what is a tribe?

now that tribes are all popular and trendy again, i feel it would be good to clarify exactly what a tribe is. everybody’s throwing the word around a lot (including yours truly), and i’m not sure that we’re all using the word in the same way. in fact, i’m not sure that everybody’s using the word in the same way consistently (i have a bad feeling i’ve been guilty of this).

so, what is a tribe?

well, first of all, as a very wise commenter once said:

“At one level it’s easier to talk in terms of clans, tribes and nations but at another level it maybe makes more sense to see it as a ten point scale where 1 is clan, 10 is nation and 2-8 are gradually increasing tribal size.”

exactly! what we’re looking at here is the range of sizes of the extended family, starting from — i’d say — the nuclear family on up to a race (a very extended family) — and really all the way up to the species level (the human race).

i’d say the scale looks something like this:

individual >> nuclear family >> extended family >> band or sub-clan >> clan or lineage >> tribe or chiefdom >> nation or ethny >> race >> human race ( >> primates >> mammals >> eukarya >> life on earth)

what did i miss? prolly something a LOT.

anyway, so a tribal society is: “organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups (see clan and kinship).”

gaddafi defines a tribe as such, btw — and you think he oughta know! [pg. 299]: “A tribe is a family which has grown as a result of procreation. It follows that a tribe is a big family….”

so, there you go!

the thing that i think is confusing is that tribes are different in character because they are based on different kinship or mating systems. tribes are, by definition, endogamous in their mating patterns, but they have different ways of going about arranging marriage/other mating.

for example, on the one hand you’ve got the slightly crazed, patrilineal tribes of the arabs that are dominated by the men-folk and that seem to be at war with one another. all. the. time. they are the way they are (i think) because of their mating patterns (father’s brother’s daughter marriage). their behaviors and institutions and ideologies are quite different from matrilineal tribes like, say, the iroquois. these differences are, i think, due in part to the mating patterns and that is how tribes need to be evaluated.

btw, roman tribes? not real tribes. athenian (attican) tribes? not real tribes. (the founding latin and greek tribes of rome and athens were actual tribes; these later ones were not.)

previously: whatever happened to european tribes?

(note: comments do not requie an email. or a tribal affilation.)

25 Comments

  1. Here in NZ, it helps me to think of this in the Maori terms of….

    Whanau -nuclear family (can be large as this can include g/parents, cousins or close family they wish to call so)

    Hapu -extended family or sub-tribe
    Iwi -tribe
    Waka – several distantly related tribes trace their ancestry back to Hawaiki, via their ancestors’ canoe of arrival.

    A Maori will sometimes belong to 2-3 tribes, depending on their parents’ origin.
    Each hapu would usually have a home meeting house, or marae.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iwi

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C4%81ori_migration_canoes

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  2. “their behaviors and institutions and ideologies are quite different from matrilineal tribes like, say, the iroquois. these differences are, i think, due in part to the mating patterns and that is how tribes need to be evaluated.”

    I wonder if the different patterns are better suited to different circumstances. I notice in the above link to Native American tribes the Sioux sounded Arab-ish. I wonder if there are patterns with certain forms better suited to hunter-gatherer and another to pastoralist and others again for different kinds of agriculture etc.

    If you did have a mating pattern that resulted in the males being more related to each other than they were to the females and the females were to each other you’re not just looking at gender differences you’re looking at gender based sub-ethnic groups.

    I’d prefer a more pleasing ice-age hobbit…

    http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/skarabrae/

    …explanation for things but you could see in theory how the attitude towards women and maybe more egalitarian attitudes in general could simply be (at least partially) a product of whichever mating system made the resulting family members the most equally related.

    .
    I also wonder how long it would take for a culture to start changing if at least part of the driving force was instinctive calculations of self vs not-self. For example if any society adopted the FBD system then it wouldn’t take very long at all for the males to become more related to each other as a consistent feature across the whole group. Might it only take a few generations for the status of women to start to decline or at least the start of a downward pressure on women’s status?

