Grassroots Networks: Interdisciplinary Modeling of Nomadic Social Organization in Premodern Central Eurasia
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Grassroots Networks: Interdisciplinary Modeling of Nomadic Social Organization in Premodern Central Eurasia

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The history of Central Eurasia and particularly pastoral-nomadic societies has long been defined by models of dependency. For millennia, nomadic societies have been thought to be dependent on sedentary societies for basic needs as well as cultural and political imports, representing “early-stage”, “less complex” societies. Scholars in recent decades across the humanities and social sciences have begun to supplant the older dependency theories with new ones that cast nomadic societies as more complex and capable of endogenous social evolution, historical agency, and broad cultural influence. However, change has been uneven between relevant disciplines. Historical narratives and archaeological records have been significantly reinterpreted to reflect social complexity, but nomadic societies are nearly completely ignored in cultural evolution and historical geography. Further, some ideas such as geographic determinism (“the empty steppe”) is still employed to explain nomadic migrations, invasions, and military conflicts in lieu of rich, native archives. This research begins by suggesting a novel assemblage of historical, social scientific, and complex systems theories in order to bring together many threads of knowledge about human societies into an interdisciplinary framework of modeling. This framework enables more coherent comparisons between verbal narratives and formal mathematical or computational models as assumption-laden vehicles of logic and communication. Using this framework, a conceptual agent-based model is suggested as a way to think about how wealth inequality might develop in a pastoral economy, how inequality leads to patron-client relationships, and how those socio-economic networks are maintainedand strained under variable climatic conditions. Results of the modeling exercise indicate that notions of nomadic dependency are increasingly outdated and that high mobility, diffuse social and resource networks, climatic shocks, and common behaviors like social signaling are enough to produce complex internal social orders. Moreover, cross-cultural contact such as the trade in prestige goods or agricultural products can be more accurately understood as interdependency within a connected social world. Historical and anthropological evidence upending linear understandings of human societies continue to mount, closing the gap between how we think about our past and contemporary worlds. Nomadic societies of the past can be considered to have been “fully formed”, complex, and adaptive. Interdisciplinary frameworks, methods, and models continue to reveal the limits of disciplinary knowledge but also the possibilities of research that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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