Pastoralism vs Arctic Nomads

In our past reading, Goat Song, we explored the cultural and societal impacts of the pastoral raising of herd animals like goats, cows, and sheep.  The current reading, The Reindeer People, dives into the same topics with a different subject, the nomadic herders of reindeer.  There is a huge cultural difference between these two societies, possibly stemming from the differences between their domesticates.


Pastoral societies developed monotheistic religions, with one all-powerful god ruling over his people, possibly mirroring the relationship between a shepherd and his flock.  In contrast, the native religions of Siberia focus more on spirits inhabiting people, animals, and places.  While reindeer are domesticated, they have changed very little in appearance, and don’t immediately convey a sense of human dependence like pigs and cow do.  What this means is that animals are seen more as independent entities to be bargained with, rather than exploited.  When an animal is killed there are necessary rituals to complete, just as when a person dies.  Rather than harnessing animals’ power like in pastoral cultures, shamans merged with animals to gain their abilities.  While most animals were deserving of some amount of respect within the reindeer herders’ cultures, there was one animal deserving of scorn, the wolf.  Wolves are competitors and thieves, stealing ones work and killing without any respect.


An interesting mental quirk is described in The Reindeer People, demonstrating how humans can compartmentalize their beliefs.  While hunting game or predators, the animals are only seen as instances of their species, “a wolf” or “an elk.”  By contrast, domesticated animals are more often given names and seen as individuals.  This same phenomenon can be seen in the modern world applied to out post-domestic society.  We are taught that cows go moo and pigs go oink, but otherwise don’t generally develop any personal attachment to them.  These animals domesticated for food are rarely given individual names and are instead seen as individual instances of the species as a whole.  We do, however, form deep attachments to our pets and animals domesticated for companionship.  It’s interesting to see a similar disparity in attitudes in a society involved with its domesticates.

Pastoralism and Society

The effects of living closely with domestic animals in pastoral societies are varied, touching on sociology, linguistics, and history.  Even today, there are pastoral societies such as the Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, living nomadic lives with their herds.  In the past they have influenced the sedentary civilizations, particularly in Eurasia.

In Goat Song, the influence of pastoralism over past languages and their modern progeny is detailed.  Letters such as H may have taken their shape from fences as a string of them clearly form a pen: HHHHHHH.  The shape of the letters I, J, and L may all have come from different types of shepherds’ staffs.  There is a common allusion to this in candy canes being shaped purposefully like shepherds hooks in reference to the pastoralism of the Jews and the influence it had on the New Testament.  The Jewish and Christian religions themselves have a large amount of pastoral influence, with many analogies being focused on sheep, shepherds, and animal sacrifices.

In Greece, the goat specifically influenced mythology in the form of the satyr.  Half goat and half man, the minor god embodied the lust found in goats while in their mating season.  They are also patrons of the arts, including poetry and song.


This character of a half man- half goat god was co-opted by the early Christians into one version of the devil.  Modern conceptions of devils often include goat-like elements such as horns, goat legs, or even goat heads.

Pastoralism has even affected our genetics to an extent, as we are one of the only species to retain the ability to process milk into adulthood.  The genes responsible for the ability to metabolize lactose are not present in all peoples, and are more common in western ethnic groups which have a past grounded in pastoralism.

Historically, pastoral societies have lived on the outskirts of sedentary societies and often invaded.  Sometimes these invaders established control over the civilization, such as the mongols with the Jin Dynasty in China, or the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia.  These invasions were often destructive, but occasionally constructive.  The Mongols, for example, provided safe passage for trade over a huge territory, and spread ideas across their lands as well.

The domestication of goats, cows, sheep, and other pastoral animals has had a wide effect on people biologically, and historically.  Goats in particular have had a lasting influence on western culture through its Greek and Judeo-Christian roots.


Physical Effects of Domestication

The process of domestication seems to favor certain physical and behavioral traits, and tends to reliably result in a separate set of characteristics.  Among the prerequisite traits are hierarchical and non-sex separated social groups, and being omnivorous.  The standard phenotype for domesticated animals includes features such as reduced brain size, reduced fight or flight response, and a more juvenile appearance.  What is curious is that modern humans exhibit at least one of these domesticated phenotype traits when compared to Paleolithic humans, reduced brain volume.

Melinda Zeder’s “Pathways to Animal Domestication” outlines a number of prerequisites and usual changes in domesticated species.  One factor in which species were more likely to be domesticated I had not considered before was how the animal’s sexual signals were conveyed.  Animals with displays based on coloring or physical attributes rather than attitudes or behaviors aren’t as well suited to being domesticated.  This is because changes to the animals’ morphology, such as neoteny, could disrupt the animals’ reproductive cycle or viability.  Monogamy is also undesirable for a domesticated species as it makes selective breeding harder to accomplish.

The reduction of brain volume of domesticated species when compared to their wild counterparts seems to be common among all mammalian domesticates, and more pronounced in animals with larger starting brain volumes.  Moreover, the reduction is in general focused on parts of the forebrain, which is a more recently evolved structure, allowing for more complex thought.  In this sense domesticates really are to some degree mentally retarded versions of their wild counterparts.

The average human brain volume increased until around 20,000 years ago.  According to Cro-Magnon skulls found in Europe, our brain volume has decreased by approximately 10%.  There are a number of theories about the implications and causes of this phenomena.


I think the causes are mainly, increased computational and informational storage ability outside of our own minds, and complex societies allowing us to be a little less intelligent.  The increased cooperative nature of complex society may have allowed us to become slightly less intelligent, spreading the mental labor over more minds.  In addition to calling on other people to solve problems, we have invented ways to solve problems partially or wholly outside of our brains.  Taking written arithmetic as an example, to do calculations in your head is far more taxing than manipulating symbols written on clay tablets or paper.  A more basic example based on memory would be the transition from spoken histories to written ones.  To memorize the Iliad and be able to recite any part at will takes much more mental effort than writing it down and knowing how to read.  The invention of written language and cooperative societies may be largely responsible for the reduction in brain volume.

A very modern extension of this phenomenon is the use of computers to complement human computation and memory retention.  Cutting a person off from computers and the internet would cause them to lose access to the sum of human knowledge and experience.  However, people raised with constant access to such resources, such as myself, are less able to complete tasks without this access.  Anyone who has had computer issues in a dire situation knows that it feels almost like losing a limb.  It is arguable that with internet connectivity so ubiquitous, we have outsourced some portion of our thinking power to computers, just as we have in the past with arithmetic and writing.  I as an individual do not know everything about say domesticated pigeons, and my laptop doesn’t have the capacity to creatively and meaningfully interpret the information it has on pigeons, but as a system, we have both the knowledge and the capacity to interpret the information and produce something with meaning.

What this means for domestication is that when looking at the physical changes in humans that may imply we are becoming dumber, it is important to realize that you cannot separate humans from our technology.  The reduction in our brain size is one side of an equation, and is balanced out by our increasing reliance on external thinking tools and cooperation with others.