My world geographically separates agrarian from urban centers. A large caravan (hundreds of different 'farmers') travels to the cities every harvest, to sell their goods. The caravan is over a month in length, with the first and last weeks being in the wilderness between cities and farmland. The farmers need to eat. I like the idea that those on the caravan that are bringing livestock to the cities would also act as butchers during the traveling part of the venture. So, in the middle of nowhere, livestock runners have a sweet deal because they have hundreds of hungry farmers to feed.

I've gotten some great ideas from the silk road history, but I don't see anything about livestock being transported for trade and slaughter. It would be messy, en route, and butchering a calf and roasting it may take an unreasonably long time.

Preserved meats, or chicken, could be easier.

This question may be trivial, but I keep wondering if the image in my head of a wagon of livestock, being slaughtered and eaten by the people on the caravan, makes logistical sense.

Would a 'silk road' type caravan butcher and prepare livestock for food, en route?

edit: My world has changed slightly based on feedback here and elsewhere. One city has a river delta and others have poor agriculture, so there is ship-based transport between cities with which they can limp by. The caravan focuses somewhat more heavily on supplies that are more 'exotic' than food. This includes drugs (e.g. weed) and alcohol. The caravan is also a means for the farmers to acquire goods in the city.

I appreciate the feedback throughout.

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    $\begingroup$ No sure how often people could afford to eat meat if they aren't royalty. $\endgroup$ Sep 27, 2017 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ I would think goatherders would do well here. not expensive to raise if they graze the slopes, they make their own babies, which are quite tasty. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 27, 2017 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate all the feedback and links. thank you. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 27, 2017 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ My world geographically separates agrarian from urban centers. — is there any reason for this? Naturally in our world markets/cities are in half-day(or less) of travel from the surrounding villages, so farmers can went out in the morning, spend some time trading and return at the night. Farmers couldn't really afford traveling for two month. Merchants could. Also putting your city in the middle of fruitless land is not good idea — what if someone will start robbing those month long traveling caravans? Will city survive without incoming supplies? $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Sep 28, 2017 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ Slaughtering animals and eating the meat is a wasteful way to use the resources, except for those that can no longer move fast enough to keep up with the caravan. A better option is to keep the animals alive and drink their milk, or even their blood - which is still done by some African tribes today. Also, sheep are a better source of meat that cows - it comes in smaller portions, and mutton tends to have a cooling effect on the diners, not a heating effect. (See 19th century sources on the British Army's mistake in the middle east and India of feeding the troops beef instead of mutton). $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Sep 28, 2017 at 13:32

6 Answers 6


It depends

First do note that meat is usually not a primary source of food. Ever since we stopped being hunter-gatherers more than 10 000 years ago and became farmers instead, we started relying on grains and roots (such as potatoes) as our primary source of energy.

That said...

A caravan needs to feed itself. Unless the caravan can buy food on the way, then it needs to be self-sufficient. The problem with being on the move is that keeping "dead" food (harvested plants, slaughtered animals) fresh and consumable is difficult. Your idea solves that problem. As long as the livestock can feed and hydrate itself, it stays fresh. Also it can propel itself, another great advantage: less carriers needed.

There may be a downside to killing animals for food and that is that you are taking a valuable resource and stuffing your belly with it. Livestock are always worth more to be sold than to be eaten. Killing livestock to eat makes for expensive meals.

Then again... suppose this caravan is a cattle drive. Animals are bound to hurt themselves during such a trek. A certain portion of loss is to be expected. A cow that breaks a leg cannot be moved anyway. Sorry Bessy, you are now food for us.


Pros of killing livestock for food along the way

  • Fresh food
  • Self-propelled food
  • Loss of an individual is not a loss for the caravan

Cons against killing livestock for food along the way

  • Expensive resource "wasted" as food.
  • Somewhat more troublesome logistics as wagons rarely need herding, only driving.
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget that the farmers have to make this trek twice. Once to get to the cities and again to get home. It makes a lot more sense for farmers to wait until the return trip to slaughter any animals, since that would let them make use of whatever they didn't manage to sell at market $\endgroup$
    – D.Spetz
    Sep 28, 2017 at 18:11

I think you have missed a lot in your research then

First lookup Bedouins (granted these guys were more in the Saharan reaches)

These nomads were prolific traders on the silk road (amongst others). In their culture Camels are a foundational pillar. The camel is good for transporting materials, it can be milked as a food source, it can also be slaughtered for its meat.

