A Kazakh woman doing embroidery. Image: A Jazz

Kazakhs: the enigmatic nomads of Steppes

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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.

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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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