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I am building a world inspired by Gondwana, the great southern mega-continent, filled with plants and creatures that live in or evolved first on the southern Continents of Earth. On this world, there are few large animals suitable for domestication, a few elephants and giant sloth, but much of the megafauna is birds and reptiles. I would like to have a nomadic culture roaming a semi-arid subtropical plain; imagine Argentina's Semiarid Pampas, the Levant or the Rio Grande valley.

The question of interest is how to support a reasonably high nomadic population without traditional domesticated animals, like cattle or sheep. My idea is to do this with a big vegetarian bird: an ostrich.

Ostriches

...mainly feed on seeds, shrubs, grass, fruit and flowers;

which should be a suitably vegetarian diet. I imagine the nomads could alter the environment through selective burning to favor nutritious foods that ostriches favor, like Acacia, Mesquite, or Prickly-pear Cactus.

The way nomads get the most out of their herds is to rely on their milk as a primary protein source, only killing the animals when necessary. Similarly, ostriches can provide a ready-made protein source: eggs. Homestead sites suggest you can get a chicken hen to lay 200 eggs per year on average. Livestrong suggests an ostrich egg is about 2000 calories per, so if you can get that number of eggs per year, you only need about two ostriches per person to keep your community going.

Is there any reason an egg-eating, ostrich raising nomadic society would not work?

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    $\begingroup$ -1 for adding paragraph that invalidated my answer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 16 '17 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ You should change the question title to match the question body. You seem to be asking if ostrich eggs can be used as a diet staple, rather than if a human could really survive by eating ONLY ostrich eggs. Very different questions. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang May 16 '17 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ See this, please: worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/q/4860/809 $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 16 '17 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ It is not nice to change the question after it has answers! Don’t invalidate the existing answers. You want a follow up question based on what you mearned from these answers, not a refurbished question that renders the original answers out of context. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 16 '17 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ I suggest letting this one run its course then try the sandbox while you sort out precisely what you're trying to ask $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 16 '17 at 13:46
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First of all, an Ostrich hen can lay 40 – 60 eggs per year, averaging about 45-50 eggs per year. That’s the largest number I found and probably reflects domesticated farm-bred birds, which lay more. In this environment, they can all produce at this rate rather than the dominant female doing better, like in nature. This would be the case in your society as well.

The ostriches will be bred by them to be good laying hens, as separate breeds from those that are used primarily for meat or power.

That’s still a fraction of what you were hoping, but, as I indicated, you can plausibly push that by invoking selective breeding over generations.

As for nutrition, looking up the FDA label info for “egg” shows content but not percentage RDA. Scanning through the chart though one thing that sticks out is 0 for vitamin C. So humans cannot live off poultry eggs alone. You can compile the tables yourself if you can’t find an RDA chart for egg.

See what’s missing and figure out what else your nomads can add to their diet. You mentioned prickly pear cactus: the nomads should eat that themselves! The fruit is very good, but it’s not produced year-round.

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    $\begingroup$ Prickly pear is a good Vitamin C source, as it turns out, and I imagine you can dry it out in the sun, so that would be a good dietary supplement. $\endgroup$ – kingledion May 16 '17 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion, I ate a prickly pear once and I was aware that I had done so for considerable time afterwards, specifically any time I touched anything. They're not a fruit for the inexperienced. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 16 '17 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ You mean the greens? Yes: 1 cup of nopal has 13% of the daily need for C. So about 8 cups a day of that… so it would be the staple food, not a suppliment. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 16 '17 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ I have one in the back yard. I had family over and we harvested some fruit and divided it up. The barbs get in your clothes and you keep finding them even after you think you’re clean! Once picked though it's no problem — burn the barbs with flame. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 16 '17 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ The fruit in my bush has purple juice that looks exactly like plumbers’ PVC cement primer. My wife is hooked on them after trying, and buys them at the Latino market. Those bread for fruit are much better than “wild” ones, and nomads might be able to do selective breeding on those too even though they are not farmed in the full sense. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 16 '17 at 13:20
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As with most of single-food diets, the answer is no, of course not. You would have to find an egg that have the same % of human average daily intake requirement of everything, so you could have X eggs providing roughly 100% of daily needs.

