Slide AA - Transhumance and 'The Waiting Zone'


The slide shows a map of western and central Algeria, featuring the mountain ranges of the Saharan Atlas in the south, the ranges of the coastal Tell in the north and the intervening High Plateaux. Marked on the map are the routes of seasonal transhumance.

Transhumance - The Anthropological/Ethnographic Record Transhumance is one of the most distinctive features of North African land-use. It is the term used to designate the seasonal migration of pastoralist communities with their herds and flocks (pastoralists are people who live mainly by rearing livestock and living off their meat, milk, blood etc, rather than by growing crops). Shorter distance transhumance from valley bottom settlements to mountain pastures is common throughout the Mediterranean basin, but, historically, North Africa has also been distinguished by longer range movements from the northern Sahara or pre-desert zone to the plains and mountains of the better-watered regions nearer the coast. The latter regions collectively go by the name of 'the Tell'.

Traditionally pastoralist tribes moved north in late spring in search of the more abundant pastures in the Tell, where they arrived in time to help with the harvesting of the crops by the local sedentary farming populations. The pastoralists then returned south in late summer/early autumn.

This movement is a response to the extreme climate in the pre-desert zones. Whilst there is sufficient winter grazing in the pre-desert and parts of the northern Sahara to support large numbers of sheep, goats, camels and even cattle, in some areas, the heat of spring and summer burns this off and if the pastoralists were forced to remain in the south all year round the numbers of livestock they could keep would be severely restricted. By moving north they can exploit the much lusher summer pastures of the Tell and thus maintain the size of their flocks and herds at levels much closer to the maximum potential of their winter grazing territories

Although the transhumant pastoralists may live in tents for all of the year they are not considered true nomads by modern geographers because they follow predictable seasonal routes. Transhumants who move over shorter distances, in North Africa as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, will in fact generally have permanent villages where they live during the winter months, for example the communities in the Aures Mountains of Algeria. This latter pattern may also have held true in antiquity.

Farmers and Pastoralists Economically, the relationship between the pre-desert pastoralists and the sedentary farming communities in the Tell is essentially symbiotic. The pastoralists would exchange the surplus products of their economy - meat, milk, wool, hides etc., - for those of the farming communities, notably grain. The pastoralists provide harvest labour and their flocks then graze on the stubble in the harvested fields, thereby manuring the land for the next years crop. The pastoralists, with their many camels and asses, can also provide transport services. The reality was often more complex however. In recent centuries pastoralist groups have often exerted a degree of political and social dominance over farming communities, providing various forms of 'protection', and as a result relations were often tense.

Transhumance in Antiquity The routes shown on the map are those established by studying 19th-early 20th century pastoralist groups. However, there is evidence to suggest that transhumance was also used in antiquity. Hence the more abundant data gathered by modern ethnographers and anthropologists has been transferred back to the study of the ancient pre-desert region.

Such study of the ancient pre-desert has added significance because by the 2nd-3rd centuries AD that region formed the frontier zone of most of Roman North Africa. In particular historians have used the model of long distance transhumance to explain two specific features of the Roman frontier in North Africa.

1. The linear barriers Throughout the frontier zone the Roman army built series of both long and short linear barriers (known by the Latin terms fossata and clausurae respectively), consisting of stone walls, earthen banks and/or ditches and usually furnished with watchtowers and gateways. It is now thought that these walls etc. were intended to assist the monitoring and regulation of long-distance transhumance, rather than act as defensive barriers against barbarian raids.

2. The Waiting Zone At the beginning of the 3rd century AD, under the emperor Septimius Severus, the Roman army expanded westward and southward into the area shown on the map. It has been suggested that the purpose of this military advance was to control the timing and scale of pastoralist movement northward towards the settled provinces in the Tell region. By establishing forts and garrisons at oases and passes in the Saharan Atlas, and along the southern margin of the Tell mountain ranges, so the theory goes, the Roman authorities could control the start of the northward migration and its entry into the Tell.

According to this scheme the arid, flat, High Plateau, which lie between the Saharan Atlas and the Tell, was used by the army as a 'waiting zone', where the pastoralists could be delayed if the pasture in the Tell was poor or late in growing and the harvests were late.

This is an ingenious idea and has found widespread acceptance, though it is not without its problems as we will see in module 2.

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