The English word tribe occurs in 13th century Middle English literature as referring to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The word is from Old French tribu, in turn from Latin tribus, referring to the original tripartite ethnic division of the Roman state: Ramnes (Ramnenses), Tities (Titienses), and Luceres, corresponding, according to Varro, to the Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans respectively. The Ramnes were named after Romulus, leader of the Latins, Tities after Tatius, leader of the Sabines, and Luceres after Lucumo, leader of an Etruscan army that had assisted the Latins. According to Livy, the three tribes were in fact squadrons of knights, rather than ethnic divisions.
The term's ultimate etymology may be found in the Latin word for three, "tres." The dative and ablative declensions of this word are both "tribus." The word "tribus" could therefore mean "from the three" or "for the three."
Another theory holds that tribus is perhaps derived from the PIE roots *tri- "three" and *bhew- "to be."
From 242-240 BC, the Tribal Assembly (comitia tributa) in the Roman Republic was organized in 35 Tribes (4 "Urban Tribes" and 31 "Rural Tribes"). The Latin word as used in the Bible translates as Greek phyle "race, tribe, clan" and ultimately the Hebrew שבט (ʃe.væt) or "sceptre". In the historical sense, "tribe," "race" or "clan" can be used interchangeably.
- Date: 13th century
- 1 a : a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers
- b : a political division of the Roman people originally representing one of the three original tribes of ancient Rome
- 2 : a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest
- 3 : a category of taxonomic classification ranking below a subfamily; also : a natural group irrespective of taxonomic rank <the cat tribe> <the rose tribe>
Some theorists hold that tribes represent a stage in social evolution intermediate between bands and states. Other theorists argue that tribes developed after, and must be understood in terms of their relationship to, states. Some criticize its connotations as a way of attaching "backwardness" and the racist notion of primitive since the term "tribe" is largely used to describe non-White peoples.
Considerable debate takes place over how best to characterize tribes. Some of this debate stems from perceived differences between pre-state tribes and contemporary tribes; some of this debate reflects more general controversy over cultural evolution and colonialism. In the popular imagination, tribes reflect a way of life that predates, and is more "natural", than that in modern states. Tribes also privilege primordial social ties, are clearly bounded, homogeneous, parochial, and stable. Thus, many believed that tribes organize links between families (including clans and lineages), and provide them with a social and ideological basis for solidarity that is in some way more limited than that of an "ethnic group" or of a "nation". Anthropological and ethnohistorical research has challenged all of these notions.
Anthropologist Elman Service presented a system of classification for societies in all human cultures based on the evolution of social inequality and the role of the state. This system of classification contains four categories:
- 1. Gatherer-hunter bands, which are generally egalitarian.
- 2. Tribal societies in which there are some limited instances of social rank and prestige
- 3. Stratified tribal societies led by chieftains.
- 4. Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized, institutional governments.
In his 1972 study, The Notion of the Tribe, anthropologist Morton H. Fried provided numerous examples of tribes the members of which spoke different languages and practised different rituals, or that shared languages and rituals with members of other tribes. Similarly, he provided examples of tribes where people followed different political leaders, or followed the same leaders as members of other tribes. He concluded that tribes in general are characterized by fluid boundaries and heterogeneity, are not parochial, and are dynamic.
Fried, however, proposed that most contemporary tribes do not have their origin in pre-state tribes, but rather in pre-state bands. Such "secondary" tribes, he suggested, actually came about as modern products of state expansion. Bands comprise small, mobile, and fluid social formations with weak leadership, that do not generate surpluses, pay no taxes and support no standing army. Fried argued that secondary tribes develop in one of two ways. First, states could set them up as means to extend administrative and economic influence in their hinterland, where direct political control costs too much. States would encourage (or require) people on their frontiers to form more clearly bounded and centralized polities, because such polities could begin producing surpluses and taxes, and would have a leadership responsive to the needs of neighboring states (the so-called "scheduled" tribes of the United States or of British India provide good examples of this). Second, bands could form "secondary" tribes as a means to defend themselves against state expansion. Members of bands would form more clearly bounded and centralized polities, because such polities could begin producing surpluses that could support a standing army that could fight against states, and they would have a leadership that could co-ordinate economic production and military activities.
In some countries, such as the United States of America and India, tribes are polities that have been granted legal recognition and limited autonomy by the state.
Archeologists continue to explore the development of pre-state tribes. Current research suggests that tribal structures constituted one type of adaptation to situations providing plentiful yet unpredictable resources. Such structures proved flexible enough to coordinate production and distribution of food in times of scarcity, without limiting or constraining people during times of surplus.