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What is a reasonable range of number of people that could participate in a cohesive and centrally organized migration/encampment?

Assumptions:

  1. Ancient times, desert terrain. People include adults of all ages, children of all ages, and large numbers of livestock.

  2. Food is not a problem. Most of the provided food does not need to be cooked (storage not an issue) and for the food that does need cooking, they will all have some basic cooking equipment and all the dried out animal manure they want (a common source of fuel).

  3. Water is not a problem. There are short periods at the start of the journey with no potable water but those issues are addressed and solved.

  4. Most everyone is walking. There are donkey and oxen for pack animals and to allow people who are very elderly, ill, or injured to ride or maybe be pulled. Small children can be carried or helped per above. Few or no horses. They have tents to sleep in.

  5. There are really good roads for some of the journey though in many places they will avoid roads, or at least the more popular ones. Some of the terrain is mountainous. All is hot and dry.

  6. They are safe for the first few days; after that, pursuers come after them. So they are moving briskly but not at a punishing pace.

  7. They are choosing isolated areas but basically the region is populated and/or well-traveled. News about them gets around. They have some skirmishes with annoyed locals (one big battle). And it is possible they are able to do some trading or purchasing of goods.

  8. Moving happens in stretches as short as one day and as long as a few days. Encampment happens in stretches as short as one night and as long as several months, though most are not that long.

  9. They are traveling as one group and need to make joint decisions and share information and resources.

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  • $\begingroup$ You might want to look at the book of Numbers. It is largely an account of censuses (?). You have to expand on those numbers, since their census basically included only men of military age. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Aug 13 '18 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I included Numbers in the sources for my question (which I realize was long). I know what the Torah claims are the populations, I'm asking about practicality in doing this in real life. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Aug 13 '18 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ "An awful lot of communication needs to happen between the leaders and the people." This problem was brought up by Jethro, who gave Moses advice about how to handle it (Exodus 18:13-27). $\endgroup$ – Joe Aug 13 '18 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ "Not to mention it would represent a huge percentage of the total population of Egypt at the time." Yeah, it was a huge percentage of Egypt.They may have even outnumbered the Egyptians (Ex 1:9-10). And that was in addition to the death of Pharaoh's entire army when the sea collapsed behind Moses (Ex 14:9,28). Crowd communication is not that difficult when a community starts moving. They just see the people ahead of them go, and they follow, like sheep. Also, the main limiting thing is space. You can keep increasing your crowd size indefinitely if you have enough space. The camp was very large. $\endgroup$ – boxcartenant Aug 13 '18 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ As is this question is far too broad please focus on one aspect that we can actually speak to coherently and use the answer(s) to that question to look at further aspects as needed. This site really only works properly when you ask one question at a time. $\endgroup$ – Ash Aug 14 '18 at 13:18
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Water and food would be key limiting factors for the size of such a group. But as these are not a problem for your group then the real question is what factor would limit the size? With an efficient means of communication and a well establish hierarchy of leadership it would be possible to organise a massive group, but communication might ultimately be a limiting factor.

Assuming communications are the limiting factor and instructions need to be communicated across the group within one day to prevent the group loosing cohesion a calculation can be made

Romans could march 32km in a day. Taking this as a base line case if the encampment were 32km in radius with a population density of 1 person per 10 square metres a circular area 64km across could hold 3.142 * 32000 * 32000 / 10 = a little over 320 million people.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I appreciate your response. An interesting way to approach the problem. I'd add tents, belongings, and movement to decrease the density. Also a lot of livestock. Most are in herds but some may be mixed in with the habitation; of course they'll travel too. I'd at least halve the radius, since messengers need to return with a reply promptly. And restrict it more as expecting messengers that are children or tired to go 19 miles a day is extreme. I agree with a circle. 2 mile (3.2 km) radius tops? 320,000? $\endgroup$ – Cyn Aug 16 '18 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ I think your estimate based purely on communication issues may be a little low and mine is an absolute maximum. A real figure is probably inbetween if we can use the word "real" in this context. The exact valur depends on asumptions about children v adults and how quickly they might or might not tire which is difficult to pin down, but I would have thought a 10 mile round trip would be reasonable even for children if they were fit. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Aug 17 '18 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ Your comments have been really helpful, thanks again. The mythological migration (maybe partially historical) my story is based on says about 2 million, and honestly I just don't know how to deal with that logistically. It's one thing to say, oh this is how many people, but when I sit to write the actual story, it just doesn't work. It's not just communication. There are events everyone has to see in real time (and hear too, with or without boosting). That's why I'm thinking something Woodstock sized (over a bit more area) is more realistic. But it's good to hear what the possibilities are. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Aug 18 '18 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ I would suggest that you introduce some element of food and water restriction to make the story more realistic and help contain the size of the population. You asked for the maximum size, but there is nothing to say that the size has to be the maximum, just use whatever size you wish. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Aug 18 '18 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ It's a retelling of the Exodus, so food and water issues are well accounted for. There are early issues with both. My goal is to tell it as realistically as possible, given it's a mythological event with time travel. The story isn't just from Torah and later parts of the Bible, but also Midrash and other Jewish writings. Miriam's well, for example, plays a huge role. The population is unambiguous but many commentators agree it may be exaggerated or mixed with people already in Canaan. The idea of 2 million or so seems extreme to me and the logistics just don't work...but I guess it's possible. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Aug 19 '18 at 15:12

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