We all are familiar with the word ‘tribe’ and ‘tribal’. But do we actually know who they are? Are they a group of society? Are people born tribal or do they belong to one after birth?
When people are asked what comes to their mind when they hear the word tribe, some respond “arey woh adivasi log”, some say “wahi chinki ankho wale”, others answer that they are nomadic people, while many also adhere to their opinion that tribes are those people who are not civilised or sophisticated. Yes, these are actual answers received from people. Well, most of these people have got it wrong. Let’s go through the etymology of the word tribe and the evolution of human society to give a brief understanding of what a tribe means in different contexts.
The origin of the word tribe is still debated. It’s first usage is often traced back to 12th century Middle-English literature, when it was used to refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Hebrew Bible states that the Israelites were descended from the twelve sons of patriach Jacob(later named Israel). His sons were designated to the status of tribes. According to the Hebrew Bible, it is said to have been derived from the Old French word ‘tribu‘, which in turn was derived from the Latin word ‘tribus‘. ‘Tribus‘ denotes one of the three political divisions of the original Roman state based on ethnicity, i.e., tribus represented, perhaps, to the Latins, Sabines and Etruscans, who were the original tribes of Rome.
Tribe also means ‘Phyle’, which is a term that was used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the local divisions of the people in ancient Athens.
In biology, a tribe is a taxonomic category between sub-family and genus.
Also popular among the younger generation, who use the term to refer to a group of people having common interest or occupation. For example, a group of students in high school who have similar Gothic look and work in a band together.
But the predominant use of the term has been done in anthropology. According to anthropologists, human beings used to live in an unordered society but have gradually evolved from unsettled to settled form of life. We have built certain social institutions in our society, which are an inter-related system of social rules and social norms that are imposed on the individuals of the society. A political organisation is also one of the important social institutions.
Political organisation was formed when an individual or a group of individuals took the stand to protect, command or rule the common people and the common people too desired the same from these leaders. This sort of temporary leadership became permanent in course of time.
Elman Rogers Service was an American cultural anthropologist, who studied about the cultural evolution in Paraguay and also the cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean. His studies led to the development of social system and how State rose as a system of political organisation. In 1962, he wrote the book ‘Primitive Social Organisation: an evolutionary perspective’, where he put forwarded his classification of the stages of evolution of human society, which are-
These are the four levels of political organisation which every society passes through. The societies still remaining in the second form of organisation are designated as tribes.
Band is the simplest form of political organisation composed of a few small families. A tribe is a larger entity than a band, which comprises of a number of small groups namely, clan. Again, chiefdom is even larger than a tribe and is composed of a number of communities. State is the most complex form of political organisation, it is composed of a large number of communities, which form cities and towns.
So, it is understood that tribe is a political unit, which is formed from an organisation of kin groups like lineage and clan. These groups combine and make a larger whole of political integration to form political organisation.
The tribes are politically autonomous. No political official serves as a head of one tribal society. The elders of each clan guide their respective clans. The cases of internal disputes are settled by these clan elders. But if external threat occurs, all the small groups in a tribe unite together to resist that threat. They are egalitarian in nature, i.e. they are non-stratified societies.
This clears our doubts about what a tribe is and how it came into being.
But, in our society, still a majority of people are blindfolded by certain misconceptions about these tribes.
The first being that they only belong to the Mongoloid racial group. The Indian population is polygenetic(having various origin or source) and is a mixture of various races. The Mongoloid people are confined to the North Eastern region. So, without even citing any example it’s crystal clear that the “tribes of India belong only to the Mongoloid racial group” would be a wrong statement as these tribal societies are spread all over the country. There are tribes like Gond and Oraon who belong to Proto-Australoid racial group. Then there are the Todas of Nilgiri Hills who are Dravidians.
Secondly, people also get it wrong when they say that all tribes are nomads. No, not all tribes are nomadic in nature. They may also be food producers, they may be pastorals, they may be permanently settled farmers, etc., which would not let them live a nomadic life. So, they lead a more sedentary life.
Thirdly, our society also perceives that tribal people only do hunting and gathering for a living but that would be incorrect to say because there are numeruos tribes all over the world, let alone in India. Therefore, their mode of economy will also be varied and not just one. They are mostly food producers such as the shifting hill cultivators(e.g. Khasis of Meghalaya). Other modes of economy like farming(e.g. Gond, Munda, etc.), pastoralism(seen among the Todas of Nilgiri hills) and craftsmanship(among the Nagas who are traditional blacksmiths) can also be seen.
These are some of the misconceptions that prevail among a greater part of our population. Hope, this article, gives somewhat clear picture of what tribes are and we keep on breaking the stereotypes that exist in our country regarding these tribal societies. We should always keep in mind that we have no right to judge a group of people, be it on any basis, whether appearance or lifestyle. So, we need to understand them and we should take a peek into their lifestyle before judging them.
Article by:- Sabita Devi
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© copyright reserved Sabita Devi