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A section of the Great Wall in Yinchuan, northwest China. The wall was built by the ancient Chinese to keep nomadic invaders out. Photo: Photo: Xinhua

ReviewHow nomads changed history and hunter-gatherers became settled farmers, from China and the Eurasian steppe to Africa

  • Look at the rise of Han China and the fall of the Assyrian empire and at their root is migration by nomads escaping a harsh environment for a better life
  • In Nomads: Wanderers Who Shaped Our World, Anthony Sattin goes from nomads’ domestication of the horse to the advent of farming, of architecture and cities

Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World by Anthony Sattin, pub. John Murray

If you’ve ever felt yourself unable to sit still or concentrate (and who hasn’t?), or yearning for far horizons, then you could be part nomad.

Just a small part: you might be one of the 390 million people thought to carry “nomadic gene” DRD4-7R. While tiny, that part is significant enough to make us unhappy within four walls (and even, perhaps, explain David Bowie’s attention deficit at school).

This variant gene, first identified in Kenya’s Ariaal people, is a throwback to more than 12,000 years ago, to a point when we were hunter-gatherers, treading lightly on the planet and leaving no written accounts of ourselves.

Author Anthony Sattin.

Anthony Sattin’s writing is of the sort that commands scales to fall from the general reader’s eyes in penny-dropping moments of realisation. And that’s true of Nomads, as he deftly unravels an intricate subject that touches everyone, no matter how much we think we don’t identify with tribes of no fixed abode.

We might fancy ourselves aspirational travellers, always on the move (recent restrictions aside), but once we really were, although no one called it a lifestyle choice.

Sattin, a journalist and broadcaster specialising in history and travel, illuminates a story from the banks of the Nile to Mesopotamia, and from the Pontic-Caspian steppe (the grasslands from which the Scythians, probable Asian migrants considered barbarians by Herodotus, slid south to help destroy the Assyrian empire) to mythological Arcadia and the Garden of Eden – actually, real places.

It not only acknowledges the cultural, commercial and linguistic influences of those lazily classed as “lesser people”, but also resonates with today’s world, whether we’re mobile or settled (that is, in a settlement).

The Scythians went south not simply for “the promise of glory and the lure of loot”, they also moved because “the weather was changing”, the drying steppe forcing nomads and their cattle and sheep into unfamiliar lands in search of pasture.

Eugene Delacroix’s 1862 painting Ovid among the Scythians offers a romantic image of nomads the Greek historian Herodotus 2,000 years earlier would have seen as barbarians. Photo: Getty Images

Early histories, writes Sattin, show these “local shifts” happened from 800BC to 200BC, the same time as profound political changes across Eurasia, including the rise of imperial Han China.

“The migration of nomads provided a catalyst” for such developments, he continues, describing how, before Chang’an (now Xian) became the empire’s capital, “people south of the Yellow River complained about migrants threatening their borders and their way of life”, according to Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of China. Far from being proto-Nimbys, the disaffected had good cause.

Farther north, in 99BC, Xiongnu nomads attacked China, persuading Emperor Wu to send an avenging army into the Altai Mountains. Thousands of Han soldiers were subsequently slaughtered by a people the empire had already tried to keep out by building the first iteration of the Great Wall.

The cover of Sattin’s book.

Nomads’ domestication of horses (roughly when “Aborigines were engraving rocks around what is now Sydney”) for use as transport, rather than food, made such conflicts possible. But warfare wasn’t its sole consequence.

The horse-bit allowed nomads to complete a “summer journey from the Great Hungarian Plain to Mongolia and on into China”, writes Sattin. This progress eventually helped define a trail that would become the Silk Road.

Later, we join Captain James Cook, confronted by the Dharawal Aborigines, in Australia’s Botany Bay; politician Thomas Macaulay as he reiterates the British imperial imperative of rebuffing “the assaults of barbarous invaders”; briefly, the contemporary “houseless” of the United States, as portrayed in Chloé Zhao’s much decorated 2020 film Nomadland; and the Bakhtiari, still wandering Iran’s Zagros Mountains.
A wedding ceremony of Bakhtiari nomads in Iran. Photo: AP

Nomads is a densely informative study, but Sattin wears his learning lightly, never falling into the trap of over-explication; moving on, like his subjects, to the next colourful episode of our startling history.

At the beginning, he takes us back to the beginning, to where it all started to fall apart, namely our detachment from the natural world. Hunting to extinction and expanding populations meant food shortages, so the seeds of farming were sown.

Groups of migrants stopped long enough to erect monumental stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe, now in Anatolia, and architecture was born. Fortified cities inevitably followed.

Twelve thousand years on, the echoes reverberate. There are, observes Sattin, “other ways of looking at time and space”.