Parsis, Travellers, and Human Niches

Irish Travellers, 1954


Why are there many kinds of plants and animals? Why doesn’t the best out-compete, eat, and destroy the others, rising to be the sole dominant species on Earth?

In ecology, a niche is an organism’s specific place within the environment. Some animals eat plants; some eat dung. Some live in the sea; others in trees. Different plants flower and grow in different seasons; some are pollinated by bees and some by flies. Every species has its specific niche.

The Competitive Exclusion Principle (aka Gause’s Law) states that ‘no two species can occupy the same niche’ (or positively, ‘two species coexisting must have different niches.’) For example, if squirrels and chipmunks both want to nest in the treetops and eat nuts, (and there are limited treetops and nuts,) then over time, whichever species is better at finding nuts and controlling the treetops will dominate the niche and the other, less successful species will have to find a new niche.

If squirrels are dominating the treetops and nuts, this leaves plenty of room for rabbits to eat grass and owls to eat squirrels.

II. So I was reading recently about the Parsis and the Travellers. The Parsis, as we discussed on Monday, are Zoroastrians, originally from Persia (modern-day Iran,) who settled in India about a thousand yeas ago. They’re often referred to as the “Jews of India” because they played a similar role in Indian society to that historically played by Jews in Europe.*

*Yes I know there are actual Jews in India.

The Travellers are an Irish group that’s functionally similar to Gypsies, but in fact genetically Irish:

In 2011 an analysis of DNA from 40 Travellers was undertaken at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh. The study provided evidence that Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority, who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1000 years ago; the claim was made that they are as distinct from the settled community as Icelanders are from Norwegians.[36]

It appears that Ireland did not have enough Gypsies of Indian extraction and so had to invent its own.

And though I originally thought that only in jest, why not? Gypsies occupy a particular niche, and if there are Gypsies around, I doubt anyone else is going to out-compete them for that niche. But if there aren’t any, then surely someone else could.

According to Wikipedia, the Travellers traditionally were tinkers, mended tinware (like pots) and acquiring dead/old horses for slaughter.

The Gypsies appear to have been originally itinerant musicians/entertainers, but have also worked as tinkers, smiths, peddlers, miners, and horse traders (today, car salesmen.)

These are not glorious jobs, but they are jobs, and peripatetic people have done them.

Jews (and Parsis, presumably) also filled a social niche, using their network of family/religious ties to other Jews throughout the diaspora as the basis of a high-trust business/trading network at a time when trade was difficult and routes were dangerous.

On the subject of “Madeburg rights” or law in Eastern Europe, Wikipedia notes:

In medieval Poland, Jews were invited along with German merchants to settle in cities as part of the royal city development policy.

Jews and Germans were sometimes competitors in those cities. Jews lived under privileges that they carefully negotiated with the king or emperor. They were not subject to city jurisdiction. These privileges guaranteed that they could maintain communal autonomy, live according to their laws, and be subjected directly to the royal jurisdiction in matters concerning Jews and Christians. One of the provisions granted to Jews was that a Jew could not be made Gewährsmann, that is, he could not be compelled to tell from whom he acquired any object which had been sold or pledged to him and which was found in his possession. Other provisions frequently mentioned were a permission to sell meat to Christians, or employ Christian servants.

External merchants coming into the city were not allowed to trade on their own, but instead forced to sell the goods they had brought into the city to local traders, if any wished to buy them.

Note that this situation is immensely better if you already know the guy you’re selling to inside the city and he’s not inclined to cheat you because you both come from the same small, tight-knit group.


Under Bolesław III (1102–1139), the Jews, encouraged by the tolerant regime of this ruler, settled throughout Poland, including over the border in Lithuanian territory as far as Kiev.[32] Bolesław III recognized the utility of Jews in the development of the commercial interests of his country. … Mieszko III employed Jews in his mint as engravers and technical supervisors, and the coins minted during that period even bear Hebraic markings.[30] … Jews enjoyed undisturbed peace and prosperity in the many principalities into which the country was then divided; they formed the middle class in a country where the general population consisted of landlords (developing into szlachta, the unique Polish nobility) and peasants, and they were instrumental in promoting the commercial interests of the land.

If you need merchants and goldsmiths, someone will become merchants and goldsmiths. If it’s useful for those merchants and goldsmiths to all be part of one small, close-knit group, then a small, close-knit group is likely to step into that niche and out-compete anyone else trying to occupy it.

The similarity of the Parsis to the Jews probably has less to do with them both being monotheists (after all, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs are also monotheists,) and more to do with them both being small but widely-flung diasporic communities united by a common religion that allows them to use their group as a source of trustworthy business partners.

