Tanner, Dr. Ralph E.S.

    Tribal peoples have several immediate advantages over surrounding cultures in their religious ideas and practices; they have prophets but no printing, thinkers but no theologians, and almost certainly as high a proportion of intellectuals as any modern developed societies with their highly educated minorities. This gives them the cultural ability to change these at the actual level of the people who practice rather than think about their spiritual and religious ideas without the difficulties created by status and professionalism.

This allows memories of tradition to be constantly updated along the lines of what they usually hold to be their time honoured practices while allowing present circumstances to constantly update their religious rituals without any feelings of cultural disruption. In its modern setting this leads to quasi-traditional practices continuing among those who are ostensibly members of the major literate religions.

The complexities of tribal societies

    The people who have become or have been for generations members of urban-industrial societies tend to see traditional or contemporary tribal ones as simpler than their own but this is a false distinction. Firstly this distinction is one which depends on the complexities introduced into their societies not so much by literacy but by the bureaucracy which has come from the needs of the dominant class running centralised systems. Secondly the fact that high literate abilities do exist for a small minority in an economically developed society means in general that the level of literacy in these societies may use no more than a thousand words and this obscures the complicated linguistic forms of non-literate tribes people when translated into national languages.. However that avoids any understanding of the complex spoken languages which have not been put into writing. The Sukuma of Tanzania have a tonal language containing seventeen verb tenses do not necessarily use that number in their day to day talking and certainly not should they become literate as a result of primary education. Literacy is not a clear distinction between tribal and non-tribal societies since it involves amongst other factors such as the intellectual capacities of individuals and the complex semantics of all languages.

    The most important distinction is that in modern societies a high proportion of relationships outside the primary ones of family, friends and neighbours are 'touch and go' ones and are thus outside the social snd religious controls which predominate in tribal societies; uncertainty is of course part of all lives whether tribal or not, but this is a new and more pervasive form. Many tribal men and to a lesser extent women spend much of their time in relationships over which they have no traditional means of control.

    This still leaves the complexities of tribal societies as a background to their contemporary religious understandings in which there may be no separation between the spiritual and the pragmatics of everyday living; an integrated holistic system in which the one is constantly influencing and being considered by the other. Overall we have to accept that except for fewer material possessions and practices related to them, tribal societies may well be as complicated as modern ones in how they think and how they arrange their social and religious affairs over which they retain substantial personal control.

Institutionalised religions as unadaptive

    In religious ideas and practices there are differences. The 'modern' world is dominated by the major institutionalised religions with an educated directing elite and libraries filled with theological literature and ecclesiastical directives . It is perhaps inevitable that these religions with their internal divisions dominate our attention with some thinking that these are superior to the practices of less sophisticated people who have no written theologies. Yet it seems likely that this form of institutionalised religious behaviour as far as observable activities are concerned in terms of time and motion assessment is a minority activity even a form of religious deviance from what the majority do and think in so-called popular religious activities.

    In this there is a clear distinction between the fluidity of tribal understandings and practices of at least the so-called ' religions of the book', Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Christianity with its supervisory priesthood and fixed dogmas organised by theologians and ecclesiastical administrators has little adaptability. This leaves believers with the need to develop parallel systems of beliefs and practices which have the same adaptability as unconverted tribal peoples.

    On the other hand the Asian religions with their complexities and written systems which few can read much less understand have much in common with tribal systems. There is a lack of dogmatism and the use of specialised languages such as Pali, Sanskrit or the special ideograms of Mandarin have a functional use paralleling the speech of quasi- traditional diviners while spiritually possessed ; the sight or sound of holy words can be interpreted in whatever ways the believers wish.

    For most people most of the time private spirituality rather than public religion is an individual or primary group matter within the paradigms created by their culture. This means that tribal societies show an immense diversity in how they relate to the spirit world in such things as the amulets they wear (Tanner.1975), the matters that are raised in divination and spirit possession, the forms of petitionary prayer and in their objects of devotion. Outsiders may see and create tribal religious systems when in fact there are no more than endlessly varied rituals of propitiation within culturally accepted boundaries.

    This means that these practices are constantly adapting to particular personal situations within systems of cyclical and linear rites of passage and since none of the ritual is written down, those involved are able to think that what they are doing is traditional. The writer saw the initiation rites to the Buchwezi so-called 'secret' society ten years apart providing propitiation of spirits, social pleasure and social exclusivity. He was assured that the second ceremony was a duplication of what had been done previously. In fact nothing was the same except the beaded head-dresses worn by the leaders.

    For such adaptive changes to take place in the 'religions of the book' would involve prolonged discussions in committees and the opinions of theological and liturgical specialists, so that all sense of immediacy related to particular persons and their problems would have disappeared during these institutional processes. This process leaves people in need at whatever level of intellect and education dependent on developing personal forms of spirituality which tribal people have been practising all along.

