african cattle

Africans, and their descendants, were America’s first cowboys. Originally a cowboy was an African who worked with cattle, just as a ‘houseboy’ worked in The Big House. As you may recognize the term 'boy’ at the end which was invariably used disrespectful by White men towards Blacks. Most people are not conscious of the number of cowboys of the American West that were Black, contrary to how the film industry and the media have portrayed them. Only recently have we begun to recognize the African roots of cowboy culture. Many details of cowboy life, work, and even material culture can be traced to the Fulani, America’s first cowboys.

The final solution is this: Round up all traitors, and those who attempt to pass as kith and kin when it suits them, and mass exile them to the latrine lands they seek to facilitate the imposition of upon us all, invest the hard work ethic you espouse and stand in solidarity with in fixing these lands, I’m sure you’ll encounter no problems attempting to do so.

Subsistence Methods and Economy

Note: Stories, facts, and information provided here are not meant as encouragements for writers to simply insert into their works. Additional research may be needed. They should only be used as inspiration and to help with understanding how cultures are put together. Please use this knowledge to inform your own culture creations without full appropriation. Find the rest of the series here.

This post goes hand-in-hand with the previous post on Evolutionary Typologies of Civilizations.

Last time, we discussed the four basic categories anthropologists use to classify cultures: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Peoples using the band or tribe structure styles are frequently referred to as traditional cultures while chiefdoms and state-type structures (those with centralized government) are referred to as complex cultures. These terms are not meant in any way to reflect the actual complexity of cultures, but came into being in the early 1900s during the birth of anthropology as observations. Cultures with centralized governments are characteristic of larger settlements, which by their nature require more organization, thus considered more complex.

All political correctness aside, let’s talk about some of the things mentioned in the last post, namely subsistence methods. This term refers to how cultures choose to acquire their food. In the last post, terms like horticulture, sedentism, and nomadic movement were thrown around, but let’s talk about what those mean and why a culture would use them.

Foragers: Characterized by a dependence on naturally occurring sources of food. Foragers are food collectors, not food producers. 99% of hominid existence has been spent this way. Modern foragers are found in areas of marginal agricultural potential, and they have evolved and continued to change over the years. Here are some general characteristics (tendencies, not absolutes) of foraging peoples:

  • live on low energy budgets
  • live in small groups of related persons (bands)
  • informal, consensual decision-making
  • egalitarian (equal across gender and status) social relations
  • size and composition of groups influenced by resource availability and social tensions
  • mobility as a way of adapting to resource fluctuation (i.e., bring people to food rather than the other way around)

Horticulture: Refers to garden cultivation, a non-intensive planting based on cyclical and non-continuous use of crop lands. Horticulturalists primarily rely on domesticated foods, especially the region’s staple crop, though can be supplemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering. This method of subsistence is most often found in the humid tropics. There are huge differences between horticulture (small-scale) and agriculture (large-scale):

  • horticulture does not make intensive use of land, labor, capital, or machinery. It uses simple tools like digging sticks, hoes, and machetes.
  • Horticulture utilizes polyculture, also called multi-cropping, or the planting of different crops in the same field, is common. Crop rotation, or the use of multiple fields and switching what is grown in which field in order to maximize the use of nutrient in the soil, as well as allowing a plot to be left fallow for a period of time, is combined with slash and burn techniques which entails cutting down the natural growth in the fallow field, then burning it to return a fresh layer of nutrients to the soil.
  • Horticulture provides a relatively low crop yield per acre of land due to the use of simple techniques and the general lack of techniques to improve productivity. Horticultural methods require much more land due to this.
  • Horticulture allows for household self-sufficiency. Each household is usually capable of producing most of the food its members need. The production goal is for consumption rather than producing a surplus for trade.
  • Both horticulture and agriculture are based on highly detailed environmental knowledge.

Pastoralism: This does not refer to the literary movement of the same name, but instead of animal husbandry and the reliance on herds of domesticated animals. While a primarily old word adaptive strategy, it is still practiced among today’s traditional cultures. The types of animals which are herded depends upon the environment. A few common breeds are cattle, sheep, goats, camels, llama & alpaca, reindeer, yak, etc..Like foraging, pastoralism is usually found in areas of marginal agricultural content such as the semi-arid grasslands of East and West Africa, the deserts of the Middle East, and the mountainous regions of Southwest and Central Asia. Pastoralism enables the utilization of land where agriculture is impossible or too risky. A society’s sole specialization in pastoralism is relatively rare, though it can be seen among the Maasai of East Africa and the Fulani of West Africa. Most pastoralists engage in some cultivation or trade animal produce for agricultural commodities from sedentary farmers (those who stay in one place). For pastoralists, mobility is the key to success. A move may be triggered by a number of things, including:

  • ecological necessities such as new grazing lands or additional water supplies
  • political factors such as the desire to maintain tribal autonomy (self-governing)
  • personal considerations such as when conflict threatens a camp so families move to join another group
     There are two types of movement: horizontal migration which is regular movement over large areas in search of foraging materials; and transhumance, a seasonal movement of livestock between upland and lowland pastures. Transhumance is regularly practiced in mountainous regions where higher ground may become too cold in the winter, and lower ground too hot in the summer.
    Pastoralists often mix species in herds to reduce the risk of loss to disease, drought, and raiding in the same way a gardener today will plant multiple types of trees to avoid losing all their trees should one type become infested with a plague or disease. Different animals will have different feeding habits, as well, allowing for some of the animals to find food anywhere along their route. There is also the more common consideration that different animals will produce different products. Small stock commonly provide meat while larger stock will provide milk.
     In his 1924 article entitled “The East African Cattle Complex,” Melvill Herskovits discussed the relationship between herders and their herds, which has sometimes been misinterpreted as an irrational, emotional attachment to the animals. For pastoralists, livestock are more than utilitarian beasts and perform various functions including as part of bride wealth, blood wealth, and stock partnerships. Harold K. Schneider, an economic anthropologist who spent his fieldwork among the Pokot of Kenya and the Wahi Wanyaturu of Tanzania asserted that livestock were frequently regarded as a form of currency. Pastoralist views on livestock matched many of the qualities that economists attribute to money: portable, divisible, interest-bearing, and constitute a store of wealth as well as a means of exchange.
     Herds are usually owned by families or kinship groups, but the grazing territory is held collectively by the tribe. Today, necessity has forced many pastoralist groups to engage in market exchanges with members of neighboring societies. These market exchanges have been the means of transitioning from pastoralism to a sedentary, settled lifestyle.

How does this help a writer? Once you’ve decided the environment, the next step in culture building is population, subsistence, with political structure closely following. Your culture’s subsistence method is intrinsically tied to the environment they’re existing in. You’re not going to have a foragers in places where agriculture is better suited. But you’re also not going to have agriculture where the soil is bad, or they have no trade partners and therefore no need for a surplus. That’s where horticulture would come in. Knowing a bit about a few of the types of subsistence methods out there will help you think through why your culture does what they do.

We’ll talk about political structuring in future posts.