Since the dawn of civilization humans have primarily been nomadic creatures, following game over the African savanna and later colonizing the entire world through mass migrations. After the first Agricultural Revolution over 12,000 years ago, people left their old habits behind and started living in more sedentary societies. Since then more and more peoples have made the transition but for some this was impractical, unheard of or even dangerous.
They live on the west coast of the island of Madagascar and are not of a separate ethnic group but rather the “people who struggle with the sea”. This means that the Vezo are the ones who make their living by fishing and boating whiles the Masikoro (also from Madagascar) are “people who cultivate and raise cattle”. Someone who is Vezo can give up their seafaring ways, go live in the interior and simply become Masikoro, showing that the name is actually more of an occupation rather than a different civilization altogether.
Their canoes are basically hollowed out tree trunks with small rectangular sails on top, resembling those of Polynesia. It is hard to get an exact number of how many Vezo there are because they spend days on end fishing at sea and almost never coming ashore in the same place. The Vezo are known for their ceremonial tombs which are dug in the sand on a secluded part of the beach. These tombs are very decorative often times depicting erotic scenes and, of course, their life spent at sea.
Originating near Lake Baikal they have since migrated south into Mongolia and China, making them the most widespread ethnic group in North Siberia. Numbering around 70,000 people, the Evenks are almost equally divided between Russia and China with only a couple of thousand living in Mongolia.
Life for the Evenks, living in such harsh conditions was cyclical between hunting in winter and fishing in summer. After the domestication of reindeer things improved allowing for their rapid movement across the Russian taiga as well as for hunting.
Initially organized into tribes and led by their elders and shaman( Evenk word), these people have somewhat settled to a less nomadic life after the 1917 Russian Revolution and later in the Soviet Union, when they were organized into collective villages and farms.
Also known as the Rroma, they comprise the largest minority in Europe with an estimate of 10 out of the total 12 million living on this continent. In some countries such as Romania and Bulgaria they amount to 12% of the population. They left India one thousand years ago and reached Europe 300 years later with some heading for North Africa. Thought to be from Egypt due to their darker complexion, they were initially called the pharaoh’s people and received a warm welcome. But not long after, and in severe need of laborers, Wallachia (present day Romania) enslaved them for the next 500 years.
Being considered as outcasts wherever they went, the Rroma were subject to discrimination forcing them to always be on the move. During WWII the Nazis persecuted them along with the Jews, with over two million gypsies being killed and another 500,000 being sent to labor camps.
The Gypsies have a very rich cultural heritage, influencing people wherever they go, mingling with the locals and rubbing on their own traditions. They gave the Andalusians their Flamenco dance and garments. Being mostly known as traveling palm readers, bear trainers and musicians, the Rroma were also known for being great horse traders and metal workers morphing in today’s mechanics, metal scrap dealers and jewelers.
Initially a sedentary people, the Awa were forced into nomadic life in the 1800s by the Europeans. They live in the Amazonian jungles of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. Having their lands constantly shrunk due to deforestation they resort primarily on hunting, fishing and gathering food, leaving the growing of different types of beans, tomatoes, peppers, other local vegetables and fruit as an alternative.
Today approximately 350 members survive, 100 of who have absolutely no contact with the outside world. Frequent massacres take place in Colombia, targeting the Awa and other indigenous people, making them face extinction while the local governments are slow to react.
6. The Aboriginals
Indigenous people of Australia have always lived in harmony with nature. Never taking more than what they need, the Aboriginals have a close relation with the land, believing that their gods who created the earth still reside here now transformed into rocks, lakes, rivers and mountains. They are considered to have the oldest cultural heritage in the world, dating back 50 to 65,000 years, when they crossed the ocean from South East Asia to Australia.
With the first European settlers and the British colonization of 1788 their numbers fell drastically from an estimated number of around one million to about 60,000, many of which were killed by disease or slaughtered by the invaders. Today the indigenous population is about 400,000 people, making up 2% of the entire Australian population. Only a few still have a nomadic lifestyle with the majority living in slums around cities or working on cattle farms.
