Ancient Nomads Offer Insights to Modern Crises
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Every summer for the past eight years, Michael Frachetti has come to the desert steppe that rolls like endless yellow waves across this expansive Central Asian nation searching for evidence of a vast, connected nomadic society.
With each new excavation, Dr. Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University, hopes to complicate received notions of the lives and societies of the nomads who once thrived in this region.
Dr. Frachetti’s work concerns Bronze Age nomads, and his scholarship is aimed purely at a historical understanding of how a preliterate society functioned more than 3,000 years ago. But his work coincides with a geopolitical reality that has important implications for American foreign policy makers: many of the countries that most trouble the West — like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia — have government institutions that reflect a nomadic past.
“Take Afghanistan, where politics are much more dispersed,” said Dr. Frachetti, while sitting in an upscale Almaty cafe in July, a few days before trekking to the Saryesik-Atyrau Desert to conduct that remote area’s first archeological survey. “I think some of our foreign policy complications derive from our inability to locate a nomadic dynamic within contemporary political structures.”
Recent investigations have challenged long-held views of nomadic culture as purely transient, with little impact on the urban, sophisticated societies that emerged later.
Instead, scientists like Dr. Frachetti are discovering that nomadic cultures are flexible, switching between transient and more sedentary ways of life, and assimilating and inventing new ideas and technologies. Nomads created durable political cultures that still influence the way those countries interact with outsiders or negotiate internal power struggles.
While the view that tribe and clan — the basic building blocks of nomadic, or semi-transient societies— influence the contemporary politics of some countries is nothing new, specialists in nomadic studies argue that policy makers have overlooked important “cultural intelligence,” like family relationships, when analyzing governments that grew out of tribal traditions.
“Families, tribes these are the things that matter here,” said Oraz Jandosov, co-chairman of a Kazakhstan opposition political party. “Foreigners talk about these things, but it’s only talk. They don’t understand them.”
Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may take on the trappings of modern, Western nation-states, with parliaments, justice departments and other governmental agencies, researchers say. But politics are still driven by the customs and institutions of nomadism, in which political disputes were settled at the level of family, clan and tribe.
“In and of itself you can’t graft what happened two thousand years ago and say that’s what it is today, but it helps to understand how these societies have found successful strategies and how they respond to outside forces,” Dr. Frachetti said. “By not exploring the depth to which nomadic populations have contributed to local political systems, we are naïve to an important aspect of the social fabric of parts of the Near East and Central Asia.”
The United States military has learned the importance of tribes in Iraq, as evidenced by its policy of arming Sunni Arab tribal chiefs in Anbar Province to fight the leading insurgent group there, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
Yet, despite calls for a deeper appreciation of cultures far from the mainstream, “the United States government hasn’t been willing to pony up the money to educate” policy makers on “these areas with deep nomadic traditions,” said a Central Asia specialist working for the United States government. The official requested anonymity because he was not cleared to speak with reporters.
“It takes a half a million dollars and four or five years to train a specialist in these parts of the world,” the official said. “Even now we hardly have anyone up to speed about the border areas of Pakistan or the tribal politics of Somalia.”
And in Central Asia, recent American foreign policy setbacks — such as a deal in May between Turkmenistan and Russia to build a new gas pipeline, widely viewed as a rebuke to American interests — can be traced partly to an American misunderstanding of how nomadic traditions shape attitudes in the region.
In that case, said Sean R. Roberts, a Central Asia researcher at Georgetown University, American negotiators mistakenly emphasized the benefits of joining the orbit of Western nations. With its nomadic traditions, he said, Turkmenistan placed a far higher emphasis on independence.
“If there’s anything for American policy makers to understand about formerly nomadic people is that they generally place an all-important pride in their independence,” he said in a telephone interview.
Pride in nomadism itself is on the rise, with many countries using what is an increasingly glamorous historical inheritance as an important nation-building tool. When Kazakhstan’s government-subsidized film company decided last year to film a national epic that would galvanize the population around a unifying myth, studio executives reached into the country’s past and produced “Nomad.” The movie has been a huge hit across the former Soviet Union.
In some instances, politicians seek to use nomadic traditions to justify their policies, just as American politicians try to exploit nostalgia for America’s rural past to justify farm subsidies, said Robert Rotberg, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who studies failed states in Africa and Asia. “Take Qaddafi in Libya,” he said, referring to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. “He would say, you Westerners don’t understand us because we have a nomadic ethos that is essentially socialist, and so we have to nationalize our country’s oil industry to be true to our tradition.”
Nomads continue to hang on in a substantial area of Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and in many cases are prospering. But in evaluating the influence of nomadism on contemporary politics, it is important to look past superficial elements, said Dr. Roberts of Georgetown.
“What’s almost as dangerous as ignoring the cultural context of politics is misinterpreting it,” he said. “The policy community just doesn’t have a background at looking at cultures’ differences. So even if they do the right thing and start to look at cultural intelligence, the result is they will take stereotypes of Kazakhstan’s nomadic past and call it a complete truth.”