Indeed the Bedouins do slaughter their camels particularly the males, and the old. They also would likely trade their harvested meat for necessities from towns they visit.

I mention these because its such an efficient system. Your merchant has a singular animal that can survive extreme conditions, can carry goods, can produce food, and can be slaughtered for meat. Other animals would be less efficient.

One point to consider though. Silk road merchants would rarely transport animals solely for butchery (unless in times of a crisis). Any settlement they would trade with would require a stable food source including general meats. Chickens and goats were common in just about any destination. Also larger animals require more nutrition during transport so cattle becomes more troublesome across uncertain terrain.

Clarification: Transporting livestock solely for butchery is an inefficient mercantile practice. Thus this would only be done for richer settlements seeking exotic meats that for some reason couldn't raise said creatures on their terrain. Furthermore, processing an animal and preserving its meat for transport is less risky than herding an animal across uncertain terrain where it could easily wander off, be stole, or die from starvation, disease, injury, thirst, etc.

Meat preservation usually requires things like a smokehouse and or curing salts. These would be difficult to achieve on the road as a merchant. These would be infeasible to carry around just in case.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. I have wondered how dystopic the cities need to be to prevent them from having eg livestock and lumber. But that is a separate question. I don't have camels, or oases per se. I specifically was researching the transport of livestock for slaughter, and it sounds as though your research did not find that either. The idea of slaughtering the old and lame is a good one. Some of the farmers are fishing during the trek. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 27, 2017 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ Camels aren't the only ones, the more eastern nomads used YAKs in much the same way. Also male camels, since they don't make milk, would be more disposable as you only need a few to breed. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Sep 27, 2017 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ I clarified my subtle hint on the inefficiency of solely transporting animals for slaughter. As far as dystopic they would need to be rich but desolate like a Saharan gold rich desert settlement $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Sep 27, 2017 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @DPT When building a world it's important to remember how cities come into existence. It's not because someone decides "I want a city here", it's because there is some sort of motivation for people to settle there. In the large majority of cases, these motivations are easy access to drinking water and one or more easy sources of food. It's only when civilisations reach fairly advanced levels that you can viably have cities that can't support their own demand for food. $\endgroup$
    – Cronax
    Sep 28, 2017 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Cronax, that is indeed useful. I am also trying to emphasize transported goods on the caravan that cannot be obtained in the cities because of environment. Such as, for example, certain lumber (e.g. mahogany) that doesn't grow there. Or ores. Etc.I suppose the large storytelling point of tension I am trying to get at, is how 'ways of living' stand in contrast to one another. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 28, 2017 at 13:42

Caravan Diets

Camel Trains describes the people, cargo, diet, and speed at which your caravans likely moved.

The caravan people's food was mostly based around oat and millet flour, with some animal fat. A sheep would be bought from the Mongols and slaughtered every now and then, and tea was the usual daily drink; as fresh vegetables were scarce, scurvy was a danger.Besides the paid cargo and the food and gear for the men, the camels would also carry a fair amount of fodder for themselves (typically, dried peas when going west, and barley when going east). It was estimated that, when leaving its point of origin, for every 100 loads of merchandise the caravan would carry around 30 loads of fodder. When that was not enough (especially in winter) more fodder could be bought (very expensively) from dealers.

There's quite a bit more information at that link about what they carried, how fast, and other logistical concerns. A "stage" (distance traveled in a day) was typically 10 to 25 miles (walking pace for a man). If bad weather hit, they might camp in place for several days without moving.

Not technically a road

The Silk Road wasn't really a road. It was a series of trade routes which connected various cities. Some parts of the "Silk Road" were sea trade routes, so not even close to roads at all. So different routes and modes of travel would have involved different diets. Though in all of them, meat would have been rare.


In trying to find data about feeding caravans, I too, found no reference to meat. But I did find this Tea Horse Road, which was considered part of the Silk road. It specifically mentions mules and humans carrying cargo, but not livestock. I also found this link describing caravans as quite limited in cargo capacity; 500 camels could transport about half the goods of a Byzantine era merchant ship.

See also Caravanserai, which are sort of roadside inns. (The link includes links out to specific Caravanserai, with pictures.) From the link:

Caravanserais provided water for human and animal consumption, washing, and ritual purification such as wudu and ghusl. Sometimes they had elaborate baths. They also kept fodder for animals and had shops for travelers where they could acquire new supplies. In addition, some shops bought goods from the traveling merchants. "Now the true account of the road in question is the following: Royal stations exist along its whole length, and excellent caravanserais; and throughout, it traverses an inhabited tract, and is free from danger."

