There lives in a desert a large nomad culture, composed of many tribes who wander about herding camels, goats and sheep, trading and offering services to cities and towns, and occasionally raiding these, caravans and smaller tribes.

Their domain is an expanse of a desert of 5 million square kilometres, where 10 million sedentary people live in fortified towns across rivers and oases, along with a northern fertile coast of around half a million square kilometres where 7 million other people dwell, though they are not welcome in this land, and are quick to be repelled should they enter it. They number a million and to the south and east lie arid steppes in which more warlike tribes inhabit, and they rarely visit it.

With this in mind, how populous would be the:

  1. Average nomad tribe? Would it number something of a few dozen to a hundred, or would they be more family-sized?

  2. Large tribe? Would it be able to number a couple thousand, almost like a moving city, or would it be more like a wandering hamlet?

  3. Populational limit of a tribe? Could we think of something in the thousands, under exceptional circumstances?

Edit - I forgot to mention this earlier, but these nomads have only renaissance or medieval technology

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Have you even tried to research the Bedouin and the Tuaregs? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 25, 2019 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP The nomads in question are heavily inspired by the Bedouins, but I couldn't find any demographics from as far back as the medieval/early modern age. $\endgroup$
    – Jedboo
    Aug 25, 2019 at 18:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well, if you are modelling the population after the Bedouin you may want to explain what a "tribe" is. For most people, a "tribe" would be something like the Amerindian tribes, with a coherent social structure and some common social life; whereas Bedouin "tribes" were veeeery loosely connected sets of pretty much autonomous collectivities which shared a legendary ancestor and little else. A Bedouin "tribe" could easily have thousands of members, but it was exceedingly rare for those members to come together or work for a common purpose, if ever. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 25, 2019 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP That's part of the answer, thanks, but I left the term intentionally vague so people can build around this on their answer, I avoided saying that the nomads here are inspired on the Bedouins so people wouldn't just transform them on the Bedouins and make their answer on this. $\endgroup$
    – Jedboo
    Aug 25, 2019 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ Could you clarify the tech level? Medieval ends around 1500 CE and Modern starts either around WWII or maybe the late 1800's, depending on how you define it. That's a huge difference (and a huge difference also with the start of the Modern Age). So be specific. Communication alone varies so much it would affect your answers. $\endgroup$
    – Cyn
    Aug 27, 2019 at 18:25

2 Answers 2


I think the main issue is how aggressive these nomads are. As has been mentioned, there have been huge groups of nomads through history that sustained very high numbers, such as Huns, Mongols, and even Vikings, however they were largely warlike or predatory groups. More peaceful nomads, such as the Roma or Celtic blacksmiths, were often much smaller in size.

Based on what you said they do for a living (herding, trading, raiding), and given that they have approximately 10 million people to live off of, I would say the biggest possible groups might a few hundred individuals. Again, this is dependent upon town size. If you have 10 huge cities with a million people each, it would be much more realistic to think that a group of 300 nomads wandering in would be tolerated. If you have some 500 settlements of 20,000 (which would be quite large for a medieval setting, though not impossible), a few hundred nomads is a much bigger concern. Besides the possible negative reactions of city-dwellers to any group large enough to be a relative 'hoard,' you have to consider the jobs/resources available. If you have thousands of small villages, a traveling blacksmith can support himself and perhaps a few family members on the work he finds, but there would certainly not be enough bent shovels and dull axes for even a dozen fellows. Large towns would afford more opportunities for work, however they might also require your nomads to stay longer. It is also far more difficult for 300 nomads to graze their animals on a few scattered grass patches than it is for just a handful.

Based on the situation you describe and the little bit I know of Bedouin tendencies, I would imagine your nomads live in extended family groups of twenty to thirty people. These groups are probably quite familiar with one another as they would frequent the same water holes and grazing lands, but generally would not travel together. In a group of 20-30, your nomads can herd a sizable number of animals, though not so many as to overburden the scarce desert resources. They are not an intimidating presence in the average village of 2-3,000 people, but have the numbers to launch small-scale raids on isolated farms or traders. While threatening to city-folk who wander beyond their walls, larger caravans, such as would be necessary for intercity trade, would be relatively safe, meaning kings/governments would not feel it necessary to move against the nomads. In a band of 30 people, with high birth/death rates, you probably have 6 or 7 kids and 23 or 24 adults. When they stop in a town, say half the tribe tends to the children and the livestock, the other half works odd jobs, that's only some 12 people, meaning that even small villages would likely have enough occasional work to keep the nomads employed, but not so much that the nomads could settle down for good. This would also explain their reluctance to go to more fertile lands or to the steppes as they do not have the man-power to claim territory there.

Based on this system, a large tribe could be 50 people, but I doubt it would last for long. You could get a roving city if the nomads decided to band together, but this would of necessity be a predatory system, similar to the Huns or Mongols. I should think the largest troupes of nomads would form only rarely, when two or more regular groups joined forces, probably in a large-scale raid, perhaps on bigger caravans, or in a case of war. Intertribal politics would be a major issue that you could explore or exploit, should the need arise.

In general, I wouldn't expect your nomad group to be larger than maybe 10% of the size of your average city, and even that is pushing it. A group that big has to be considered a threat and almost certainly must be predatory to remain nomadic. That said, what you consider a 'tribe' is also important. A band of 20 nomads could belong to a tribe of 100, if 'tribe' is taken to mean a loose affiliation.



Genghis Kahn is the first thing that comes to mind. And according to wiki he lead an army of 100.000 people at some point. So it is not strange to think that the population of Mongolia at that time must have been quite big too, bigger than 100k least.

Another nomadic tribe or tribes were the Huns https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns

Which considering that they came into Central Europe and got a huge amount of people to flee from them suggest that they were also quite big in numbers.

The population limit would be determined by their lifestyle. Huns and Mongolians alike hardly did any kind of farming. This kind of lifestyle needs space and maybe similar climatic situations as a Nomade in the steps will live differently than a Nomade in the desert or in woodlands if later would even be a thing. Also some sort of animal would be required to be of any meaningful war potential I believe.

  • $\begingroup$ How many soldiers of Genghis Khan's army were from Mongolia? The Huns were not a homogeneous population; very far from homogeneous. And Mongolia is not a desert. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 25, 2019 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ That’s true I have to admit. Yet as this is a question of world building I do not see much difference to whether or not such nomadic tribes are living in a desert. In a desert the space the Nomade populate still limits their numbers. Given the right leaders or a common goal it still can lead to the formation of a social structure representing a large tribe of some sort. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2019 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ Also if one would want to talk about tribes of a more desert region ...we might want have a look at Muhammed. Even though he wasn’t leading a nomadic life per se himself. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2019 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ @WorldPeace the environment matters a lot because it defines how many animals you can run per square mile. Desert scrub vs real grassland is a big difference. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 29, 2019 at 13:31

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