    .
    Another thought is human groups going through a sequence of patterns over time partially modifying themselves at each stage. For example ice-age hobbits develop a particular equal-relatedness mating pattern that is best for that cramped and harsh situation and in the process creating a culture that further changed them (in terms of trait frequencies) by selecting for traits that suited the culture. Then the ice goes and the hobbit-people spread onto the steppe getting bigger from all the milk protein and also maybe gradually drifting to a more FBD pattern to suit the pastoral context which then modifies the existing culture into a more martial one which sweeps south in their chariots to conquer everybody.

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  3. @g.w. – “I wonder if there are patterns with certain forms better suited to hunter-gatherer and another to pastoralist and others again for different kinds of agriculture etc.”

    i think that must be right. everyone who writes about father’s brother’s daughter marriage amongst the arabs and sudanese talks about how it’s connected to pastoralism — you don’t want to divide up the extended family’s goat herds, so you marry your son off to your brother’s daughter. keep the herd in the family.

    the interesting thing, tho, in the case of fbd is that more settled populations also practice it. a lot of the afghanis who practice fbd (they picked it up from the arabs during the caliphate centuries) are actually settled farmers. what i don’t know is if they were settled when they picked up on the practice, or if they’ve become more settled in recent centuries. and, if the latter, is fbd marriage becoming less popular? it still seems to work pretty well in agricultural societies ’cause you don’t split up the extended family’s farmland — an economic resource is an economic resource, afaics.

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  4. @g.w. – “…you’re not just looking at gender differences you’re looking at gender based sub-ethnic groups.”

    yup! you kinda-sorta are!

    @g.w. – …how the attitude towards women and maybe more egalitarian attitudes in general could simply be (at least partially) a product of whichever mating system made the resulting family members the most equally related.”

    exactly!

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  5. hbdchick
    “in the case of fbd is that more settled populations also practice it. a lot of the afghanis who practice fbd (they picked it up from the arabs during the caliphate centuries”

    well i think the military answer may be the reason there. i wouldn’t know how to prove it but from experience i’d say if FBD increased male relatedness and thereby the band of brothers effect it might prove to be the best system in environments of constant (small-scale) warfare. i think it would generally be a handicap at larger scales so that might lead to one to expecting to see it either in pastoral horse cultures (because the historically most effective base unit size of cavalry is a convenient clan sized 150-200) or possibly very mountainous terrain where although the fighting is on foot it is made very small-scale by the terrain with every remote little valley having its own little clan army.

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  6. @g.w. – “…so that might lead to one to expecting to see it either in pastoral horse cultures (because the historically most effective base unit size of cavalry is a convenient clan sized 150-200)…”

    oooo, that’s really good thinking! i’ve never read any of these people researching/writing about fbd societies talking about what the knock-on military effects might be. very interesting angle!

    @g.w. – “…or possibly very mountainous terrain….”

    well afghanistan certainly fits that bill.

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  7. “i’ve never read any of these people researching/writing about fbd societies talking about what the knock-on military effects might be”

    I’d say it would be significant in conditions where there was a lot of small-scale violence due to increased cohesion which is another way of saying morale. Gangsters often tend to have a core of 2-3 brothers and maybe a cousin or two for precisely those sort of reasons. Once you go beyond a certain scale i think it would tend to reduce cohesion through the different clans pulling in different directions.

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  8. @g.w. – “I’d say it would be significant in conditions where there was a lot of small-scale violence due to increased cohesion….”

    well, what you’re describing here — plus the calvary aspect — is (or was) exactly the scenario on the arabian peninsula. i mean, clans and sub-clans attacking other clans and sub-clans left and right — on their arabia horses! that was their modus operandi.

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  9. “is (or was) exactly the scenario on the arabian peninsula”

    Yes that’s what made me think it when i read your posts on FBD marriage. i know some of the military history and your posts on mating patterns and subsequent relatedness made the jump.

