Misuse of the word "Tribal" in relation to Africa and African History

Oct 2012
3,294
Des Moines, Iowa
#31
I agree completely. I do lots of art that is heavily influenced my pre-colonial Africa an the first thing people ever say almost instinctively is how "tribal" it is.

Almost all of my art is based on the Yoruba people who were in fact one of the most urbanized people in the world for most of their history. The Ashanti as well who were and still are one of the most sophisticated sub-saharan people in Africa. Not only is the word "tribal" misused but they also have a strong tendency of referring to all of the higher ups in these societies as "chiefs" even though they hold positions almost if not exclusively on par with European titles for Lieutenants and petty kings. My art never portrays primitives running around with loin cloths and short spears. I think part of the "Zulu tribe" issue has to do with the fact that the Zulu were relatively primitive in terms of technology and life style yet they are easily one of the most popular and overrated African ethnic groups in existence. There were much more advanced West African Empires that were larger, more technologically advanced, larger militarizes, larger cities, and were armed with swords and armor. I drew this character based on a Bini warrior from the Benin Empire.
Yes, the Zulu were relatively primitive compared to West Africans, and are probably overrated (even within southern Africa, other groups like the Shona were much more advanced and have a longer history). However, I think it is precisely their relative technological backwardness which makes their military exploits seem much more impressive. The Zulu expansion is one of the few cases in history where military achievements can be attributed solely to ingenuity in military tactics and organization, rather than the acquisition of fancy new weapons or technology. With that being said, it is unfortunate that many people know more about the Zulus than they know about the Yoruba or Asante.

Regarding art, it is indeed quite funny and frustrating when even Benin art (which was one of the most advanced in the world) is labeled "tribal". How can "primitives" make statues like this:

 
Oct 2012
3,294
Des Moines, Iowa
#32
People refer to people like the Yoruba of Nigeria as a "tribe" yet they don't refer to people like the Basque of Spain as a tribe despite there being significantly more Yoruba than Basque. The Yoruba also come from centuries of political centralization, the Basque do not.

Basque: 2.6 million
Yoruba: 42 million
Most so-called "tribes" in Africa are the equivalent of European nations. Whenever I hear the word "tribe" used in the context of Africa, I just replace it with "ethnic group" or "nation", and over 90% of the time it makes more sense that way.

Here is what a prominent historian wrote regarding the matter, from the Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. V (1790-1870). All highlighting is mine:


 
Jul 2015
679
Near East
#33
"Tribes" seems to be the filler word for many things some Western people don't understand in the non-Western world. For example I always find it funny when they describe modern conflicts in the Near East as "tribal" in nature. It looks like a simple lack of education regarding these issues and what constitutes a tribe in the first place.
 
Aug 2010
15,510
Welsh Marches
#34
The word tribal is often used in a semi-metaphorical rather than literally descriptive sense, e.g. when people refer to the hostility between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland as being 'tribal' in nature. Likewise when the word is used in connection with the Middle East, no one is suggesting that the groups in question are comparable in nature to the Baganda or Banyoro. And then again there are the 'tribes' or 'clans' of Iraq. 'ashira.
 

macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
3,682
Slovenia
#35
Whether a group of people constitute a "tribe" or a "state" has nothing to do with the size of the group, but its underlying sociopolitical organization. Any group of people that are ruled by a centralized government with a clearly defined social hierarchy can be called a state.
Difference lies in institutions, a layer of bureaucracy which separates people from it's head- monarch. First bureaucrats were scribes.

Tribes don't have permanent institutions. Social hierarchy does not make a distinction, many tribal communities were having different social classes.
 
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macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
3,682
Slovenia
#36
Yes, the Zulu were relatively primitive compared to West Africans, and are probably overrated (even within southern Africa, other groups like the Shona were much more advanced and have a longer history). However, I think it is precisely their relative technological backwardness which makes their military exploits seem much more impressive. The Zulu expansion is one of the few cases in history where military achievements can be attributed solely to ingenuity in military tactics and organization, rather than the acquisition of fancy new weapons or technology. With that being said, it is unfortunate that many people know more about the Zulus than they know about the Yoruba or Asante.

Regarding art, it is indeed quite funny and frustrating when even Benin art (which was one of the most advanced in the world) is labeled "tribal". How can "primitives" make statues like this:

So called primitives have self thougth artists who make sculptures as this one (which is full of errors in representing of a human body but has it's expressionist value), while states have schools for training of artists. Primitives also don't have market for works of art or it's nature is entirely religious.
 

macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
3,682
Slovenia
#37
People refer to people like the Yoruba of Nigeria as a "tribe" yet they don't refer to people like the Basque of Spain as a tribe despite there being significantly more Yoruba than Basque. The Yoruba also come from centuries of political centralization, the Basque do not.

Basque: 2.6 million
Yoruba: 42 million
I think Kingdom of Navarre has something to do with Basque statehood.

I would not think of Yoruba as of a tribe, their development and organization was beyond that a long time ago.
 
Oct 2012
3,294
Des Moines, Iowa
#38
Difference lies in institutions, a layer of bureaucracy which separates people from it's head- monarch. First bureaucrats were scribes.

Tribes don't have permanent institutions. Social hierarchy does not make a distinction, many tribal communities were having different social classes.
Tribes do not have a clearly defined social hierarchy. Any society that has at least two distinct classes (i.e. rulers and ruled) is at least a chiefdom or proto-state, rather than a tribe. All tribal communities, by definition, are fairly egalitarian.


So called primitives have self thougth artists who make sculptures as this one (which is full of errors in representing of a human body but has it's expressionist value), while states have schools for training of artists. Primitives also don't have market for works of art or it's nature is entirely religious.
Most ancient and medieval states did not have formal "schools" for training of artists. The artists who made works such as the one I posted belong to specialized guilds where skills were passed from father to son. The main "market" for such works of art were the royalty and nobility, as in almost all pre-modern states.
 

macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
3,682
Slovenia
#39
I would not separate a chiefdom or a proto state from tribal society. A chiefdom is an amalgam of more than one clan or a tribe under one main chief. You can't make a strict distinction.

Your thought that tribes do not have clearly defined social hierarchy belongs more to a separation between hunters-gatherers and farmers. But even hunters gatherers have chiefs which are higher on a social ladder. First among equal but first.

Formal school can be a master and his apprentices. The artist who made presented work was not very skilled but to me the most interesting thing is a motif.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,544
Benin City, Nigeria
#40
So called primitives have self thougth artists who make sculptures as this one (which is full of errors in representing of a human body but has it's expressionist value), while states have schools for training of artists. Primitives also don't have market for works of art or it's nature is entirely religious.
Do you have some examples of the sculptures made by self taught artists from so called primitive societies that you are referring to?

How is the statue expressionist?

What does having a market for works of art really have to do with a society being or not being primitive?
 
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