Nomads — the people almost forgotten by history
History is mostly about settled people, and when it’s about nomads it’s usually about them from the perspective of settled people who typically describe them as barbarians or savages. The reason is simple: nomads don’t have writing systems. Anthony Sattin in Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World (2022) attempts to set the record straight. Of course, he is not the first one to do so (e.g. James C. Scott is another important writer in this area), but his book is the most comprehensive I have read to date.
While “civilised people” have always looked somewhat down on nomads, Anthony Sattin, like others before him, paints a different picture of nomadism: one of a high degree of freedom and egalitarianism. Sattin starts his book with a discussion of the DRD4–7R gene variant, dubbed the “nomad” or “wanderlust” gene. As we can expect sedentary people to have a host of adaptations to a different lifestyle and mode of subsistence. DRD4–7R, which is thought to be present in around 20 percent of the population, however nomadic people have made a much larger genetic impact on civilizations. While sedentary Neolithic farmers have a genetic contribution of more than 70% in Tuscany, this percentage is reversed in Ukraine with huge contributions by hunter-gatherers and Yamnaya pastoralists (herders). All in all, the genetic contribution of nomads in Europe is almost 50%. This percentage is way too high to ignore nomads in the history of humankind.
How did this high amount of nomadic genetic contribution get into settled farmer communities? This is the part of history that is still largely unwritten. Sattin extensively uses the ideas of Ibn Khaldun, who was a Muslim Arab sociologist, philosopher, and historian widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest social scientists of the Middle Ages. Khaldun saw nomadic people as superior to settled people and more fit to rule due to their courage, group cohesion (tribalism) and unspoilt nature. Khaldun developed a theory of civilization in which nomads come to rule over sedentary people, however the very traits that had made them able to conquer sedentary people and establish a strong rule, lead to the demise of the new civilization. Indeed, this is what we usually find when pastoralist tribes (e.g. the Mongols) establish an empire — it falls apart almost as quickly as it came into being. However, through recent genetic research (e.g. David Reich) we know that pastoralists left a huge amount of their genes in sedentary populations before disappearing from history again. Where can we see their genetic influence nowaday? Our personalities.
Colin G. DeYoung showed that the Big Five factors can be divided into two metatraits: Stability and Plasticity. Stability is defined by one’s maintenance of stability and hypothesised to be related to the neurotransmitter serotonin, while Plasticity is seen in one’s adaptability to novelty and hypothesised to be related to the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is exactly what we would expect from biological adaptations to sedentism vs nomadism, respectively.
History has always been written more by people with the plasticity profile (the Wanderers), than by people with the stability profile, who are inherently conservative of the status quo. History has always been written by people like Marco Polo (forager type) and Christopher Columbus (pastoralist type).
Ibn Khaldun was genetically a nomad, a forager type (ENFP in MBTI), and so is Anthony Sattin, who has travelled extensively in Africa and the Middle East, living with the nomads. Their admiration for the free and egalitarian pastoralist lifestyle is baked into their psychological makeup.
Sattin is spot on with his subtitle “The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World”. It’s the nomads who have always written history. Not only the barbarian peoples who knocked at the Roman and Chinese empires, but the people who have always been ill at ease with authority, hierarchy, bureaucracy, the status quo and a sedentary lifestyle.
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Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on July 23, 2022.