today. But it is a story in constant danger of erasure, of being lost in the dust and forgotten. When he died in 453 CE, Attila was buried in a gold coffin enclosed in a silver one, the whole encased in iron, but his tomb remains undiscovered to this day. From the first, from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, of the citydwelling tiller and builder who murders his brother the herdsman and wanderer, there has been a gathering of both simple, strenuous virtue and hardy courage on the side of the nomads, balanced against the efficiencies, amusements, stasis and occasional terror of cities.

The book is organized into three parts. Part I: The Balancing Act, covers Eurasia, the Scythians, Persians and Xiongnu to 453 CE. Part II: The Imperial Act, reaches from the rise of the Arabs to the fall of the Mongols, and of Rome, including Timur (Tamburlaine). And Part III: the Act of Recovery covers the Ottoman Turks, the Safavit and Mughal empires, and the Real Agricultural Revolution since the 1800s to the present. Sattin begins his work fittingly on the trail, with Bakhtiari nomads in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, herding sheep. And he fittingly ends on the trail, as those Iranian nomads are getting set to drive their sheep up into those same mountains in the spring three years later. The headings of the sections move from the first chapter’s heading: Paradise, 10,000 BCE, Global Population perhaps 5 million, Nomad Population most of that number, to the last chapter’s heading: Now, Global Population 7.8 Billion, Urban Population 5.6 Billion, Nomad population 40 million. So the book’s vast sweep insists that the nomadic way of life is still with us, though Sattin doesn’t mention the half a million homeless Americans on the move, mostly camping out in the nation’s largest cities, and the millions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East displaced by war, politics and climate disasters.

Sattin has located some invaluable touchstones as he searches out the elusive stories of nomads, and he introduces a sequence of historians who in the dim recesses of time decided to study and explain the events, gatherings and conflicts of these nomads as they happened, illuminated by cause and effect and factual details. The first historian is the Greek father of history, Herodotus (c. 484-425/413 BCE), and the second is Sima Quan (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), the Grand Historian of China ( 145-135/86 BCE). The third is Ibn Khaldun, whose book The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, asked a series of historical questions and sought answers that pointed to causes in the nomad character. Sattin reports that Ibn Khaldun ranked the societies and governments he knew and decided:

“The nomads lived in remote places with neither high walls nor strong gates, which meant they needed to defend themselves: these circumstances inclined them to courage, fortitude, and to look out for each other.” (p. 129)

Beyond Khaldun with his circular theory of history, where each society and its government pass through stages of growth and decay, there is the still fresh account of Marco Polo and his years-long trip through the Mongol Empire and Yuan Dynasty China along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295, with part of his return supplied by a sail aboard one of the emperor’s ships.

There are some contemporary surprises to Sattin’s account, not least of which is his account of the discovery by a group of geneticists from Northwestern University, in a study published in 2008. They focused on a nomadic tribe called the Ariaal who live in northern Kenya and are descended from two larger tribes, the Rendille and Samburu. These two tribes speak different languages and are equally divided in their livelihood. Some live on the move in the lowlands, grazing camels, goats and sheep. Others have settled in the highlands where they grow crops and send their children to school. And here is the payoff that Sattin reports:

“The researchers discovered a pattern in the genetics of these groups of settled and nomads. Roughly a fifth of the Ariaal men in each group possessed a variant gene, the DRD4-7R. Among the Ariaal living as nomads, those who carried the 7R genetic variant tended to be better fed and stronger than tribesmen who did not have it. They are the alpha nomads. But among settled Ariaal, the 7R carriers were less well-nourished and less dominant than their fellow tribespeople.” (p. 29)

This genetic marker, Sattin notes, is the source of what one in twenty Americans, and one in five of our children suffer from, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He quotes Dr. Dan Eisenberg summarizing the study’s findings:

“In a nomadic setting, someone with this variant of the gene may be better at protecting herds against rustlers or finding food and water. The same tendencies might not be as beneficial in settled pursuits such as focusing in school, farming or selling goods.” (p. 30)

DRD4-7R has been called the ‘nomadic gene’ that offers an explanation for some behavior in children and older people, and why some humans find it hard to sit still and remain happy indoors, and seem better suited for success outdoors in nature.

