ArtAnSa - Notes

Highlights from Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Below are my highlights from the book Tribe written by Sebastian Junger. Note that the emphasis is mine, that some small parts were changed to turn them into sentences and that all errors are probably mine :-).


The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.


The frontier was full of men who joined Indian tribes, married Indian women, and lived their lives completely outside civilization.

The intensely communal nature of an Indian tribe held an appeal that the material benefits of Western civilization couldn’t necessarily compete with.

“No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace… Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.”

For all the temptations of native life, one of the most compelling might have been its fundamental egalitarianism. Personal property was usually limited to whatever could be transported by horse or on foot, so gross inequalities of wealth were difficult to accumulate. Successful hunters and warriors could support multiple wives, but unlike modern society, those advantages were generally not passed on through the generations. Social status came through hunting and war, which all men had access to, and women had far more autonomy and sexual freedom—and bore fewer children—than women in white society.

It was a simple ethos that promoted loyalty and courage over all other virtues and considered the preservation of the tribe an almost sacred task.

The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so un appealing. On a material level it is clearly more comfortable and protected from the hardships of the natural world. But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom.

Early humans would most likely have lived in nomadic bands of around fifty people, much like the !Kung. They would have experienced high levels of accidental injuries and deaths. They would have countered domineering behavior by senior males by forming coalitions within the group. They would have been utterly intolerant of hoarding or selfishness. They would have occasionally endured episodes of hunger, violence, and hardship. They would have practiced extremely close and involved childcare. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone. First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders.

Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.

Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.

The alienating effects of wealth and modernity on the human experience start virtually at birth and never let up.

Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.

Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast-feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men.

Modern society, on the other hand, is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught. What tribal people would consider a profound betrayal of the group, modern society simply dismisses as fraud.

Westerners live in a complex society, and opportunities for scamming relatively small amounts of money off the bottom are almost endless—and very hard to catch. But scamming large amounts of money off the top seems even harder to catch.

Most tribal and subsistence-level societies would inflict severe punishments on anyone who caused that kind of damage. Cowardice is another form of community betrayal, and most Indian tribes punished it with immediate death.

In hunter-gatherer terms, these senior executives are claiming a disproportionate amount of food simply because they have the power to do so.

The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that—for a while at least—everyone is equal.

Communities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals.


Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down .

When European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped.

“When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose… with a resulting improvement in mental health,” Lyons wrote in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 1979. “It would be irresponsible to suggest violence as a means of improving mental health, but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community.”

He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.

The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner.

What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves.

What catastrophes seem to do—sometimes in the span of a few minutes—is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.


What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender.

A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.

Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively.

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.

That kind of group sleeping has been the norm throughout human history and is still commonplace in most of the world. Northern European societies are among the few where people sleep alone or with a partner in a private room, and that may have significant implications for mental health in general and for PTSD in particular.

In humans, lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable at predicting PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself. In other words, you could be mildly traumatized—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan—and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.


Littering as the perfect example of an everyday symbol of disunity in society.

When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in. And when you fraudulently claim money from the government, you are ultimately stealing from your friends, family, and neighbors—or somebody else’s friends, family, and neighbors. That diminishes you morally far more than it diminishes your country financially.

The ultimate act of disaffiliation isn’t littering or fraud, of course, but violence against your own people.