The Wisdom of Tribal Cultures

anthropology hunter gatherer kids in nature tribal culture May 18, 2023

Mention the word 'tribalism' and most people will respond with disparaging remarks about this mostly bygone era of human existence, typically labeling it as primitive, archaic, or backward. In its opening paragraph on the subject Wikipedia states, "With a negative connotation...tribalism can also mean discriminatory behavior or attitudes...."

So does tribal culture have anything to offer us today, or is it inferior to our current modern life style which is increasingly based on technology, urbanization, and removal of a connection to the natural world?

There's no doubt western society has brought advancements that have tremendously benefitted humanity including wealth and material gain, reliable access to food and clothing, modern medicine, sturdy dwellings and protection against the extremes of Mother Nature, literacy and education, vast capabilities in locomotion, global communication networks, and unparalleled access to information among many others. But along with those has come a legion of problems including huge increases in anxiety and depression/suicide (especially among teenagers), an array of diseases and epidemics, deterioration of overall health due to poor diet/lack of exercise, polarization among its citizens, environmental destruction, and many others including the possibility of mass annihilation caused by technology and/or global conflict.

Hence, it's worth asking if our advances have been worth the tradeoffs? Are we better off now as a species and as individuals in terms of our general happiness than our ancestors were several thousand years ago? And what about the future...will continued 'progress' alleviate the aforementioned issues or will they exacerbate, or perhaps worse yet, will we create new, even more profound problems associated with continued progress (e.g. artificial intelligence)?

To be fair, tribal culture is not a panacea to all that currently ills us. Hunter-gatherer societies faced many hardships to individuals as well as to the tribe as a whole including famine, injury, susceptibility to environmental changes, subjugation to other tribes, and internecine warfare among others. From a purely physical standpoint, life could be very hard.

However, tribal culture also had many virtues which we lack today that promoted human happiness and overall well-being. Numerous studies by anthropologists have shown this model creates confident, self-reliant, and content individuals who are at peace with themselves and their surroundings, living fulfilling lives. In her recent book Hunt, Gather, Parent, author Michaeleen Doucleff shows the benefits are not unique to any one ethnic group or geographic region, but rather are ubiquitous to almost every culture around the globe that still incorporates these lifeways.

One of the main advantages of tribal culture is its paradigm for rearing children, especially as it relates to extended family helping with a child's upbringing. Until the last few decades, even in the nuclear family model of the West parents typically had siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins nearby who could take care of young children, while the mother rested or did other chores and the father worked. Today, that practice is increasingly rare in a society where frequently one or both parents work full-time, and there is no extended family or what Doucleff refers to as 'alloparents' nearby who can act as surrogate parents. In the alloparent model, mothers or other trusted adults would look after each other's offspring in tandem or by taking turns, which has been shown to lower stress, anxiety, and postpartum depression.

Another virtue of tribal culture is the social bonding that occurs for both kids and adults who live, work, and play together. Within a hunter-gatherer tribe, your neighbors were also your work colleagues, friends, and often your relatives. There was constant interaction, and strong relationships formed based upon mutual interest as well as familiarity. In contrast, few people in western societies today have strong bonds with their neighbors since they frequently have little or no involvement with them. Barring a calamitous event where you are forced to work together and depend on your neighbor (and vise versa), you may not even know the person who lives next door. The problem has become worse over time with advances in technology, which has enabled people to stay inside to live/work and avoid almost all interaction. A good example is the invention of air conditioning; prior to this people who lived in warmer climes often spent afternoons on their porch to avoid the stifling summer heat, and thus socialized with their neighbors next door and down the street.

The work model of tribal culture can also be viewed as an antidote to the relentless hyper-competitive environment in our free market society. While competition does breed innovation and excellence in many areas, it can also alienate people who struggle to keep pace with their peers, get cut loose by their employer (perhaps repeatedly), and end up feeling isolated and left out with no one to depend on but themselves. Conversely, by its very nature tribal existence encompasses a more group-oriented or collective approach. Each able-bodied individual is needed and important because everyone's effort is required to ensure the overall success of the clan with regards to essential activities like procuring food, building shelter, etc. Even kids aid in village tasks, which has the benefit of training them to become well-functioning adults while also helping create strong social bonds among each other and older tribe members.

Our modern society doesn't have many equivalents. Employers can terminate employees in many situations, and don't really have a vested interest in the fate of an individual because they can find someone else to take their place (especially in a global economy). Moreover, even if someone has stable employment, their work colleagues typically aren't relatives or neighbors so there's generally no vested interest in helping the person next to them succeed because it doesn't directly impact their own well-being. Social bonds are usually less strong as well since employees are not related and don't know or socialize with each other's families.

There are some exceptions in modern society that honor this above aspect of tribal culture, yet still adhere to our valued western notion of competition. Sports teams are one example. Within the individual team, fierce competition takes place for starting positions and playing time, which hones the skills of the individual players and breeds excellence. Yet during the real game, everyone has a unified aim and is pulling in the same direction because if victorious, everyone benefits. Similarly, in the military there is competition in training for desired roles, but in actual combat each soldier has the same objective to defeat the enemy and so everyone's fate is tied together. This single-minded purpose forms incredibly strong social bonds, which is likely why even in the face of severe hardship and possible death on the battlefield, soldiers voluntarily sign up for more deployments.

But perhaps the most tragic aspect in the transition to our modern society has been the loss of our connection to nature. Tribal cultures formerly spent all of their time in nature (it's still in our DNA to do so), and even today the few remaining ones still spend a large proportion interacting with their environment. By contrast, even people in developed countries who live in small towns typically spend only a small fraction of their time in the outdoors, and even then rarely interact with the plants and animals around them. Richard Louv's chronicles this loss in his bestseller Last Child in the Woods where he coins the term 'nature deficit disorder,' which among other problems includes dramatic increases in obesity, attention disorders, and depression among adolescents.

So as a society what can we do to alleviate the problems that collectively plague us and help restore at least some aspects of tribal lifeways? On a collective level there's no easy solution as this would require a complete restructuring of our society, and unless we ultimately face some global catastrophe we're not going back to living in the Stone Age. But on an individual level, there are definitely things you can do to receive some of the psychological and health benefits that our ancestors enjoyed. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you have kids and don't already have a network of support, try finding relatives or friends that you trust to act as alloparents. It will provide your children other role models and help them form new relationships, while giving you a break from your parenting routine
  • If you work in a 'dog-eat-dog' environment, join a group or team that is striving to achieve a common goal so that when there is success, everyone benefits
  • Get together regularly with some friends around a campfire to tell stories, real or fictional (but keep all electronic devices stowed). Storytelling was a standard practice of virtually all tribal cultures and a great way to form and maintain bonds with others
  • Get into the habit (daily if possible) of going to a local park or other green space to do a regular nature connection activity with your kids, other adults, or even solo. This could be something like foraging, tracking animals, or any other activity that requires you to actively engage with your surroundings (vs. just learning about something).
  • Do a regular bird sit in your back yard or on your balcony/porch each morning before you start your day. Observe all the activity that songbirds engage in and pay particular attention to any 'out of baseline' behaviors like alarm calls, rapid disappearances, or total silence.

Even taking on just one of the above recommendations can, if done regularly, help restore balance and well-being to your life. Start today and you will likely begin seeing the benefits immediately.

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