The Roots of Progress

Nomad life

July 2, 2017

I’m now reading Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (the book version of the television documentary series).

In Chapter 2 he talks about the transition from nomadic life to settled societies. He puts great emphasis on the transition, saying “I believe that civilisation rests on that decision.” To drive the point home, he tells the story of the Bakhtiari tribe in Persia, to illustrate how “civilisation can never grow up on the move”.

I found this passage fascinating and moving:

It is not possible in the nomad life to make things that will not be needed for several weeks. They could not be carried. And in fact the Bakhtiari do not know how to make them. If they need metal pots, they barter them from settled peoples or from a caste of gipsy workers who specialise in metals. A nail, a stirrup, a toy, or a child’s bell is something that is traded from outside the tribe. The Bakhtiari life is too narrow to have time or skill for specialisation. There is no room for innovation, because there is not time, on the move, between evening and morning, coming and going all their lives, to develop a new device or a new thought – not even a new tune. The only habits that survive are the old habits. The only ambition of the son is to be like the father.

It is a life without features. Every night is the end of a day like the last, and every morning will be the beginning of a journey like the day before. When the day breaks, there is one question in everyone’s mind: Can the flock be got over the next high pass? One day on the journey, the highest pass of all must be crossed. This is the pass Zadeku, twelve thousand feet high on the Zagros, which the flock must somehow struggle through or skirt in its upper reaches. For the tribe must move on, the herdsman must find new pastures every day, because at these heights grazing is exhausted in a single day.

Every year the Bakhtiari cross six ranges of mountains on the outward journey (and cross them again to come back). They march through snow and the spring flood water. And in only one respect has their life advanced beyond that of ten thousand years ago. The nomads of that time had to travel on foot and carry their own packs. The Bakhtiari have pack-animals – horses, donkeys, mules – which have only been domesticated since that time. Nothing else in their lives is new. And nothing is memorable. Nomads have no memorials, even to the dead. (Where is Bakhtyar, where was Jacob buried?) The only mounds that they build are to mark the way at such places as the Pass of the Women, treacherous but easier for the animals than the high pass.

The spring migration of the Bakhtiari is a heroic adventure; and yet the Bakhtiari are not so much heroic as stoic. They are resigned because the adventure leads nowhere. The summer pastures themselves will only be a stopping place – unlike the children of Israel, for them there is no promised land. The head of the family has worked seven years, as Jacob did, to build a flock of fifty sheep and goats. He expects to lose ten of them in the migration if things go well. If they go badly, he may lose twenty out of that fifty. Those are the odds of the nomad life, year in and year out. And beyond that, at the end of the journey, there will still be nothing except an immense, traditional resignation.

Who knows, in any one year, whether the old when they have crossed the passes will be able to face the final test: the crossing of the Bazuft River? Three months of melt-water have swollen the river. The tribesmen, the women, the pack animals and the flocks are all exhausted. It will take a day to manhandle the flocks across the river. But this, here, now is the testing day. Today is the day on which the young become men, because the survival of the herd and the family depends on their strength. Crossing the Bazuft River is like crossing the Jordan; it is the baptism to manhood. For the young man, life for a moment comes alive now. And for the old – for the old, it dies.

What happens to the old when they cannot cross the last river? Nothing. They stay behind to die. Only the dog is puzzled to see a man abandoned. The man accepts the nomad custom; he has come to the end of his journey, and there is no place at the end.

For more, read the book.