Science & Research

Professor examines nomadic history

Nicola DiCosmo questions existing theories and perceptions about nomadic lifestyle

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Throughout history, groups of nomads have not always been given the attention they deserve, said Nicola Di Cosmo, professor of East Asian Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in a lecture he delivered Tuesday night in Smith-Buonanno 201. The event, which drew a sparse audience of about 10 people, focused on new scientific approaches to the history of nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, an ecoregion that extends across much of Eurasia.

Scholars have traditionally portrayed nomadic groups as peoples that do not have their own histories, Di Cosmo said. While they are typically known to have ruthlessly terrorized, conquered and plundered surrounding civilizations, two central theories of nomadic progression have dominated previous literature, he added.

The “functionalist” view posits that Steppe nomads were always dependent on civilized peoples — particularly the Chinese — for food and supplies. The “evolutionist” view contends that the nomadic peoples progressed socially and politically at the same rate as surrounding sedentary civilizations, Di Cosmo said, adding that he believes that neither of these views adequately captures the diversity and nuances of nomadic history.

“How to write the history of nomads has been a problem for a long time,” Di Cosmo said.

Striving to solve this problem, he compared the existing history of the Steppe nomads with knowledge from three fields of physical and life sciences: genetics, isotopic analysis and climate change.

Analysis of DNA obtained from the Steppe region can lend insight into the peoples’ migration patterns and successful conquests, Di Cosmo said. For example, a recent paper showed that one in 200 people in the world are direct descendants of Genghis Khan, he added. But the geneticists who write these papers often draw misguided conclusions from the data, which is where historians can step in, he said.

Isotopic studies, or the analysis of the chemical makeup of objects from the Steppe nomads’ era and region, have produced surprising results about the peoples’ eating and agricultural habits, Di Cosmo said. Until the publication of a May 2013 paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science, it was widely believed that agriculture was not practiced in the Steppe region. But a close examination of the teeth of some of the Steppe nomads revealed that their diet consisted partly of millet and barley, he added.

Finally, trends in climate change have informed the study of nomadic societies, Di Cosmo said. As nomadic societies developed, a large climate shift toward wetter, warmer conditions may have caused a cultural and political “blooming” because of the possibility for increased agricultural yields, he added. A downside to the studies involving climate change is that they only offer correlational analyses and do not prove any causal relationship, he said.

Overall, the Steppe nomads were more sophisticated than they have previously been portrayed, Di Cosmo said. In some ways, they were more advanced than some sedentary cultures. For instance, the nomads regularly used trial-and-error logic to solve certain problems such as how to determine leadership succession, he added.

“These are problems that every civilization has to deal with, but they find new ways to deal with them.”