A Khochi woman leads several animals through the desert in Afghanistan

Anthropology: Nomadic People of the Modern World

Home. Usually when we think about what it means to be at home, we picture one specific house, or even just the town or city where we live or grew up. To most people, a home is static; that is, it does not move or change. While this static status seems normal to you or I, this is not a shared belief by all other people across the globe. In fact, certain cultures are completely built off of shifting locations at different points in the year. These cultures are called nomadic groups, and occur across the world. However, the global nomadic population has been shrinking steadily over the course of the last century due to industrialization, discriminatory laws, and other related factors. Let’s take a look at some of the world’s remaining nomadic populations.

Africa and Asia


One of the best known examples of nomadic people are the Bedouin, who inhabit the Arabian Peninsula and parts of northern Africa. The largest concentrations of Bedouin people live in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, but there are Bedouin populations in almost twenty other countries in the region, making for a total global population between four and twenty-five million people. The name Bedouin comes from an Arabic term meaning “desert dweller”, which refers to the Bedouin culture of herding camels and goats throughout the deserts in North Africa and the Middle East. Bedouin people travel in small kin-based groups that are part of larger sheik-led tribes. Their main source of food and business comes from the animals they hear, especially camels.

Bedouin migration is largely based off of climate, as both the people and their livestock need a steady supply of water and food, which can be incredibly hard to come by in such an arid climate. Bedouin nomads will move their camps irregularly depending on where rain is falling and how often it occurs. They will often plant crops in places they know rain will come, and will return to those places along their migratory routes. Besides their patterns of movement, Bedouin people also have a rich history of oral poetry, festivals, and music. While some populations of Bedouin people have chosen to abandon the nomadic tradition, this culture is still going strong and maintaining their traditions.

Three men in wearing turbans sit together in the desert
Three Bedouin men sit together (photo via Bedu Tours)


Not to be confused with the Indian city of the same name, the Kochi people are a nomadic group native to Afghanistan and some of its surrounding area. There are around one and a half million Kochi people that still maintain a nomadic lifestyle, however around nine hundred thousand people of Kochi descent are no longer nomadic, and a further hundred thousand have been displaced by disaster and war over the past few decades. The term Kochi comes from a Turkish word that means “to migrate”.

The Koch are mostly pastoral, and raise a variety of livestock including sheep and goats. Their migration roots usually follow grazing patterns for their animals. Kochi people have traditionally commanded a great deal of respect from the Afghan government, and have grants giving them access to grazing territories throughout the country. In recent years, the Kochi people have been the focus of controversy by other minority ethnic groups in Afghanistan and the surrounding area due to a portion of their population’s cooperation with terrorist groups like the Taliban, as well as some of their land use and seizure habits.

A Khochi woman leads several animals through the desert in Afghanistan
A Khochi woman leads several animals through the desert in Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. John Cumper)


The Tuareg are a Berber nomadic ethnic group from Africa. With a total population of about three million people left, Tuareg people are found in Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Libya. Tuareg people are believed to have originated when groups of native Berber people combined with people in the Sub-Saharan slave trade. Tuareg people are generally Islamic, and due to their wide migratory range, were hugely influential on spreading the religion throughout the continent. Tuareg nomadic patterns are heavily influenced by trans-Saharan trade and livestock grazing patterns. Tuareg groups are largely caste-based and matrilineal, with women having important roles in traveling clans.

Tuareg people are also especially known for their architecture and music. Traditional Tuareg architecture is designed to be easily transported when groups move. Elaborate tents are made from animal skins and mats, and the overall designs tend to vary by subgroup. Tuareg tents were traditionally considered the property of women. However, as more and more Tuareg people have adopted a sedentary lifestyle, gender roles in their society are changing. Their music is generally a combination of traditional instruments and songs and connects subgroups and clans of Tuareg together. Because of their widespread nature and interesting culture and caste system, Tuareg people have been popular subjects for both anthropologists and geneticists.