    So tribal societies have religious systems strikingly adaptive to the immediacy of the spiritual needs of individuals and primary groups. Most of these societies have their own local specialists who have the ability to sense out the sources of human stress from the known range of common difficulties, envy, problems with in-laws, the unequal distribution of rain. They also provide small quantities of materials combining the effectiveness of placebos and homeopathy with some medical consequences. The 'religions of the book' just cannot function in this way and if some particular priest, rabbi or imam does so he or she is felt to be outside the institutionally acceptable boundaries of their own orthodoxy.

The adaptability of tribal religions

    This system in its functional ability to adapt and its lack of institutionalism has meant not only that it continues to flourish in tribal environments but that its derivatives are common enough in urban areas of developing states leading to an enormous growth in the number of such specialists. It has been estimated that the numbers of such people and their clients in Dar es salaam the capital of Tanzania exceeds those using all the official and unofficial social welfare agencies together (Swantz.1970). In 1973 it was estimated that there were at least fifteen thousand quasi-traditional healers in Lagos, West Africa (Harrison.1974). This has meant that a Bengali in Banaras just as much as a Nandi in Nairobi are able to get the same type of quasi-traditional responses to their inevitably more stressful lives than they might have encountered in their natal areas.

    These men and women wherever they are located are more approachable than any doctor or psychiatrist if indeed the latter are available at all. Consultations happen at times convenient to sufferers in an environment which is not alienating. Their professional success lies not so much in their ability to cure a wide range of psychosomatic distress but in their capacity to make these sufferers feel that the causes of their problems have been identified and thus reduced. All those involved are operating within a single range of cultural understandings, not so much a shared linguistic code but a shared understanding of ambiguity.

Traditional religions transferring to modern environments

    It is not so much that these so-called tribal religions are disappearing which they probably have in terms of what past anthropologists have recorded, but that they have adapted to modern human needs with surprising agility. They have adjusted their thinking and behaviour to fit within the boundaries of their contemporary understandings which has occurred because what they may have done or not done in the past was not tied to high status supervising institutions and their dominating form of literacy. Ancestor propitiation may be difficult to continue with families dispersed by migration but envy and its material form in witchcraft is now a major urban preoccupation in sub-Saharan Africa.

    It seems to be the case that many of the forms of modern private spirituality not so much had their origins in long forgotten tribal systems, but that their adaptive non-literate ways of dealing with or at least modifying distress have fitted more easily into the lives of people living in Mumbai, London and Madrid than the formalised processes of scientific medicine and official social welfare systems.

The practical absence of abstraction

    It may be that few of the Hindus in Banaras or Sikhs in Amritsar just as among the five million Sukuma in Tanzania will know the abstract principles on which their religions are founded and practiced. Most will see their beliefs in concrete terms and if asked the bases of their religious understandings will only relate it to tradition and actual events and thus be unable to discuss belief (Bernardi.1959).

    In a crude sense they assess their religious practices in the same way as they work out their social realities in terms of getting more or less what you have paid for. In this there may be little difference between the practices and ideas of traditional Roman Catholics, orthodox Jews, members of Sufi associations and quasi-traditional tribal men and women. Practitioners accumulate not so much personal merit, but the ability to bring pressure to bear on the spiritual entity to help them. The Sudanese Nuer who sacrificed a cucumber instead of a second cow as he had got no benefits proportional to what he had done previously (Evans-Pritchard.1956) has an understanding comparable to believers in other faiths.

    It is a system of practices and ideas which must have evolved in tandem with supporting the lives of tribal people in the particular circumstances in which they found themselves and which they continued to use because it was found to successfully meet their immediate and changing needs. There could have been no need for abstract thinking and this may well have been the creation of visiting anthropologists who could not conceive that such apparently complex systems could not have had a substrata abstract thought as would have been the case in their own long literate cultures. It may be that linguistic forms to carry abstract ideas comes into a language to meet the needs of high level thinkers and that the majority have never experienced the need to go beyond the simplicities of whether it worked or not. It seems doubtful whether the Nuer did in fact have the abstract religious ideas attributed to them by Professor Evans-Pritchard when he did not speak their language and their word 'kwoth' used for God may in fact have just referred to anything exceptionally unusual (Nida and Rayburn.1961).

The logic of tribal religions

    We have to accept that these peoples have almost always run their lives on generations of successful pragmatism and that when they have failed to do so the results have been disastrous as with the wholesale cattle killing in 1857 by the South African Xhosa in response to the visions of a prophetess which led to two thirds of their population dying (Peires.1989). Such occasions are rare indeed and societies which did not have this dominating pragmatism have died out as did the Easter Island tribal society and the Russian Skopsi who castrated themselves in order to avoid sexual sinning.. The Tikopia on their Polynesian island developed a religious system which justified birth control methods which kept their population at the level which their island ecology could sustain (Firth.1936).

    When tribal religions turn from practices which help the primary group to survive and develop beliefs requiring destructive practices, there is little likelihood of survival. The Lord's Day Preservation Society rebellion in contemporary Uganda with its belief that their holy water protected them against bullets is a repetition of what occurred in the equally unsuccessful 1905 Maji Maji rebellion against German rule in what is now Tanzania.

