Where would a tribe of nomadic herders obtain their daily carbohydrates and other necessary nutrients?

Naturally they have access to protein and fat through their livestock, but what about the other nutrients that would be missing from their diet? They could obviously stock up on things whenever they stopped somewhere, but how could they sustain themselves while traveling? I can't think of too much that wouldn't spoil within a few days. Let's say that the missing part of the diet needs to last for at least a couple weeks too.

The climate zone they inhabit is a temperate one, and the lands they traverse range from deserts, to grasslands, to mountains. They tend to stay away from wooded areas.

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    $\begingroup$ What has research into human history revealed to you? Is there a reason you can't use those same tried-and-tested methods? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    May 3, 2017 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ Milk. Meat. Fruit. Roots. Cured meat doesn't spoil. Carefully spoiled milk is known as youghurt or kumis. Roots don't spoil easily. It's not like information about famous nomadic herders such as the Mongols is hard to find. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 3, 2017 at 18:14

4 Answers 4


Not much

It turns out, (some) nomadic herders literally eat nothing else, at least for parts of the year. Other parts of the year, they will suplement their diet with some grains or other imported items. Here are first hand accounts from William of Rubruck in ~1250 and here is one from Nikolai Przhevalsky in 1870.

Some choice quotes from William,

Nevertheless, in summer, so long as lasts their cosmos [Ed: a fermented mare's milk, usually spelled kumiss], that is to say mare's milk, they care not for any other food.


In winter they make a capital drink of rice, of millet, and of honey, ; it is clear as wine : and wine is carried to them from remote parts.

From Nikolai,

For a more substantial meal the Mongol mixes dry roasted millet in his cup, and, as a final relish, adds a lump of butter or raw sheep tail fat (kurdiuk).

Another useful quote from the second article concerns modern practices:

When the Russians pulled the plug on Mongolia’s aid in 1991, the economy went into a severe crisis. For many Mongolians it was their first experience of serious hunger. The staple traditional diet of meat, milk and flour saw many people through this crisis. Mongolians traditionally have turned to foods that are high in protein and minerals, relying less on more seasonable foods like vegetables and fruits. This means a diet heavy on meat and dairy products, the latter when sour in the summertime thought to clean the stomach.

While by modern nutritional standards, a diet of all milk and meat isn't super healthy, it was all the Mongols ate during the summer, and most of their diet year round. Keep in mind that milk does a have a lot of sugar in it, so from cows milk at least, you get more calories from carbohydrates than protein from milk. I guess that was enough to conquer most of Asia.


In addition to other answers, the Eskimo and Inuit lived on an almost all meat diet. For about 10 months of the year it would be all meat. One of the reasons they could do so is that they ate a lot of it raw which gave them more carbohydrates than cooking it.

For a couple of months a year they had access to berries and seaweed and a few other things. But fish oil and particularly fat and meat was by far their mainstay and they got their carbs 'Eating raw meat indirectly provided Eskimos with enough carbohydrates in the form of glycogen (found in the muscles and liver of animals) to meet their necessary nutrient requirements and keep them out of a starvation condition called ketosis'.

The Mongols also ate raw meat, they used to put it under their saddles where it would be tenderised and react with their mounts sweat etc, and then eat it.

Perhaps due to a shortage of wood (they used dried dung as fuel) what meat they did cook was on the rare side.


Actual hunter-gatherers in the Australian Outback find berries (sugar is a carb) and various kinds of root vegetables (similar to potatoes, carrots, etc) and even leaf and stem vegetables that can be boiled to palatability. Also, wild honey is pure sugar.

Added: Presumably nomadic herders can do the same to get some carbohydrates. If they have human levels of intelligence, they can also recognize a root vegetable from its leaves; spot a wild honeycomb (the honey won't rot), or see wild melons, squash, etc. Even nomads tend to follow a circuit and have temporary encampments at a feeding and watering spot; so they may know the area and what to look for.

That said, I don't think carbohydrates are medically necessary at all; many fishing hunter-gatherers have lived exclusively on protein and fat, like the Inuit used to do with whale meat and blubber. Humans can do that indefinitely and, as in the Atkin's diet, it can deliver many beneficial effects. In fact one of the medical 'cancer' diets is an extreme ketogenic diet with near-zero carbohydrates (See e.g Ketogenic Diets by Kossoff,Freeman,Turner,Rubenstein (all MDs); or "Cancer as a Metabolic Disease" by Thomas Seyfried; a medical tome detailing the chemistry behind why such diets work).

This diet is also routinely prescribed to lessen the frequency and severity of epileptic seizures, and other forms of seizures.

  • $\begingroup$ I added a paragraph to explain the linkage... $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    May 3, 2017 at 17:39

Planning Ahead

If your nomadic people move in a seasonal circuit, they can practice a very hands-off form of agriculture. If they find certain edible plants in a certain location at a certain time of the year, they can re-plant the seeds, trim back weeds and encroaching competitors, and otherwise encourage the desirable plants to regrow so that they'll be available the next time they come by again. And then remembering what grows where and when becomes one of the duties of the groups' navigator or lore-keeper.


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