Walling the Restless Out and In

The story of nomads has also always held alternatives to urban dwellers in both politics and spirituality. For example, Genghis Khan’s legal code (his quriltai of 1206) includes three basics that would be welcome in the 21st Century, but not guaranteed even now: freedom of conscience, with all beliefs holding the same status, and no official religions; freedom of movement for all, for travelers and merchants as well as nomads with their herds and flocks; and third, freedom to trade without tariffs and fees. This seems an utterly reasonable basis for governance, though often that came to citizens in conquered nations only after bloody battles and sieges.

Further on, a fine point about nomad spirituality is made as Sattin describes Crazy Horse’s preparation for the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. The Lakota leader

“…dusted himself with the dry earth of the valley, wove its long grass into his hair and burned some of the material from his medicine bag on a bison-dung fire so that the smoke would reach the gods, so that his prayers would be heard and the sanctity of the land be preserved. The battle, for these braves as for the cavalrymen riding towards them, was about belonging.” (p. 280)

Most nomads for their long and varied history have been animists, believing in the conscious but elusive and invisible powers of the open steppes and prairie. The Lakota’s relationship with the buffalo was always humble and prayerful, thanking the spirits of the slain after every hunt, mindful of never taking too much.

One of Sattin’s lessons for the American reader might be how easily our culture snatches up the latest technology as a slapdash answer to the latest problem. The invention of barbed wire offers a possible answer to herding, to focus the manpower on fence-building and repair, but really only if one is determined to own the grazing lands and keep out all other grazers, tame or wild. In the Zagros Mountains of northern Iran, Iraq and southeastern Turkey, there are no fences to this day, and the Bakhtiari and other nomads herd their sheep and goats into the mountain meadows every spring, and back down to winter in the lowlands every fall. Some of the tribes build huts in the mountains, but this is not deeded property, in a landscape that provides summer pasture for nomadic herders in all three countries.

Walling the Restless Out and In

Reaching the end of his journey in search of the meanings and insights to be found in the stories of nomads over the vast reaches of time, Sattin doubles back to northern Iran, where he meets a stranger who opens his home and heart to the traveling writer. Sattin’s new friend, the former Bakhtiari herder Fereydun, who had settled with his family in the city so his children could go to school, speaks of his many years on the move:

I interrupted and asked whether it was true that the Bakhtiari women pass on the secrets of their carpet weavings in songs, that they sing the patterns to their daughters.

This book is fertile in its rethinking of early history, into the assumptions and implications of the role of nomads in forming the modern world. The reader learns how Persian carpets and their like have always been spread on the floors of tents and caves, their patterns and colors richly suggesting meadows in flower. Here are stories that the settled and those in motion, from Cain and Abel to the 21st Century, share. One of the long and enduring lessons of nomad history was how walls never work long to keep humans in or out. Successful nomads, including Huns, Mongols, Arabs and Turks, all built walls when they conquered sedentary people, and settled in places like Damascus and Baghdad. But such constructions didn’t work long against the next wave of nomads used to living lightly, who had nothing to plunder in their camps, who could easily scale or batter down walls, but then couldn’t be made to stand and fight by urban warriors. Mounted nomads who remained flexible and fleet were an endless frustration to heavily armored and slow-moving opponents.

If this reader were granted one wish for Anthony Sattin’s background while he researched and wrote this admirable and articulate book, it would be that he had been a horseman, and perhaps a small farmer as well. The story he tells of irresistible mounted cavalry with their bows and arrows, from the Huns, Mongols and Bedouins to the Lakota in the American West of the 1870s, of swift maneuvers and attacks, is all dependent upon superlative horsemanship. The story of nomads as warriors is mostly the story of the horse as well, with riders who only dismounted to sleep, whose lines of communication with mounted couriers covered vast distances, who from antiquity had teams pulling carts and chariots for a whole culture on the move. A world fashioned by and for nomads might not be as populous as ours today, but would likely have an easier accommodation with the rest of nature, where one could commune with one’s divine inspirations nightly under an open and friendly sky.