Kazakhs: the enigmatic nomads of Steppes

July 1, 2023
3 mins read
A Kazakh woman doing embroidery. Image: A Jazz

The normalization of a homogenous idea of modern development in post-industrial societies has led to a crisis in theorizing the issues faced by ecological communities, such as nomadic communities. There is thus a need to restructure the lenses through which we conceptualize the relationship between cultural roots and development placed within the matrix of human, social, economic, cultural, and natural systems.

Nomadism is not aimless wandering; it entails intricate organizational and managerial knowledge. Nomadic organizational and managerial practices draw upon the nomads’ understanding of nature, livestock, and a set of rules governing the allocation of water and grass resources, division of labor, and the overall organization of nomadic production. The nomadic lifestyle involves complex and labor-intensive tasks. The ever-changing nature of nomadism necessitates flexibility and adaptability from nomadic managers to effectively respond to unforeseen events.

Over centuries, nomadic communities have also developed an ecological and environmental ideology rooted in the belief that humans and nature should coexist in harmony and balance. They embrace an ecological ethic of compassion towards animals and plants and hold a profound appreciation for the incomparable value of natural resources. These concepts permeate their religious beliefs, legal systems, modes of production, and ways of life, constituting essential elements of nomadic civilization. Moreover, their communal nature necessitates a sense of “covenanting” not only for the herders’ livelihoods but also for the survival of the nomadic groups.

Throughout history, nomadism has profoundly shaped the social, economic, cultural, and religious development of the vast Eurasian steppes. One such group that has made steppes their homeland and developed a way of life around their surroundings is the Kazakh people.

Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life represents one of the oldest forms of subsistence known to humankind. Throughout the year, Kazakh nomads engage in livestock herding, including goats, sheep, yaks, camels, and horses. They continuously move with their animals, seeking better pastures and adapting to changing seasonal conditions. It is not uncommon for families to relocate up to four times annually, adjusting their dwellings accordingly.

During the summer, the nomads reside in yurts called gers, which are taller and more spacious compared to the traditional Mongolian-style yurts, enabling better air circulation in the warmer climate. In colder weather, they utilize wooden and stone structures constructed using earth. These homes are adorned with vibrant and intricately handwoven textiles while wood-burning stoves provide warmth and sustenance.

Through long-standing practices and interactions with nature and livestock, Kazakh nomads have accumulated extensive knowledge about herding, steppe utilization, governance structures, and attitudes toward nature. Their adaptation mechanisms are based on millennia of empirical observation and a deep understanding of the natural environment. As such, Kazakh nomadic society has developed a comprehensive cultural knowledge system rooted in the natural environment, reflecting the dynamic equilibrium between people, natural ecology, and development.

The origins of the term ‘Kazakh‘, stem from the word “Kaz,” which means “swan” and “akh” meaning “white.” Thus, the term denotes ‘white swan.’

This photo essay gives a short insight into the nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakh community of central Asia.

Kazakh Embroidery: Kazakh nomadic migration by water and grass, hunting in the mountains, and fishing in the lakes and rivers have given birth to Kazakh national art, of which Kazakh folk embroidery is a unique representative.
Camel Racing: The camel, known as the “boat of the desert”, is used by nomadic people as their preferred animal for migration because of its habit of crossing the steppe desert and Gobi and its ability to travel long distances. Since ancient times, Kazakhs have selected camels from their herds to compete for speed. This is a recreational and fitness activity for the nomadic life.
Kazakh Eagle Taming: As the most untamed animal in the sky, the eagle is very difficult to be tamed by humans, but the Kazakhs have become a nation that can sit on horseback and tame falcons during their thousand-year nomadic history, and the eagle has become the national totem of the Kazakhs on their behalf.
Embroidery in Kazakh Yurt: Kazakh embroidery is divided into felt embroidery and cloth embroidery. Felt embroidery is embroidery on felt, while cloth embroidery is embroidery on cloth. In Kazakh families, embroidery is used on everything from hats to unique pleated dresses; from pillowcases and pillows to quilt sheets; from carpets to saddle pads; from wall drapes to ribbons.
Kazakh “girl chasing” is a competitive activity on the steppe. It is a way for young Kazakh men and women to express their love by galloping and playing on horseback. It is mostly held during the summer festivals. It also represents the Kazakh people’s idea of equality between men and women.
The Kazakh give particular attention to grooming horses. In addition to being used as a means of transport, is also displayed as a symbol of status. Kazakhs are trained to learn riding skills at a very young age.
Kazakh sports and entertainment activities on horseback are generally held on wedding days and festivals.  
People on horseback: The only nomadic people in the world that have survived until recently are the Mongols and the Kazakhs, and the Kazakhs cannot live without horses all their lives, whether they are nomadic migrations or eagle-taming hunting, and horses are the wings of the Kazakhs.
The term ‘Kazakh’, stems from the word “Kaz,” which means “swan” and “akh” meaning “white.” Thus, Kazakh means white swan.
Nomadic communities have developed an ecological and environmental ideology rooted in the belief that humans and nature should coexist in harmony and balance.


A Jazz

Jazz is a researcher and a descendant of Kazakh nomads living in the modern world. Her interests lie in sustainable development in Central Asia and Kazakhstan.

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