    .
    “not to mention the mongols. but i don’t know what their marriage patterns were like. but i’m willing to make a guess”

    Well i wonder. The thing with the Arab conquest (from my understanding) is it was mostly ferocity.To me the FBD idea combined with a tribal religion fits that very well. You’d have a lot of small squadrons of very tight-knit and ferocious band of brothers type clan cavalry who under normal circumstances wouldn’t play well with others at all but if something could unite them then they’d turn into a tornado of aggression for as long as the unity lasted. An Arab tribal religion (which i think Islam was initially) combining religion and tribal scale rather than clan scale blood-ties provided that unity and off they went.

    Now the Mongols were ferocious too but i think the main thing about them is how incredibly well-organised they were at very large scales. Now that could have been just Ghenghis but i don’t know. The thing about clannish peoples i’ve noticed from various experiences is not only do they not like to co-operate outside their clan but when they do co-operate on a wider scale, usually something to do with religion, they’re not very good at it because there’s the constant friction of *not* wanting to do more than the others. I assume because they’re always expecting free riders.

    So in terms of the Mongols maybe they were FBD like the Arabs and to the same extent and it was simply Genghis who made them so disciplined or maybe it was n/asian conscientousness in Mongol form but if it was just mating patterns then i’d expect the Mongols to have a patterm similar but not identical to the Arabs – something which made the males more related to each other as with the Arabs but where the sub-clans weren’t as inbred and the the relatedness between svk’s hapus and iwis was more balanced.

    Thinking aloud again.

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  10. This definition of tribe and the whole hierarchy is relatively correct. Tribe and nation are equivalents. Surely, a tribe/naiton can be divided into other tribes/nations. It should be clear that those nations are all defined by natural or adoptive descent, because a nation can also be defined by land, citizenship, language or religion. E.g.: if a member of a tribe adopts a member of another tribe, then the adopted son becomes member of the adopter’s tribe; adoption has existed throughout history. Because of adoption, you can’t always classify nations into specific races, hence the hierarchy has to stop at the level of the nation.

    Now, if you were to apply the hierarchy to America and Europe, you will not be able to do so because all their nations are nations defined by “citizenship” not by descent. A French is a French citizen, even the old French. That’s the problem I talk about here: http://oldsystemwillfall.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/the-problem-of-the-west-and-america-lack-of-tribal-solidarity.

    The Roman and Athenian tribes were tribes, i.e. divisions of the people, but not in the strict sense. The Latin word “tribus” means “third”. The Romans were originally divided into three thirds.

    Concerning the European tribes, they all disappeared after the 12th century because of the fragmentation of Europe into fiefs and free cities and because of the emergence of new laws that replaced the old tribal laws (Roman, Salic, Lombard etc.). In this context, members of the old tribes started defining themselves according to their fiefs and cities.

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  11. @nestorius – “Concerning the European tribes, they all disappeared after the 12th century because of the fragmentation of Europe into fiefs and free cities and because of the emergence of new laws that replaced the old tribal laws (Roman, Salic, Lombard etc.).”

    i’m interested in the biological reasons why european tribes disappeared — and why tribes exist at all, for that matter.

    btw — your avatar prompted me to “enable avatars” here on the blog. nice one! (^_^)

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  12. hbdchick,
    The ban on cousin marriages was originated by some councils but was later introduced into Roman law. The Greeks, i.e. Eastern Romans or Byzantines, followed Roman law. The Greeks keep following this law until now. This law did not make the Greeks disappear nor did it make their tribal solidarity disappear.
    In Western Europe, the Franks, the Lombards and other non-Romans did not follow Roman law, so they used to marry their cousins. Although it was banned by Canon law, tribal laws and, later, custom laws did not ban it.
    So, this specific law has nothing to do with the exctinction of the old tribes. It’s feudalism and the defragmentation of Europe into endless fiefs and free cities starting with the 11th century (where a person’s belongingness was determined by his status) that eliminated the tribes completely.

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  13. @nestorius – “This law did not make the Greeks disappear nor did it make their tribal solidarity disappear.”

    you seem to be saying here that all greeks together constitute one tribe. i don’t think that is correct.

