Why Did Our Nomadic Ancestors Settle Down? They Wanted To Own Stuff

What caused nomadic people to settle down? Explore the key factors of mobility that contributed to this pivotal shift in history.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Dec 2, 2023 2:00 PM
A Nomad wearing an animal skin while holding a stone tipped spear
(Credit: gorodenkoff/iStock / Getty Images Plus)

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Most people will agree — moving is a pain. It’s exhausting to find boxes, pack up possessions, and haul them into a vehicle. Given the difficulty, most people stay put in their residences for years at a time.

But living in the same location is a relatively new human experience. For hundreds of thousands of years, people were nomadic. They sometimes stayed in a place for mere hours before moving on.

Eventually, most people gave up the nomadic lifestyle. Scientists are still learning about ancient nomads and why people stopped being nomadic.

When Did People Stop Being Nomadic?

Scholars don’t agree as to when people moved away from a hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle. It’s thought that people widely stopped being nomadic around 12,000 years ago as agriculture became an alternative.

However, the end of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle didn’t happen immediately. In some parts of the world, it took thousands of years for people to learn how to cultivate different crops

What Is a Nomad?

The word nomad is rooted in the Greek word nomads, meaning to graze or pasture flocks. The term is related to the experience of moving along with herded animals, but it’s largely used to describe any group of mobile people. 

Pastoral Nomads

Ancient nomads were mobile for a variety of reasons, and their stationary times ranged from mere hours to entire seasons, depending on the resources they were seeking. Pastoral nomads, for example, raised and cared for herded animals. They moved based on access to grazing land and drinkable water for their herd. Pastoral people were semi-nomadic, and the group sometimes settled by a particular resource for several months at a time.

Hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers had different motivations to move. They based their mobility on access to food, water, and safe living conditions. For example, if they found themselves conveniently near an animal’s seasonal migration path, they might have stayed the entire season. But they might stay for years if they happened upon a lake teeming with fish and waterfowl. 


Read More: Nomads as Post-Hunter-gatherers


What Caused Nomadic People to Move Around?

We can understand why human communities settled and adapted using two distinct ideas: residential mobility and restricted mobility.

Residential Mobility

Researchers use the term “residential mobility” to describe nomadic situations in which an entire group of people packed up all their belongings and walked to a new location.

However, the distance a group was able to travel was determined by many factors, such as the ability to cross terrain or the possibility of territory disputes.                                              

Restricted Mobility 

Groups with limits on how far they could travel or restrictions on when they could travel experienced “restricted mobility.” Restricted mobility might have entailed a snowy mountain pass that prevented a group from crossing during the colder months. Or it could have involved a rival group that had access to a prized resource they had no intent in sharing.

Mobility restrictions sometimes meant there were times when only a segment of the population could move, and one group might have had multiple camps. 


Read More: Who Were the Ancient Scythians?


Why Did Humans Stop Being Nomadic?

People living in various regions of the world had distinct reasons for ending their once-nomadic lifestyles. One theory is that people began using different forms of food storage in times of abundance. These primitive pantries gave people an incentive not to wander far.

As groups stayed put, they found other benefits to stopping their wandering ways. As anyone who has traveled during the holidays with children can attest, it’s a lot to lug kids from one place to the next. Remaining in one location was less stressful on the family unit, and it increased the likelihood of a child’s survival.

How Agriculture Contributed to Settled Lifestyles

Scholars typically agree there was evidence that early nomadic groups were communal cultures that shared resources and didn’t have a sense of personal property. Part of this was because nomadic groups simply didn’t have a lot of personal possessions. Moving about meant people couldn’t own what they couldn’t carry.

The rise of agriculture ushered in a sense of property ownership. A settled lifestyle allowed people to build dwellings accrue items, and perhaps, if they felt like it, not share with others. Some scholars have argued that personal property or a sense of ownership of items significantly motivated people to stop being nomadic.


Read More: What Did the Transition From Hunter Gatherer to Farming Really Look Like?


Are There Any Nomadic Cultures Still?

Although most of the world transitioned from a nomadic lifestyle, there are cultures that are still mobile. An estimated 30 to 40 million people globally live a nomadic lifestyle. Rather than being the hunter-gatherer type like the ancients, most move to herd animals (pastoral nomads) or sell goods and services (peripatetic nomads).   


Read More: What Is a Nomad, and Are There Any Nomadic Tribes That Still Exist?

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