Over hundreds or thousands of years, humans might not just move into social niches, but actually become adapted to them–Jew and Parsis are both reported to be very smart, for example.

III. I can think of several other cases of ethnic groups moving into a particular niche. In the US, the gambling and bootleg alcohol trade were long dominated by ethnic Sicilians, while the crack and heroin trades have been dominated by black and Hispanic gangs.

Note that, while these activities are (often) illegal, they are still things that people want to do and the mafia/gangs are basically providing a goods/services to their customers. As they see it, they’re just businessmen. They’re out to make money, not commit random violence.

That said, these guys do commit lots of violence, including murder, blackmail and extortion. Even violent crime can be its own niche, if it pays well enough.

(Ironically, police crackdown on ethnic Sicilian control in NYC coincided with a massive increase in crime–did the mafia, by controlling a particular territory, keep out competing bands of criminals?)

On a more pleasant note, society is now rich enough that many people can make a living as professional sports stars, marry other professional sports stars, and have children who go on to also be professional sports stars. It’s not quite at the level of “a caste of professional athletes genetically optimized for particular sports,” but if this kept up for a few hundred years, it could be.

Similarly, over in Nepal, “Sherpa” isn’t just a job, it’s an ethnic group. Sherpas, due to their high elevation adaptation, have an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to scaling Mt. Everest, and I hear the global mountain-climbing industry pays them well for their services. A Sherpa who can successfully scale Mt. Everest many times, make lots of money, and raise lots of children in an otherwise impoverished nation is thus a successful Sherpa–and contributing to the group’s further genetic and cultural specialization in the “climbing Mt. Everest” niche.

India, of course, is the ultimate case of ethnic groups specializing into specific jobs–it’d be interesting to see what adaptations different groups have acquired over the years.

I also wonder if the caste system is an effective way to minimize competition between groups in a multi-ethnic society, or if it leads to more resentment and instability in the long run.


Anthropology Friday Preview: Reindeer Herders

david-gives-praise-to-god-after-killing-a-lion-to-save-a-lambThe Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters. …
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

About a month ago, one of you requested information on pastoralist/herding societies: What’s their deal? How do they fit into the broader picture of human economic strategies?

Map of old-world pastoralists
Map of old-world pastoralists

To be honest, I’ve never read much about pastoralist societies (outside the Bible.) The one thing I know off-hand is that the vegetarian claim that we would all have more food to eat if we stopped raising animals (roughly speaking, it takes about 10 pounds of plants to produce one pound of meat, give or take a few pounds depending on species,) is flawed due to the fact that livestock often eats plant matter that humans can’t digest (eg, cornstalks) or is pastured on marginal land that can’t be efficiently farmed. (Too dry, rocky, or cold.)

According to Wikipedia:

Pastoralists produce food in the world’s harshest environments, and pastoral production supports the livelihoods of rural populations on almost half of the world’s land. Several hundred million people are pastoralists, mostly in Africa and Asia. Pastoralists manage rangelands covering about a third of the Earth’s terrestrial surface and are able to produce food where crop production is not possible.

Most farms that I am familiar with have at least some animals. If raising animals were a net-calorie loss for humans, I’d expect farmers who don’t raise animals to be more successful than those who do, making the existence of cows and chickens difficult to explain.

Young goatherd, Burkina Faso
Young goatherd, Burkina Faso

Pastoralists raise a variety of animals, commonly llamas, goats, sheep, cattle, yaks, reindeer, and camels. Humanity’s oldest domesticated animal is probably the dog, whose ancestors joined us on the hunt about 15,000 years ago (more on this in a bit.) Our second oldest is the goat, which we realized about 12,000 years ago was easier to keep nearby than to hunt one down every time we wanted a meal.

2,000 years after we mastered the art of taming goats, we decided to tackle a much larger beast: the wild auroch, ancestor of the modern cow. And around 7,000 to 5,500 years ago, someone said to themselves, “Hey, what if we sat on these things?” and we got the donkey, camel, and horse. The reindeer joined us around 5,000 years ago, and the llama joined us abound 4,500 years ago. (All of this according to Wikipedia.)

A special BSF Camel contingent, Republic Day Parade in India.
A special BSF Camel contingent, Republic Day Parade in India.

(Humans have domesticated other animals, like pigs and chickens, but these species’ behavior doesn’t lend them to pastoralism.)

