Nomadism is usually attributed to the necessity, in large-scale livestock raising in arid, sparsely-vegetated terrain, of moving the animals frequetnly and over considerable distances to give them access to enough grazing: even scanty grass, sufficiently multiplied by movement, becomes adequate. This explanation is plausible as applied to the nomadism of Arabia (and parts of Africa, I imagine), but does not explain the Inner Asian type so well. There are, of course, many very arid places in Inner Aisa: the Tarim Basin and parts of South Central Inner Asia (approximately Uzbekistan and Turkmenia in the Soviet Union - North Central Inner Asia is roughtly Kazakstan). But much of Inner Asia is not only not arid, but actually arable, and large areas even of inarable parts are so productive of grass as to render extensive grazing - and nomadism - unnecessary. The poorest grasslands of Mongolia (which receives on average less than 10 inches of rainfall annually and is thus largely inarable) yield 187 lbs. of hey per acre. This is enough to support 1031 sheep and goats, 1237 cattle, and 4124 horses on the pastures accessible from a fixed, non-migratory center; these animals amount to 26,749 sheep-equivalents, enough, at 100/family, to support a non-nomadic community of 267 families. (The ordinary nomad community, or camp, consists of fewer than 10 families, apparently from considerations of ease of animal-management: one herdsman can control something between 400 and 1000 sheep and goats, the collective wealth, at the 100-sheep-and-goat rate, of between 4 and 10 families.) Nomadism thus seems to be ecologically unnecessary in most of Inner Asia.
This was certainly the case in the region from which the first discernable Inner Asian nomads emerged. The Cimmerians and Scythians came from West Inner Asia, the modern Ukraine and North Caucasus districts - "Southern Russia" for short - which are the breadbasket of the Sovient Union, and which had been inhabited by archaeologically - evidenced, sedentary, agrarian cultures before the rise of nomadism early in the first millenium B.C. The incentive leading to the abandonment of settlement and agriculture in this marvellous farmland seems to have been, not enhancement of stockraising, as some have argued, but enhancement of security. At about the beginning of the first millenium B.C. horses began to be used as mounts in war. It seems plausible that the newly-mounted warriors of West Inner Asia would then have begun to raid their neighbors on a larger and more effective scale than ever before, as newly-mounted Apache Warriors did in the New World - and that these neighbors, in self-defense, not only took up mounted warfare in their turn, but also reduced their vulnerability to attach by abandoning their fixed, indefensible settlements and their croplands, and taking up a mobile, elusive way of life, as the Ute Indians did under Apache attach.
The scythians indeed have in one respect, and that the very most important of all those that fall under man's control, shown themselves wiser than any nation on the face of the earth. Their customs otherwise are not such as I admire. The one thing of which I speak, is the contrivance whereby they make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach, unless it pleases them to engage with him. Having neither cities not forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their waggons the only houses they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even? (Herodotus IV, 46.)
Nomadism in Inner Asia originated as a strategic resort, intended to make its practitioners unassailable.
The military aspect of Inner Asian nomadism was greatly, if originally inadvertently, enhanced by the low labor requirements of pastoralism. Women and children could manage the subsistence animals, herding and milking them, and take care of most of the camp chores. This left all of the men free to engage in military occupations, making weapons (typically bows and arrows used in hit-and-run attacks at the gallop, and an axe or club for hand-to-hand fighting), tending the military animals, the horses and camels, hunting, a form of military training as well as an economic activity, and engaging in warfare. Inner Asian nomads considered their entire adult male population to be warriors; the Mongols estimated that this meant about 1.7 million potential soldiers in the parts of their empire, Inner Asia and the northern regions of the Middle East, inhabited by nomads. A much highter proportion -100% in theory - of manpower was thus available for military use in Inner Asian nomadic societies than in conventional premodern societies with heavy labor requirements in agriculture. This helped reduce the apparent hundred-to-one odds against the nomads in nomad vs. sedentary conflicts. (China in the 12th century has some 100 million people; these were conquered in the 13th century by Mongols who numbered at the outset no more than about 750,000.)
Another asset of the nomad warriors was cheap and plentiful horsepower. Raising horses in sedentary societies is expensive (and often socially and politically costly, as the men on horseback turn into knights and feudal lords). For nomads, horse-raising requires only a slight additional provision of labor beyond the amount normally needed in herding and milking, and nothing for fodder, shelter, watering, manure- removal, and the like. Consequentlyl, nomads could campaign with a number of mounts for each soldier - the Mongols wanted 5:1 - and keep up a fast pace in combat that the low-horsepower cavalries of conventional societies could not match. (This nomad advantage was usually offset to a considerable extent by the ability of sedentary societies to raise larger horses through better feeding than the nomads could achieve by grazing, by the more elaborate weaponry available from "civilized" technologies, and, at times, by superior military training.
Nomad horsepower was also a logistic asset (paradoxical as this might seem to conventional military planners, who must see cavalry mounts, needing 20 lbs of fodder and perhaps 120 lbs. of water a day, as a particular nuisance). Inner Asia, and considerable parts of the Middle East, were covered with grass, providing pre- positioned rations for the cavalry mounts of nomad armies (which were all0cavalry armies). Accordingly, nomad armies could campaign anywhere in Inner Asia - from Manchuria to Hungary - without having to transport supplies for their horses. Moreover, by bringing one or two extra horses, beyond the necessary combat mounts, for each man, nomad soldiers could provide easily for their own rations. A 600 lbs. pony of the sort kept by the nomads, will yield 240 lbs. of meat, which , at 116kcal/oz, would feed a man for half a year at 2436 kcal a day (although in a actual practice, because of the problems of transportation and spoilage, a slaughtered horse was doubtless divided up among 200 men, providing each with a day's ration of 2227kcal).
