The Cattle Economy of the Maasai

The Cattle Economy of the Maasai

The Maasai people of East Africa built a pastoral way of life around their cattle, but the modern market economy has threatened to override the economy of bovine exchange.


3 - 12


Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Economics


Maasai Woman and Cattle

While Maasai men are responsible for protecting and herding the cattle, women are in charge of milking the cattle as well as looking after the home and children.

Photograph by Ton Koene
While Maasai men are responsible for protecting and herding the cattle, women are in charge of milking the cattle as well as looking after the home and children.
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The Maasai people live in the African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. Their traditional way of life is centered on cattle.

For more than 400 years, the Maasai have lived a lifestyle based around their cattle herds. Maasai women milk the cows. Warriors protect the cattle. Warriors are young men and older boys. They keep lions, cheetahs, and leopards away from the herd. Men also herd the cattle. They lead the animals to water and pasture land.

The herds travel to new areas each season. This gives grasslands a chance to regrow.

A Maasai with Cattle Has Money

Historically, the Maasai have depended on their cattle to provide food, clothing, and shelter. They eat beef and drink cow's milk. They make knives, spoons, and bowls out of cattle bones and horns. They use cowhide to make walls and roofs. Clothes are also made from cowhide. So are sandals.

Traditionally, the Maasai do not have money. Instead, their economy has been based on cattle. They have used them in place of money. Cattle have been bartered for many kinds of things. Bartering is a way of trading one thing for another.

The Maasai's traditional barter system is centered around cattke. That system is changing. It is being replaced by money.

Land and Cattle Are Important to the Maasai

Maasai families try to build up large herds. Owning many cattle is a way to show that you are important. Men may have more than one wife if they own enough cattle.

Young warriors are given cattle if they are particularly brave. The opposite can also happen. People who behave badly can be punished by having cattle taken from them.

In Maasai tradition, land is owned by everyone. It is shared equally.

The Maasai have long tried to protect their way of life. In recent years, it has become very endangered. Money and private property are the biggest threats.

Modern Life Is Harming the Maasai's Traditions

Private ownership of land is also threatening Maasai herding. Huge areas of grassland were once shared. Now, this land is being broken into separate lots. These are privately owned. Many have been turned into ranches or farms.

The Maasai are also losing their land for another reason. Their region has become popular with tourists. People travel there to see Africa's wild animals. Maasai herders can no longer bring their cattle into many areas.

The Maasai now have less pasture land. Much of what remains has been overgrazed. Herd sizes are shrinking.

Many Maasai have been forced to give up herding. Sadly, the traditional, cattle-based Maasai way of life seems to be disappearing. Modern life is creeping in.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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