Just as agriculture has developed independently in different human societies, pastoralism probably has, too–the reindeer herders of Siberia probably didn’t pick up the idea from Middle Eastern goatherds, after all. From what I’ve read so far, it looks like we can divide pastoralists into four main groups:


Quechua girl with ther llama, Cuzco, Peru
Quechua girl with her llama, Cuzco, Peru

Desert fringe nomads like the Tuareg and Masai, who raise drought-tolerant animals in dry scrublands;

Open steppe nomads like the Mongols or American cowboys, who follow their herds across vast inland oceans of grass;

Arctic circle nomads like the Sami or the Nenets, who depend almost entirely on reindeer for their livelihoods; and

Mountain pastoralists like the Swiss and Quechua of Peru, who raise fluffy, shearable sheep and llamas.

Going back to Wikipedia:

Pastoralists are among the most flexible populations. … The products of the herd animals are the most important resources, although the use of other resources, including domesticated and wild plants, hunted animals, and goods accessible in a market economy are not excluded. …

Longhorn cattle drive, San Antonio, Texas
Longhorn cattle drive, San Antonio, Texas

In East Africa, different animals are taken to specific regions throughout the year that correspond to the seasonal patterns of precipitation.[12] Transhumance is the seasonal migration of livestock and pastoralists between higher and lower pastures.

Some pastoralists are constantly moving, which may put them at odds with sedentary people of towns and cities. The resulting conflicts can result in war for disputed lands. These disputes are recorded in ancient times in the Middle East. Other pastoralists are able to remain in the same location which results in longer-standing housing. …

Somali pastoralists keep their animals in one of the harshest environments but they have evolved of the centuries. Somalis have well developed pastoral culture where complete system of life and governance has been refined. …

reindeer being milked
reindeer being milked

On the assumption that pastoralist societies could work differently depending on the environment and/or animals involved, I have been trying to track down good works on a variety of different groups. (This is tricky, since I don’t already know much about nomadic societies nor what the best anthropology works on the subject are.) So for our first book, I’ll be reviewing Tim Ingold’s Hunters Pastoralists and Ranchers [PDF]: Reindeer Economies and their transformations, published in 1980.

From the blurb:

Throughout the northern circumpolar tundras and forests, and over many millennia, human populations have based their livelihood wholly or in part upon the exploitation of a single animal species–the reindeer. Yet some are hunters, others pastoralists, while today traditional pastoral economies are being replaced by a commercially oriented ranch industry. In this book, drawing on ethnographic material from North America and Eurasia, Tim Ingold explains the causes and mechanisms of transformations between hunting, pastoralism and ranching, each based on the same animal in the same environment, and each viewed in terms of a particular conjunction of social and ecological relations of production. In developing a workable synthesis between ecological and economic approaches in anthropology, Ingold introduces theoretically rigorous concepts for the analysis of specialized animal-based economies, which cast the problem of ‘domestication’ in an entirely new light.

On the subject of domesticated reindeer, Wikipedia notes:

DNA analysis indicates that reindeer were independently domesticated in Fennoscandia and Western Russia (and possibly Eastern Russia).[109] … They are raised for their meat, hides, and antlers and, to a lesser extent, for milk and transportation. Reindeer are not considered fully domesticated, as they generally roam free on pasture grounds. In traditional nomadic herding, reindeer herders migrate with their herds between coast and inland areas according to an annual migration route and herds are keenly tended.

The use of reindeer for transportation is common among the nomadic peoples of northern Russia (but not in Scandinavia). Although a sled drawn by 20 reindeer will cover no more than 20–25 km a day (compared to 7–10 km on foot, 70–80 km by a dog sled loaded with cargo, and 150–180 km by a dog sled without cargo), it has the advantage that the reindeer will discover their own food, while a pack of 5–7 sled dogs requires 10–14 kg of fresh fish a day.[110]

06092f51e84e082856bb25c299918ee2The Dukha people of northern Mongolia/southern Siberia also raise reindeer:

“They’re certainly a dying culture,” says Harvard-trained anthropologist Hamid Sardar-Afkhami.
Sardar, who spent years living with the Dukha and documenting their way of life, believes there were once around 200 families living in this remote part of Mongolia.
Nowadays, he thinks there are probably only 40 families left with about 1,000 reindeer.
“The number of families has fallen because a lot of them have been synthesized with the mainstream community,” he says. “Many of them have moved to the towns and even to the capital cities.”
The biggest threat in Sardar-Afkhami’s view is the defection from the younger Dukha generation, who don’t want to live in the harsh conditions in the taiga (or “snow forest”).
“They want to go down and stay in warm cabins in the winter, maybe buy a car and drive,” he says.

We’ll start with Reindeer Economies this Friday!