Medieval meals

People generally had two meals per day, at least in Medieval society. Meat was expensive, and therefore your low-paid laborers on a caravan would likely have eaten little if any meat. This site suggests some potential foods for different classes, though I don't know how reliable the source is. And again, these are for middle ages/medieval society in general and not specifically for caravans.

I think the first link at the top is your best source of data.


Cowboys on cattle drives would eat fresh beef. Your folks moving livestock could do the same. Also, the more people there are to eat the better the economics - I bet 10 cowboys could not finish a fresh-slaughtered steer before it went bad, but 100 people certainly could.


“When it comes to broiling steaks, ‘Dutch’ had the knack down pat. He would get his campfire hot, slap the steaks into it for a minute, which seared them on the outside. Then he would pull the meat away and let it cook slowly. Of course the beef was off of a fat yearling, a good meat to start off with.”

Chuckwagon staples had to travel well and not spoil. The list included flour, sourdough, salt, brown sugar, beans, rice, cornmeal, dried apples and peaches, baking powder, baking soda, coffee and syrup.

Fresh beef was the main meat, but cowboys also hunted wild game and fish along the trail and during roundups. The cook used bacon grease to fry everything, but it also served as the main meat when supplies ran low.

from http://newsok.com/article/2492279

Eventually, chuck wagons were elaborately stocked with everything needed to operate a mess hall outdoors - spices, Dutch ovens, wood for cooking, meat hooks, water barrels, tableware and large quantities of staples like molasses, lard, bacon, beans, fresh beef, beans, coffee and flour.

"When people think of cowboy cooking, they think of beef and beans and coffee," Price pointed out. "That was true in some places, but certainly the traditions were leavened by Mexican cooking, Basque cooking in some regions of the Great Basin area, and of course, California added its own style of cuisine. " There were also regional variations in the amount of money ranches spent to feed cowhands, Price said.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ My mouth is watering. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 27, 2017 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DPT - I was looking for historic images. What I found was a lot of ads for gaucho-style barbecue. Yummmm. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 27, 2017 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Will - look for pictures of modern rendezvous gatherings $\endgroup$
    – ivanivan
    Sep 28, 2017 at 0:51

You could easily blend several ideas here.

Which animals to eat. Easy, the ones that get injured on the journey. Don't count on them as a staple food source, more as a bonus. keep the sacks of grains and such as staple foods, but don't waste a huge lump of kilo-calories if it drops (metaphorically) in your lap.

How to butcher? Just like a hunter out in the wilderness. Do it where the animal falls though. Other dray animals will likely get nervous when one of their own is in distress or getting butchered. Drain blood, gut and quarter. Use a team of people to do this, because you want it done fast.

Eat some and preserve some. At night, set up to cook some of the meat and to make some of the meat into jerky or pemmican. To dry the meat, maybe get a couple of wagons off to the side of the trail to carry racks of the meat for drying, but maybe keep them out of the way of the dust cloud generated by the main caravan. There are lots of other ways to preserve meats, but this is what comes to my mind.

Alton Brown's Good Eats show had episodes on Jerky and on Kebabs which will give you some interesting ideas as well as make you hungry.


They certainly could do. It would relatively easy and an advanced party could butcher, cook and distribute the meat to other members of the caravan. However I suspect they would not, or would not to any great extent.

The reason being that meat would normally be more expensive than grain. These people are farmers living in remoter agrarian areas so I would imagine they would not be very wealthy. If so then they would probably prefer to eat a minimal amount of meat as they would be eating their profits by doing so. Probably better for them to bake bread, boil rice and/or cook a range of vegetables such as beans.

  • $\begingroup$ I had thought the livestock farmers would pay a premium for the grain, in order to keep their animals alive. But, the economy of scale makes good sense. $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 27, 2017 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ I would imagine that the caravan route would make the best use of any resources on the way such as oasis and any areas with some vegetation where animals could find fodder. They would probably also carry as much food with them as they could, but might have to buy some on route or buy grazing rights or similar. Depending on circumstances they might fall back on eating meat if it was all they had left or if there was a lame animal. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 27, 2017 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ I'm coming to the conclusion that meat may be available but it would not be a meat party every night. :-) $\endgroup$
    – SFWriter
    Sep 27, 2017 at 16:18

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