Man in black face covering and black and white turban
A Tuareg man in Mali (photo by Joseph Eid via PRI)


The Pokot are a relatively small ethnic group from Kenya. There are two very distinct branches of Pokot people: the sedentary agricultural group and the nomadic pastoral group. The two groups share genetic and linguistic origins, but are very different culturally, not only in their migratory habits. The culture is significantly smaller than some of the other nomadic groups, with only around eight hundred thousand people remaining in Kenya, and a little over one hundred thousand in Uganda. The migratory Pokot society is largely configured through age groupings. The Pokot’s migratory patterns relate directly to finding grazing land for their cattle and other livestock, and usually follow a path through the western lowlands of Kenya.

Pokot culture is also heavily imbued with oral traditions, especially songs and storytelling. Folklore, riddles, and proverbs are all important parts of Pokot culture, especially with establishing connections between older and younger generations. While Pokot populations are slowly decreasing, these cultural connections help maintain ties between Pokot communities.

a group of women walk through chaparral
Group of Pokot Women (photo by Roger S. Duncan via US Navy)


The Khoisan are a group of non-Bantu people in southern Africa, mainly in Namibia, Botswana, Angola, and Zambia. A relatively small group, there are only around four hundred thousand Khoisan people spread across the seven countries that they inhabit. The Khoisan is related to a Khoekhoe word that means “those who pick things up from the ground”, which relates directly to the Khoisan’s history of being hunter gatherers. Their migration patterns generally take groups around the Kalahari Desert, where they follow weather and seasonal patterns to locate food and graze livestock. The Khoisan are one of the oldest groups of nomadic peoples in Africa, and carvings and structures made over eight thousand years ago have been discovered along their migratory routes.

Recently, Khoisan people have become the subject of interest for many geneticists and anthropologists concerned with studying the biology of early man. Genetic studies in the 1990s discovered that Khoisan people have unique patterns on their chromosomes that distinguish them from all other groups of people alive today. Some geneticists and anthropologists believe that these chromosomal differences mean that modern day Khoisan people are direct descendants of the first groups of Homo Sapiens to break away from our genetic ancestors. Additionally, Khoisan people have been found to carry a mitochondrial haplogroup that is the “oldest haplogroup yet identified.

Two men carry bow quivers through the brush
Two Khoisan men hunting (photo by Stephan C. Schuster via Science Magazine)


The Quashqai people are a group of nomadic people who live in and around Iran and Turkey. Mainly concentrated in Iran today, there are around three to eight hundred thousand Quashqai people today. Quashqai people are generally nomadic pastoralists, and have set migratory patterns that follow favorable weather patterns for grazing herds of livestock. Traditional Quashqai migration routes cover around three hundred miles of land. Quashqai are believed to be related to early Turkic groups that arrived in Iran around the eleventh century. Quashqai have also historically been heavily involved in Iranian politics and conflicts over the past few centuries.

There are five main tribes of Quashqai people that make up a governing and protecting confederation. Each tribe has different traditions and patterns of movement, but almost all of the tribes have some sort of involvement in the textile industry, in addition to shepherding. Also known as “Shiraz” carpets, Quashqai carpets are world renowned for their intricate detail, brilliant coloring, and soft texture. Quashqai rugs and other weavings are popular on the global market, and are often exported for sale in other countries. While a significant portion of Quashqai remain nomadic or semi-nomadic, increasing numbers of them have become sedentary due to changes in the economy and conflict in Iran.

A couple holds a rifle in a brightly colored tent
A Quashqai couple in their tent (photo via BBC)

The Americas


The Nukak-Maku, often called by a shortened version of their name, Nukak, are a nomadic tribe located in the rainforests of the Amazon River basin, specifically in the Colombian portion of the Amazon. The Nukak are one of the smallest groups of nomadic people in the world, with only an estimated seven hundred and fifty tribespeople remaining. Though it is thought that the group was initially significantly bigger, the tribe, which was only contacted by the outside world in 1981, was nearly halved in population by disease introduced by outsiders.  As well as this, Nukak territory is being encroached upon by paramilitaries and illegal coca farming operations.