    @nestorius – “Although it was banned by Canon law, tribal laws and, later, custom laws did not ban it.”

    several of the different germanic tribes’ law codes did, indeed, ban cousin marriage eventually — after the adoption of christianity, of course.

    @nestorius – “It’s feudalism and the defragmentation of Europe into endless fiefs and free cities starting with the 11th century (where a person’s belongingness was determined by his status) that eliminated the tribes completely.”

    to believe you, i require an explanation for where feudalism and this defragmenting came from, i.e. what was the mechanism for all of this defragging? why did it happen?

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  14. “you seem to be saying here that all greeks together constitute one tribe. i don’t think that is correct.”
    Well I can say that up until 1820, they constitued a single tribe called in Greek as “Romioi” and in Turkish/Arabic as “Rum”. With the creating of the Greek citizenship and with Greek nationalism, things changed, but the old tribal solidarity between Greeks in Greece, in Anatolia, in Cyprus and even in Syria and Egypt was still strong and is still strong to a certain extent despite them being widespread over a large area and them living amongst other peoples. Greeks do not marry their cousins.

    “to believe you, i require an explanation for where feudalism and this defragmenting came from, i.e. what was the mechanism for all of this defragging? why did it happen?”
    Under the Carolingians, some soldiers were given lands in exchange of fighting. First, these lands were small, then the Emperors and Kings started giving bigger pieces of lands, like counties. The Frankish and Teutonic Kings and Emperors encouraged this policy of defragmentation because it would weaken the lords. During the 11th century, free cities, independent from the rule of fief-holders, started to rise. The first ones were Genoa, Pisa, Lucca, Sena and Pistoia in Italy. During the 12th century, other cities of Italy started liberating themselves from fief-holders. The Emperors found it a good way to enhance their power, so they started issuing laws granting freedom to many cities. In France during this century, the Kings of France started creating many free cities. Documents I observed from the 12th century show that persons in Italy and in parts of Burgundy still distinguished themselves as Romans, Lombards, Franks and Alamanns. During the 13th century, only a few refer to their own people, instead they refer to themselves as citizens of such and such city. Being a citizen was a priviledge. By that time, each city started issuing their own laws called statutes. The statutes replaced the old laws. These statutes remained in use until the 19th century in Italy. There is a positive correlation between the fall of the tribes and the rise of the fiefs and free cities, and it is proven by the thousands of documents that pertain to this period.

    There another reason why the tribes disappeared: the tribes mixed. In Spain, the Goths, the Romans and the Vascons (a branch of the Romans) gradually mixed to the extent that what was left were the Castillans, the Leonese, the Aragonese, the Catalans and the Navarrans, who were not tribes in the specific sense. The Romans and the Lombards in Italy were still separate as long as they preserved their different laws, after the 13th century when Roman and Lombardic laws were gradually abolished, the Romans and Lombards became a mixed people. The same happened in France between the Romans, the Franks and the Burgonds. Unfortunately, the mixture of these tribes did not lead to the creation of new tribes because of the fragmentation of persons between fiefs and free citites.

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  15. @nestorius – “Well I can say that up until 1820, they constitued a single tribe called in Greek as ‘Romioi’….”

    eh. at this level i think we’re talking more about an ethny than a tribe.

    @nestorius – “Greeks do not marry their cousins.”

    no, certainly not today they do not, generally speaking. and they haven’t for quite a while, the orthodox church being rather strict about the practice, from what i understand. but they used to, before the arrival of christianity. edit: and then they were composed of tribes and clans.

    @nestorius – “There is a positive correlation between the fall of the tribes and the rise of the fiefs and free cities, and it is proven by the thousands of documents that pertain to this period.”

    i’m sure that you’re right, but correlation is not causation. (~_^) the political elite, in alliance with the church, was very much interested in breaking the power of the tribes in europe because they were a nuisance — always fighting with each other and sometimes fighting against the princes or kings who wanted to take power. taking power away from tribes (very extended family groups) resulted in more power for princes and kings. therefore, princes and kings strongly supported the church’s regulations on marriage (except when it applied to themselves, of course!). thus all the law codes against inbreeding (and other things like divorce and polygamy).

    what you say about kings and emperors giving out lands and creating towns — basically creating feudalism — does make a lot of sense, though. i won’t say that it wasn’t important. it must’ve been. i will say, though, that it was probably part of a package of strategies the new elite used against the old social order, one of the strategies of which was also eliminating close relative marriage.

    thnx for your thoughtful reply!

