In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pastoralism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Early History
  • Colonial Encounters
  • Ecology
  • Drought
  • Politics and the State
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Conflict and Violence
  • Land Tenure
  • Development and Change
  • Sedentarization

African Studies Pastoralism
Peter D. Little
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0010


Pastoralism is a livelihood pursued by more than 20 million Africans across about 50 percent of the continent’s total area. In drier parts of the continent pastoralists concentrate mainly on camels and goats, but, in higher rainfall lands, they focus on cattle, sheep, and goats. The first archaeological evidence of livestock domestication on the continent can be traced to between 10,000 BCE and 9000 BCE, although there is some debate in the literature about the exact dates and causes for its emergence. Around 9000 BCE the first distinct pastoralists can be traced to what is today Sudan and Chad (especially the Lake Chad basin) and northern areas of the Sahara, and from there they spread southward into the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. Most of the earliest pastoralists spoke Afro-Asiatic and proto-Cushitic languages and preceded modern pastoralist populations. Some of the best known pastoralist groups in Africa today, such as the Borana, Fulani, and Maasai, occupied their current territories and forged distinct ethnic identities only in the past three to four hundred years, with a Maasai identity being even more recent. The study of pastoralism remains an important focus in African studies and now attracts scholarly attention from a range of disciplines. Until the 1970s most studies of pastoralism were conducted by Western anthropologists, but scholars from the African continent and from other disciplines, including economics, history, and geography, now focus on the topic. Despite rapid changes in the past twenty years, pastoralism endures and represents an important economic activity and cultural identity in Africa.

General Overviews

Several good overviews of African pastoralism are available, with the first ones appearing in the 1970s. Most overview volumes, such as Fratkin, et al. 1994; Irons and Dyson-Hudson 1972; and Monod 1975, resulted from conferences, and some works include coverage of pastoralism worldwide. Coverage is slanted toward East Africa and the Horn of Africa regions, where large numbers of distinct pastoralist societies reside and where many well-known studies have been conducted. The most useful books, such as Homewood 2008 and Galaty and Bonte 1991, cover a range of different topics and geographic regions as well as provide important historical depth to the study of pastoralism. The books in this section also provide important bibliographies, and Khazanov 1994 and Irons and Dyson-Hudson 1972 both situate African pastoralism within a global context.

  • Fratkin, Elliot M., Kathleen A. Galvin, and Eric Abella Roth, eds. African Pastoralist Systems: An Integrated Approach. Papers presented at “Recent Developments in African Pastoralist Research,” held by the American Anthropological Association, 1991. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994.

    The volume highlights the ecological aspects of pastoralism and many of the chapters address contemporary problems among pastoralists, such as nutritional, health, and poverty issues. Most of the contributions are by anthropologists and human biologists.

  • Galaty, John G., and Pierre Bonte, eds. Herders, Warriors, and Traders: Pastoralism in Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.

    An important edited volume that has a nice balance of East and West African coverage. The contributions cover topics such as trade, violence, and history.

  • Homewood, Katherine. Ecology of African Pastoralist Societies. Oxford: James Currey, 2008.

    This probably is the most important current overview of African pastoralism. While it uses an ecological approach, it treats a range of topics, including archaeology, history, culture, social organization, and development, and covers all regions of the continent. The bibliography is comprehensive and current as of 2008.

  • Irons, William, and Neville Dyson-Hudson. Perspectives on Nomadism. Based on a symposium on nomadic studies held in New Orleans, Louisiana, 1969. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972.

    One of the first edited collections on nomadic pastoralism to provide global coverage, including both East and West Africa. The different chapters are mainly by anthropologists.

  • Khazanov, Anatoly M. Nomads and the Outside World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

    Written by a well-known Russian ethnologist based in the United States, this is one of the most comprehensive books on pastoralism. It highlights the often conflictive relationship between pastoralist societies and outside actors, such as governments and farming communities.

  • Monod, Théodore. Pastoralism in Tropical Africa = Les sociétés pastorales en Afrique tropicale: Studies Presented and Discussed at the XIIIth International African Seminar, Niamey, December 1972. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

    This volume appeared after the devastating Sahelian drought, which destroyed the herds of large numbers of pastoralists in West Africa. It brought attention to the serious problems of underdevelopment and political marginalization that African pastoralists confront. Published for the International African Institute.

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