The word Kuchi literally means nomad in the Persian (Dari) language. Living in modern day Afghanistan, they have always played an important part in trade, connecting South Asia with the Middle East. Their main occupation involves herding sheep, goats and camels, once owning as much as 30% of Afghanistan’s livestock and most of its camels. With the introduction of paved roads in the 1950s and ‘60s, camel caravans slowly became obsolete and had a huge negative impact on the community.
Their society is structured into tribes composed of a main family, their children and their families. They are led by the Khan (tribe elder) whose main responsibility is the wellbeing of his people. When the tribe grows and becomes to large new ones are formed, making for easier management. Today the Kuchi are divided into three types of nomads: the semi-nomadic, pure nomadic and traders. Since the Taliban came to power most of them have become more sedentary. The 1979 war against the soviets, climate change and the more recent war against the US have severely diminished their livestock. Today only a few thousand still live as pure nomads, herding their sheep and searching for greener pastures. Despite once being an important economic part of the country, they now are one the rarest and poorest people in Afghanistan.
Located in the Horn of Africa, spread across Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti, the Afar are a nomadic people, primarily herding goats, cattle and camels whose meat and milk are the primary source of food. Fresh warm milk given to a guest or visitor immediately implies his protection and security by the host. Some Afar people also work during the dry season collecting salt slabs in the Danakil Depression or having government jobs in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa.
Heavily influenced by Muslim religion and being able to have more than one wife, the typical Afar marriage however is usually monogamous with traces of ancestor worship which still exist. Since the beginning, their territory has always been divided into sultanates being fiercely defended against would be invaders. Life in such inhospitable conditions has transformed the Afar people, giving them a fierce reputation amongst their neighbors and Western travelers. The men always carry a traditional curved knife (jile) which they know how to use very well. Their military war chants are numerous and some of the Afar even file their teeth into sharp points making their appearance even more gruesome.
Archaeological evidence dating back 10,000 years has proven that the Saami are the oldest inhabitants of Europe’s far north. They populate the arctic circle of the Scandinavian Peninsula, in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. In their beginnings life was more sedentary relying mostly on fishing in the fjords and rivers. Later, reindeer husbandry has transformed the Saami people into nomads, following these beasts across the peninsula.
Today, an estimate shows that somewhere between 50 to 65,000 Saami live in these four countries. Even if the majority of them are still engaged in their old traditions and practices, one can find modern technology intertwined with archaic clothes and tools. Even if present day Saami often use snowmobiles they will never relinquish their trusty reindeer drawn sled.
Present in Namibia, the Himba number somewhere between 20,000 to 50,000 individuals. A semi-nomadic ethnic group, herding goats and cattle, living in small round huts made out of mud and dung, are one of the most iconic African tribes for western travelers. They are known for their intricate jewelry and different appearance.
Every day the women of the village cover their bodies and hair in a reddish paste (otjize) made out of red ochre, butter and fat, sometimes adding scented resin. After the morning make-up routine, these women milk the cattle, leaving the men to herd the livestock for the day. If food for the animals is scarce they will construct temporary settlements near more favorable grazing lands.
The Himba have a monotheistic religion, believing in one mighty god called Mukuru who speaks with the people through a holy fire (okuruwo) which is always burning. This god often times uses their departed ancestors as intermediaries. No outsider can ever go near the okuruwo or walk between it and the chief’s house which is the only one facing this sacred fire.
In recent years due to droughts, social and economic unrest, life for the Himba has taken a turn for the worse, making it harder and harder for them to keep their traditions and way of life intact. Hopefully, with the help of the local government and international activists, these people may be around for other generations to come.
1. RV Riders
North America has seen its share of nomads in the past, but not many still follow this way of life. Not since the RVs have been invented over 100 years ago, shortly after the automobile. Today there are over three million such adventurers in the US with around 90% of them being over 55 years old.
Most of them are retired and use their savings for life’s necessities and fuel for their mighty beasts of burden. Some more young RV riders manage to survive due mostly to modern day technology, becoming freelancers via the internet. Others make and sell trinkets on the side of the road or even get seasonal jobs wherever they go.