    These exceptions to pragmatism overlook the plain fact that tribal religious practices have been and now are obviously successful in reducing distress because the diagnostician and the sufferer are both thinking within the same boundaries of probable causation. Both believe in the reality of witchcraft, that ancestors can cause trouble for their descendants and that there are innumerable spirits involved in human life. The processes of scientific medicine have to be taken on the basis of faith not acceptable social logic.

The sufferers are involved in their own cures

    It is only recently that modern medicine has started to involve patients in decisions recommended to them by doctors who in most cases do not have the time to carry out such dialogues when their contacts with patients are no more than a few minutes. Quasi-traditional practices are much less hurried and the diagnostician produces tentative solutions which are accepted or rejected by the sufferers from their own appreciation of their anxieties; they have to accept that one suggestion is more likely than another from the limited menu of causes; witchcraft, ancestor hostility, family jealousies and spirit activities. The practitioner by skilled questioning perhaps after an initial spirit possession can sense out what is felt to be the cause of their trouble and provide them with ambiguous alternatives from which they can choose themselves.

    In modern terms spirit possession, an extremely common ritual in all tribal societies would appear to allow the subconscious to work its way out in a public performance within a paradigmatic understanding that it is the spirit talking not the possessed person so that the latter is not responsible for the revelations made by the spirit about domestic and neighbourhood discord. So blame can be attributed to co-wives, mothers-in-law, a neighbour and a business rival. The process becomes one of stabilising situations by suggestion rather than seeing the cause of the misfortune in binary terms of guilt.

    The fact that there are no formal orders of ritual for tribal religious activities allows individuals at any level of social status or distress to create their own ritual solutions within the same range of paradigmatic understandings. Some catch on and take on a wider currency and others die out (Tanner.1997). Often the reason for such dying out would be the expense and complexity. Any attempted analysis of propitiation ceremonies finds that although there may be a general form, each one is in fact different. In tribal religions there is a constant process of individual innovation with some of the characteristics of genetic mutations. Its social and religious utility lies in the fact that it has many of the characteristics of 'do-it-yourself' domestic house repairing.

An overview of tribal religions

    This has to be seen as a success story since it is these same underlying principles and processes which have led to these same ritual solutions to being found useful in Mumbai as much as among the distant and more or less unknown tribal Muria (Verrier.1947) or Mishmi (Sinha.2004).

    It would seem that all their religious beliefs and practices have some relationship to the origins of the group or individual, their occupations or primary concerns, their need for cohesion and some relationship to behaviour needed for survival.

    There is a practical division when any such beliefs and practices become codified and committed to writing and become administered and interpreted by a literate and trained elite and those that remain undefined within a pattern of thinking which assumes that they have a constancy derived form generations of similar religious behaviour. The latter has allowed one type of traditional intellectual to develop ideas which in the course of history became the religious of developed societies whether in dynastic Egypt or Asoka's India. It also allows those who are more committed to the reduction of suffering to develop any enormous range of protective rituals at low cost in tribal societies, a constant process of creativity.

    The advantages of the absence of definitions created by literacy and of undefined spirit forces ranging from mythical heroes, animal spirits, ghosts, ancestors and anthropomorphic divinities has provided everyone with explanatory mechanisms for their misfortunes and just as importantly for solutions and reasons for failure.

    Their lack of commitment to writing means that the language of religious practices uses words and phrases which have everyday uses and understandings and thus may allow a wider range of connections between spirit forces and life in general. There is also the fact that the incomprehensible aspects of the language used in spirit possession parallels the similar incomprehensibility of religious process and the specialised religious languages of Hinduism and Buddhism.

    Where religions have been tied to literacy there is the restrictive division in every society whether tribal or developed between what theologians develop as public religion and what the generality of society create as popular and private spirituality. The modern world has always up to recently seen the social world in lineal developmental terms in which it saw itself as the culmination of human capabilities. It has seen tribal societies as primitive and underdeveloped. Seen from the latter's point of view developed societies have been far less successful than tribal societies in finding workable religious solutions to the inevitable distresses of individuals in their social settings .


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  • (1997). 'Cognitive development, socialisation and cognitive mutations. A critique and elaboration of Boyer's Naturalness of religion. A case study of the Sukuma of Tanzania'. Journal Social Sciences. 1(2):91-98.


ISSN: 2249 3433


The word tribe is variously used in literature to denote a community on the basis of homogeneity. Originally many autochthonous communities who were identified by similar culture, social organisation and governance, living away from the main stream life of a country, were mentioned as tribe by their colonial rulers and Western scholars. Many such communities have moved towards the mainstream lifestyle so that they may no longer be identified as secluded, underdeveloped people with queer customs. This has happened to all areas of the world where tribal communities live. Still, many tribal communities lead their lives in very primitive ways devoid of the techno-economic glamour of contemporary civilization. These communities are labeled as "Primitive Tribal Groups". Indian Government has identified such tribal groups to give special attention to their development, whereas in the Indian Constitution all the tribal groups are recognized as "scheduled tribes".


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