An ostrich egg contains approximately 2000 calories, 47% protein and 45% fat. According to a study in 2003 in the British Poultry Science, ostrich eggs have a vitamin mark-up similar to that of chicken eggs. source

So, let's look at chicken egg:

  • Riboflavin (B2) 42%
  • Vitamin B12 46%
  • Niacin (B3) 0% (0.064 mg)
  • Vitamin K 0% (0.3 μg)

No matter how much eggs you will eat, you are not going to get near 100% of needed consumption with most of the vitamins. Either you have serious deficits, or you are overdosing other vitamins (and calories). Other nutrients, like protein - fat - carbohydrates trio, suffer similar disproportions.

TL;DR you can't live on a single food source unless you're a koala.

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    $\begingroup$ You are taking an unfortunately narrow view of the topic. Asian nomads managed to live on mare's milk all summer; Plains Indians survived the winter on pemmican. I'm sure there will be other roots and vegetables in the diet; plus they will eat the ostriches too. $\endgroup$ – kingledion May 16 '17 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion pemmican is a mix of fat, meat and fruit so yes, this can be made with proportions needed. And no, nomads did not survive on milk alone. They supplemented it, too. $\endgroup$ – Mołot May 16 '17 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ The question was rolled back to the original revision, so I rolled back your answer as well. $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 16 '17 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair so long as you have enough calories you can still live for a while. The first to be affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies would be the young and infirm. It takes a while for most deficiencies to build up to a critical mass so as long there is at the possibility of getting around 50% or your RDA you should be fine. Not great, but fine. $\endgroup$ – William C. May 17 '17 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion there's a big difference between living on something, and living for a season on something. For example, you can't live without vitamin C , but you can live for multiple months on such a diet before scurvy gets you. $\endgroup$ – Peteris May 17 '17 at 6:49
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Yes, for a given value of only, but you will be better with more than one animal.

There are several living pastoralist groups where the bulk of their diet is made from a single source, they supplement it hunting, fishing, opportunistic gathering of other rarities and in some patch based horticulture. Yes the loss of milk is a big hit and eggs will not completely replace it. On the other hand eggs keep much better than milk does, weeks to months under the right conditions. The lack of milk means you need to make up for it in another fashion, say by increasing supplementation from other more hunting or fishing.

The laying pattern of ostriches could be completely changed by domestication and may not have been identical to modern african ostriches in any case. It's not as if the non-stop laying of chicken is natural. So getting eggs year round is not an issue. In fact you are more likely to have something like Rhea than ostriches in south america, and they lay more eggs and like a more leafy diet to boot, although the male egg protection may be a problem.

Additionally many nomads herd more than one animal. There other animals that could be domesticated, there are horses and llama/camelids that may be candidates. And with the wide range of Proboscidea some of those may be domesticable as well. Having both milk and eggs would put them on better footing tha many real world nomadic peoples.

there are also plenty of potential plant crops, from manioc to beans and squash.Some nomadic peoples do practice plant agriculture, they plant small patches and keep moving between them. This also means you are not stuck with only nomadic pastoralism.

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I have a question. Are these nomads human or did they evolve on the planet with this creatures? If they are human then all bets are off. You cannot drop humans on a distant planet and expect them to survive in the native environment at all much less on one particular animal. We evolved to prey on and as predators of creatures on this planet. Finding a niche for us to live in another planet's evolution will pretty much get you panned in today's science fiction crowd but if you decide to make it fantasy then you don't have to worry about protein, calorie counts and so forth. On the other hand if you chose to make the nomads similar to humans but having evolved on the other planet your nomads can have evolved to prey on these animals before they domesticated them and the animals could believably fulfill most of their needs. Throw in a few native plants, roots and berries and you have enough of a varied diet to make a good story.

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  • $\begingroup$ "great southern mega-continent, filled with plants and creatures that live in or evolved first on the southern Continents of Earth." Meaning, they could have originated on a different continent, then travelled there for whatever reason. $\endgroup$ – Piomicron May 17 '17 at 15:38
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Egg with greens for vitamin C and you could live ok. But the man who invents bacon will be King!

Update:

To answer the question and satisfy the more pedantic, no.

The egg is the nearest thing to a complete food, but with out vitamin C, you will get scurvy. Other trace elements may be lacking. In New Zealamd, there used to be problems with people living inland suffering from iodine and selenium deficencies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Please explain why they had the deficiencies in iodine and selenium. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Jun 6 '18 at 6:31

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