Transhumance: a living practice

19 August 2023

Transhumance is an ancient pastoral practice involving the seasonal migration of livestock throughout the Mediterranean basin and many high-altitude regions around the world. Among these are continental Europe, South and North America, Africa, the Himalayas, Mongolia…

Transhumance is a tradition rooted in prehistory, and in Italy, it has evolved through the use of grassy pathways known as “tratturi,” which testify to a balanced relationship between humans and nature and a sustainable use of natural resources.

Transhumance: Part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Inscribed in 2019 by UNESCO on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which recognized the value of the practice through a transnational nomination presented by Italy, Austria, and Greece, transhumance is divided into two types: horizontal, in flat regions, and vertical, typical of mountainous areas. The UNESCO recognition highlights the cultural significance of a tradition that has shaped relationships among communities, animals, and ecosystems. It has given rise to rituals, festivals, and social customs that dot the landscape from summer to autumn.

The Etymology of the Word

The word “transhumance” refers to the movement of livestock. The most common and simple interpretation suggests that it derives from the Latin terms “trans” (across) and “humus” (soil, territory), although other ancient and evocative explanations cannot be excluded (for example, “taru” in the ancient Akkadian language means “to go and return”).

For an activity to be considered transhumance, it must involve the transfer of livestock from one area to another. This transfer, however, must exhibit clear regularity and repetition both in terms of season and route, because otherwise, rather than transhumance, it can be considered nomadism (which simply involves a continuous search for the best pastures). Furthermore, a more significant distinction is that nomadism involves the entire community in the movement, unlike transhumance, where only those responsible for the livestock relocate.

Transhumance is not a relic; it is still a living system present today, and in some areas, it’s even prevalent, not only in the form of mountain pastures but also in the horizontal transfer, as seen in Abruzzo, Molise, and Basilicata. In these regions, bovine transhumance is particularly significant and still occurs on foot, covering distances that can take up to a week. However, there are also cases of ovine transhumance in Lazio, Abruzzo, Basilicata, and the Val Senales.

The Landscape of the Tratturi

The value of transhumance extends beyond livestock production, encompassing multiple aspects of both material and intangible cultural value.

Among the tangible assets linked to transhumance are undoubtedly the rural landscapes, and among these, we can take the tratturi as an example. In Mediterranean environments, these routes have marked and continue to mark vast areas of the landscape for long-distance horizontal transhumance, involving the transfer of hundreds of thousands of animals. This transfer occurred along established paths that had to allow both the movement and feeding of such a high number of herbivores. As a result, in various regions, a network of long grassy paths, the tratturi, was formed.

September: time of transhumance – September 17 at 3 p.m.

Transhumance is an age-old tradition, but also a living practice for the Italian territory and its rich cheese heritage, steeped in history and culture.

Given their size, the tratturi characterize (or rather, for many stretches, characterized) the landscape. Today, with the decline of pastoralism, only a few intact portions remain of what used to be an extensive network of routes that connected Molise to Abruzzo and northern Puglia. Where it’s preserved, the landscape of the tratturi holds a particular allure. The same aesthetic can be found in the landscape shaped by the vertical transhumance of alpine pastures, where the presence of mountain huts, meadows, and pastures enhances their variety and beauty.

The Culture of Transhumance

Transhumance has also given rise to a culture – not only gastronomic but in a broader sense – which isn’t solely the technical and experiential knowledge related to animal management, pastures, and product transformation: it’s called the civilization of transhumance. Among the numerous examples, the unique organizational needs and the availability of food have given rise to a specific gastronomic culture.

The culinary traditions of transhumance are not entirely lost, as some of these preparations have transcended pastoral contexts and have been embraced by various restaurants. They have become the focus of numerous festivals and, in some cases, representative dishes of Italian gastronomy.

The Biodiversity of Transhumance

In the different geographical contexts of transhumance, this practice has been a fundamental activity for centuries due to its multifunctional, productive, social, ecological, and cultural roles. The economic life of many areas revolved around transhumant husbandry and related trades. This activity led to the creation of real “landscapes,” including meadows, pastures, and the human settlements connected to them.

The landscapes of transhumance were created by humans and animals through centuries-old practices. Though they have undergone evident transformation due to the reduction of herds and the increased production of those remaining, and despite pastoralism being diminished by depopulation in mountainous areas, it’s still recognized for its role in maintaining natural habitats and conserving biodiversity. This practice has been one of the most effective techniques for utilizing seasonal and mountain pastures, as well as selecting robust, efficient, resilient, and easily manageable animals.

by the Editors, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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