Nukak people subsist on trade and crop cultivation. Common handicrafts include pottery and  weapons such as knives and darts. Their migration patterns follow climate and crop growth patterns. Some of the main foods Nukak people cultivate include tubers, pineapples, chili peppers, sugar cane, and tobacco. Unfortunately, the Nukak way of life is critically endangered by the issues that come from contact with the western world. However, many Nukak are actively trying to preserve their way of life and educate other Colombians about their existence and culture. Though the land on which they live is constantly invaded by outsiders, Nukak peoples’ primary territory has recently been granted a Reservation status.

Young boy with red face paint and tooth necklace
A young Nukak boy (photo by Juan Pablo Gutierrez via Survival International)

Plains Indians

While the term may seem outdated, “Plains Indians” actually refers to the larger group of indigenous nomadic tribes in the western United States. Some of the tribes included under the Plains Indians umbrella are the Osage, Creek, Comanche, Apache, Hopi, and Sioux, among others. Unfortunately, these tribes are much smaller in size today as their populations were decimated by the effects of colonialization and the stealing of their land by European-descended settlers. While a portion of these tribes were sedentary and relied on raising crops, the majority of them were nomadic and migrated over a huge range in the western plains following the migration patterns of bison, a primary source of food and skins.

While these tribes still exist, their status as “nomadic” has diminished to almost zero in the past century. Plains Indian tribes were forced onto reservations by the government of the United States during the twentieth century, and their culture was nearly eradicated by the force of white American citizens in an attempt to “civilize” and assimilate them. As well as this, nomadic patterns also decreased when the American bison population was nearly eradicated by the same forces. Though no longer nomadic, it is important to discuss the roots of these indigenous nations due to their significance in American history and how the migratory patterns of such groups impacted the western United States.

three native american men on horseback
Three American indigenous men on horseback, likely photographed in the early twentieth century. (photo via History Central)



The Sarakatsani are a unique nomadic ethnic minority in Europe. Though ethnically from Greece, there are populations of them in Bulgaria, Albania, and North Macedonia as well. Thought to be a relatively small group, the total population of Sarakatsani is currently unknown. While most Sarakatsani today live sedentary lifestyles in the aforementioned countries, a portion of them uphold their traditional nomadic values. Traditionally, Sarakatsani migratory patterns follow winter and summer seasonal changes, spending the summers in the mountains and the winters in the lowlands. Migratory patterns were altered by the wars of the twentieth century, but most have been reestablished since the end of the cold war.

Sarakatsani life revolves around the care and movement of their goats and sheep. Men and boys work largely as shepherds and sheep shearers, while women tend to family needs and prepare the products of the livestock. Sarakatsani communities are often patrilineal, and kinship is incredibly important to their culture. Families uphold strong codes of honor and family and religious values. While the exact population of Sarakatsani in Europe remains a mystery,  the population seems to be thriving and maintaining their nomadic roots to some degree in the modern age.

A girl in colorful clothing against mountain scene
A Sarakatstani girl in traditional garb in Greece (photo by Slava Bogur)


Nenets are a Russian nomadic ethnic group that are more commonly known as Samoyeds. They live mostly in the northern most regions of Russia, in and around the Arctic Circle. There is a current estimated population of around forty-five thousand Nenets remaining today. Because of their indigenous status and the fact that their population is so small, the Russian government has recently granted the Nenets a “protected” status. There are two main groups of Nenets: the Forest Nenets and the Tundra Nenets, both of which have distinct languages that have been classified by UNESCO as endangered.

Nenets migration pattern is directly related to the movement of reindeer across the tundra. Reindeer need to be moved frequently to find appropriate food sources in the harsh arctic climate, and the Nenets moved with them. The Nenets trave via dog sled, and bred the Samoyed dog breed to help them with their movements. While many Nenets maintain their nomadic lifestyle, this way of life has been severely threatened by the Soviet collectivization policies of the twentieth century and the incredible impact of climate change and oil drilling in the arctic circle.

A young girl in thick fur coat
A young Nenets child in thick fur coat (photo by Eugenio Fieni)

Significance in Anthropology

In a world where countries are getting increasingly congested and sedentary, it is important to remember that there are still groups that practice much different living styles than we do. While many nomadic cultures have diminished greatly over the course of the past few centuries, their unique cultures and global significance should not be lost to history.

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