    @nestorius – “There another reason why the tribes disappeared: the tribes mixed.”

    in other words, you’re suggesting they outbred. (^_^)

    i don’t know how much interbreeding occured between the different european tribes when they mixed. i would be interested to know, though!

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  16. “at this level i think we’re talking more about an ethny than a tribe.”
    I define tribe as humans defined by their descent. On the other hand, I define people/nation as a group of humans defined by various criteria: descent, land, language, religion. This model is just a model of choice and is determined by context.

    “and they haven’t for quite a while, the orthodox church being rather strict about the practice, from what i understand. but they used to, before the arrival of christianity. edit: and then they were composed of tribes and clans.”
    This law pertains to the secular law not to canon law, although originally it was introduced into canon law. Modern Greeks are not the same people as ancient Greeks. But that is a long story to tell.

    “i’m sure that you’re right, but correlation is not causation.”
    Well, in this case I would rather say causation because the fragmentation into fiefs and free cities appeared first, then the disappearence of the old peoples appeared after it.

    The tribes mixed. Imagine that in a village in France you have 10 Franks and 8 Romans. They will mix through marriage and common language. At that stage only the law of each tribe (Salic law and Roman law) permits them to differentiate each others. Then after few generations, the laws were abolished and everybody forgot who is a Roman and who is a Frank. This is how things happened throughout Europe.

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  17. Btw, marrying non-relatives is healthier than marrying relatives. I have seen many Muslim families that interbread; they have a great number of difformed and disabled persons.

    Btw, you might tend to think that “Arabs” retain tribal solidarity. This is true among modern true Arabs (mostly nomads or semi-nomads), not among all those who are indiscrimately known as Arabs by Westerners.

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  18. @Nestorius “Btw, marrying non-relatives is healthier than marrying relatives.”

    This is true. However, in the past there was around 50 percent childhod mortality in most populations. Having non-viable offspring would therefore be a temporary state of affairs, since it would be very unlikely they would survive the first week after birth (not least because obviously abnormal babies are probably abandoned in most historical human societies).

    Having a high proportion of non-viable offspring due to inbreeding depletes maternal resources (with the ninth month pregnancy, or for however long the abnormal fetus survives) but it is possible that it does not have such a large effect as it does in societies with low child mortality.

    My understanding is that under such circumstances, long term inbreeding may tend to eliminate many deleterious recessive genes from the gene pool – rather as happens with animal breeding.

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  19. Were Israelite tribes real tribes, or like the Roman and Athenian ones? Or did they change from real to artificial through time due to population mixing?

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  20. @Bolko “Were Israelite tribes real tribes, or like the Roman and Athenian ones? Or did they change from real to artificial through time due to population mixing?”

    Both. A group like the Israelites would have been a tribe and inter marrying. Like all groups there would be a small or greater amount of population influx – and out flux. Not a large amount probably 1 or 2% a generation but less than 10% – assuming no major raiding for females going on. The only groups to not engage in mixing would be trapped on islands.

    Anyhow over time the new group would be mixed into the old and the genetics would generally follow through the families.
    Further complicating the Jewish peoples would be that over time they would become the minority in almost anywhere they were located. There would be pressure to stop being culturally Jewish. But that wouldn’t change marriage patterns much. It has been noted here that most of the Christians in the middle east typically engaged in cousin marriage.

    Thinking here, there are two levels that we are tracking. One is Biological, the other is Cultural. And both need to be tracked because sometimes they diverge and sometimes they converge. Just because we say that 60% of the behavior is biological, doesn’t mean that the other 40% can’t show us greatly different outcomes…. even at 10% non-biological, the differences can be substantial enough to be noticed.

    Reply

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