In keeping with their military origins, the Inner Asian nomads early on - at least by the time of the Scythians described by Herodotus - developed the authority needed for effective military leadership: absolute and autocratic. The Scythian "kings" had life-and-death power over their subjects, and Inner Asian nomad chiefs in subsequent times down to the modern period have had them too. These chiefs were the focal points of the nomads' political communities: Inner Asian tribes were composed of followers of a chief - regardless, it should be noted, of differences between chief and tribesmen, or among tribesmen, of language or ethnicity, ancestry or tradition. Inner Asian nomads differ in these regards from the Arabian nomads (beduin), who have no chiefs comparable to the Inner Asians', and whose "tribes" are genealogical units - "patrilineal descent groups". The inner Asians also make use of genealogical definition and organization, but as a conveninet and dispensible adjunct to political tribalism; their tribes often lack genealogies (as we see when their chiefs try to have some fabricated), or supplant genealogical groupings with the millitarily more convenient organization of the population into decimal units (of 10, 100, 1000, nd 100,000 men, with their wivves, children and animals).
The Inner Asian nomads were mentally as well as economically, socially and politically geared up for war. Herodotus (IV, 65-66) tells us how the Scythians told war-stories, proto - if not actual epics, to their guests while drinking out of cups made from their defeated enemies' skulls, and how they held annual drinking parties for men who had killed enemies. The Hsiung-nu did much the same, and such customs persisted. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Safavi ruler of Iran, Shak Ismail, leader of a Turkish nomad tribal army, had the skull of his defeated enemy, the uzbek Shaybani Khan, made into a cup - while the skin from the skull was stuffed with straw and sent to another enemy, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid. Turning to the internal sources of Inner Asian history, which are much rarer than outsiders' reports (such as herodotus, or Marco Polo's) because of the general illiteracy of nomads, we find that the eighth entury "Orkhon" inscriptions of the early Turkish empire (which included both East and Central Inner Asia, and briefly sent forces far West as the Crimea in West Inner Asia) present for the most part accounts of wars of the Turkish kagans. The Secret History of the Mongols similarly records the struggles accompanying the rise of Chingis Khan; significantly, its only artistically developed passage, an epic-style episode, is the account of the war against the Naimans.
[Darius, the Persian king,] now quickened his march, and entering Scythia, fell in with the two combined divisions of the Scythian army, and instantly gave them chase. [The Scythians] kept to their plan of retreating before him at the distance of a day's march: and, he still following them hotly, they led him, as had been previously settled, into the territories of the nations that had refused to become their allies....
This had gone on so long, and seemed so interminable, that Darius at last sent a horseman to Idanthyrsus, the Scythian king, with the following message, "Strange man, why do you keep on flying before men, when there are two things you might do so easily? If you deem yourself able to resist my arms, cease your wanderings and come, let us engage in battle. Of if you are conscious that my strength is greater than yours - enen so you should cease to run away - you have but to bring your lord earth and water, and to come at once to a conference.
By issuing this challenge, Darius hoped to provoke a Scythian attack on the stronger Persian army by inducing, not a considered, but a heroic response. Heroes are supposed to fight against the odds, and Darius was encouraging the Scythians to do so by asking them to acknowledge that "my strength is greater than yours" - which heroes must never do. The Scythian king, however, was a practical commander, and although his followers were enraged by the challenge, he continued to evade the Persians, on the annoyingly apt excuse that he and his people were not fleeing, but simply migrating.
Somwhat later, at the other end of Inner Asia, Hsiung-nu heroism was addressed by the Han Chinese emperor in much the same language that Darius had used to the Scythians:
When Kuo Chi reached the Hsiung-nu, the Hsiung-nu master of guests asked him what his business was. Replying in very polite and humble terms, Kuo Chi said, "I would like to wait until I am granted and audience with the Shan-yu geofre stating my business."
When he was shown before the Shan-yu he said, "The head of the king of Southern Yueh hangs above the northern gate of the Han capital. Now, if you are able, advance and engage the Han forces in battle! The Son of Heaven has led his troops in person and is waiting on the border. But if you are not able, then turn your face to the south and acknowledge yourself a subject of the Han! Why this useless running away and hiding far off north of the Gobi desert in a cold and bitter land where there is no water or pasture? I will get you nowhere! (Ssu-ma Ch'ien, "Account of the Hsiung-nu.")
The Shan-yu went livid with rage, executed the "master of guests" and arrested (but let live) Kuo Chi - speaking of heoes! Like the Scythian king, however, the Shan-yu was a realist and refused to be provoked to heroism. But while these particular attempts to manipulate nomad heroic attitudes were not successful, the method was a valid as the heroic self-conceptions were real, and continued to be used. The standard strategy of the great sedentary powers in dealing with the "barbarians" was to play them off against one another - "use barbarians to fight barbarians" as the Chinese put it. The Chinese also explained how they did this: "We make every one of them feel like a hero, and make them fight among themselves." It was this natural and easily stimulated tendency that in large part protected the "civilized" world from the nomads; it also, however, powered the Mongols' largely successful effort - a truly heroic and epic-scale undertaking - to conquer the world.