An ancient way of life discovers newfound viability by drawing on surprisingly modern innovations.
Camels marked with painted brands, though no phone numbers. Image by Mark Hay
A few weeks back, in a passing conversation I heard a story about a strange innovation cooked up by some nomads in a far away country. Looking for a better way to identify their herds and locate them when they wander off, these folks had apparently decided to paint their phone numbers onto the side of their livestock in lieu of abstract brands. To date, I’ve been unable to substantiate this tale (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, as I’ve seen such painted-on characters used as quasi-brands at camel markets in East Africa in the recent past). But even if it is apocryphal, the story is far from absurd. It speaks to a real and verifiable revolution in the world’s nomadic traditions, fueled by the proliferation of cheap communications technology. These simple devices are rapidly conquering the challenges of modernity that have long chipped away at the viability of itinerant herding, laying the grounds for nomadism not just to survive into the new millennium, but to thrive—as few would have imagined—to the benefit of us all.