Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Steppe nomads

I'm reading David Anthony's The Horse, The Wheel, and Language now, a book about the nomads who lived in the steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas between 4000 and 2500 BCE and spoke proto-Indo European. I stumbled across this book (actually, probably used Amazon's links to find it) after having read Patricia Crone's Slaves on Horses. This latter book, which is mainly about why Arab-Islamic societies so often were ruled by slave soldiers (Mamelukes, etc.). In her brief introduction, Crone makes fascinating comparisons between three initially nomadic, or at least non-state and often migratory, societies: the desert Arabs, the steppe Mongols, and the forest Germanic tribes. Her hypothesis, in a nutshell, is that the physical environment had significant effects on the respective social and political structures: in their very harsh environment the Arabs developed almost no structures beyond simple tribal egalitarianism (hence their unsuitability as rulers later on when they conquered developed civilizations and their need to rely on slave soldiers); the Mongols' wealth in horses and livestock actually allowed them to build up *some* patterns of rule, but not of a highly institutionalized nature; finally, the Germanic tribes lived in an underdeveloped (but ultimately developable) physical environment, where they were unmolested by outsiders (Mongols) and had the time to develop the stable structures that eventually became states.
Since these were just hints by Crone, albeit intriguing ones, I wanted to follow up on her book with something more up-to-date (Crone wrote around 1980) and more substantial. I should also say that these questions about the relationship of physical environment to culture/politics/etc interest me and may become the topic of a future project.
More updates on Anthony - and the proto-Indo Europeans - to follow.


  1. So, is it the physical environment itself or is it the physical environment in relation to the available technology (transportation by horse) that has explanatory force here?

    We do have cases of fairly elaborate and stable social organization developing in pretty harsh environments, right? Ancestral Puebloan (previously known as Anasazi) society might be one example. And that culture, like all New World (is that a phrase that makes much sense any more) cultures was horseless. Would lack of horses explain why, in that near-desert environment, the Ancestral Puebloans were able to--or had to--create stable religious-governmental institutions?

  2. Good question, Dan (sorry I just noticed your comment now. I've been overwhelmed responding to the deluge of postings on my site). A first response is that, yes, clearly, available technology matters, in conjunction with the environment. Of course, in the case you mention, the absence of horses can be considered part of the environment. A second response is to ask what determines available technology in the first place. I don't mean to imply that everything, including technology, *ultimately* goes back to the environment. I'm not fixated on finding a single ultimate cause. And time scale may matter here. Jared Diamond emphasizes that his environmental determinism is relevant only in the long term, not as an explanation of short term events or trends. This question of scale is very important, I think. At the same time, it can become an easy, all-too-easy, "out" for a theory in trouble. This was also Keynes' point about markets clearing in the long run: in the long run we're all dead.
    I wish I knew more about the Ancestral Puebloans and generally about non-Eurasian civilizations. Something I'll have to read up on. However, I must take issue with the hint of functionalism (a red flag for this Popperian) in your last line, i.e. the Puebloans had stable institutions because they needed them. To be a little flippant, I need a million dollars (and many other things) but I still don't have them. To be fairer to you, I don't suppose you meant your comment in the way I've taken it. Apologies.