Typically, people only think of the Indian caste system when discussing castes in sociology classes.
But there has been a wide range of caste systems across the world throughout history, most notable in Africa and across Asia.
Examples of caste systems include the Moorish, Tuareg, Somali, Indian, Songbun, and Joseon systems.
What are Caste Systems?
Caste systems are forms of social stratification that separate groups of people based on their ancestry.
They are generally characterized by:
- Endogamy – People only marry within their assigned strata.
- Profession – People can only find employment within their assigned profession based on their birth.
- Social Status – Castes are stratified, often by profession, and each is granted a social status within the social hierarchy.
- Social Interaction and Exclusion – Lower castes are often considered to be impure and dirty. They’re denied rights and forced to live on the outskirts of society. Historically, the lowest class also lived in servitude.
People are born into a caste and generally have no opportunity to move up and down the social hierarchy or live outside of the constraints of the system. This makes caste systems a clear example of ascribed statuses.
Today, they’re widely seen as immoral and illiberal because they restrict people’s freedoms and are used to discriminate against entire groups of people based on their birth status.
Caste System Examples
1. Indian Varnas (India)
Location: India and Asia Minor
Era: 1500 BCE – 1920 CE
The Indian caste system is one of the largest and most enduring in history. There are many hundreds of castes within this system, and the system has changed over time.
However, there are four general enduring categories called the four varnas. The varnas are said to come from four parts of the body of a cosmic being called Purusha. They are:
- Brahmins – Priests and others of religious importance within Hunduism. They are said to have come from the moth of Purusha.
- Kshatriyas – The rulers, administrators, and warriors. They come from the arms of Purusha.
- Vaishyas – The artisans, merchants, tradespeople, and farmers. They come from the thighs of Purusha.
- Shudras – The peasants, laborers, and horticulturalists. They come from the feet of Purusha.
The Shudras were historically outcast and deemed untouchables. Some sub-categorical groups of Shurdras were banned from interacting with or going near higher social groups.
In 1920, caste-based discrimination was officially outlawed and positive discrimination was instituted to ensure people from all social groups would be represented in government roles.
This caste system was also employed in surrounding countries that were dominantly Hindu. For example, Nepal had a similar system that was outlawed in 1963.
2. Tamil Castes (Sri Lanka)
Location: Sri Lanka
Ethnic groups with Sri Lanka, an island nation off the coast of India, have historically had their own distinct caste systems. The Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamil, and Indian Tamils, all had some degree of social stratification within their own respective cultures.
For the Sri Lankan Tamils, key castes included:
- Vellalar, Pallar, Nalavar, and Koviar – These four castes are distinct groups of agricultural peoples. The Vellalar group is the largest of the four agriculturalist groups.
- Karaiyars, Thimilar, Paravar, and Mukkuvars – These are seafaring Sri Lankan Tamils from Eastern Sri Lanka. The Kariyars were seafaring warriors, the Thimilar and Paravar were fishermen, and the Mukkuvars were pearl divers.
- Kammalar – The Kammalar people are laborers and include sub-groups such as Kollar (blacksmiths), Tattar (goldsmiths), Tatchar (carpenters), and Kartatchar (sculptor) peoples.
These are just a small sample of the many different profession-based castes in traditional Tamil society.
Younger Sri Lankans, particularly since the 2009 end of the Sri Lankan civil war, have widely rejected the traditional caste system.
3. Somali Higal (Somalia)
Location: Somalia and the Horn of Africa
In Somalia, castes are known as Higal. They are endogamous and people inherited their profession from their families and are not able to cross professions.
The Higal are ethnically indistinguishable, yet people from upper castes have created stories of people lower in the social strata as being of unclean bloodlines.
The main Somali Higal include:
- Gob – The people of the upper nobility.
- Tumal – Smiths, pottery workers, and leatherworkers.
- Midgan – Hunters and leather tanners.
- Yibir – Saddle and prayer mat makers
- Jareer – Former slaves and descendants of former slaves.
Throughout the Horn of Africa, other cultures have caste systems that tend to mirror the social stratification that is in place in Somalia. For example, the hunter-gatherers of Ethiopia are called the Weyto, and are roughly equivalent to the Somali Midgan people.
4. Moorish Castes (North Africa)
Location: North Africa (Particularly Morocco)
Era: 1300 BCE – Present (Diluted in present times)
In North Africa, and particularly Morocco, the Moors had structured castes in which people inherited professions from their family, married within their social group, and where lower castes were considered inferior. Lower groups were also denied rights of land ownership.
- Hassan – Warriors and politicians.
- Zawaya – Imams and other religious people.
- Bidan – Ethnically white Moors who were land and slave owners.
- Haratins – Ethnically black Moors who were slaves for the whites.
5. Tuareg Inaden (North Africa)
Location: Saraha Desert
Era: 14th Century BCE – 19th Century BCE
The Tuareg people are a Berber ethnic group who inhabit a range of modern-day nation-states including parts of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
The upper strata of Turaregs maintain their status by denying lower strata the rights to hold arms and by forcing them to pay tribute, hommage, and allegiance.
Tuareg castes, known as Inaden, include:
- Imajaghan – Translated to “the proud and free”, this group occupies the highest part of the social hierarchy. They are the nobles and warriors who are the only ones allowed to carry arms and ride camels.
- Imghad – These were the free herdsmen who paid tribute to the Imúšaɣ. They herded goats, sheep, and oxen, and rode donkeys instead of camels. They were also responsible for housing noblemen passing through town.
- Marabouts – The marabouts were the Muslim clerics who emerged as a distinct cate group when the Tuaregs adopted Islam. They were also judges because of their knowledge of Islamic law.
- Inadan – These were the working classes who worked in roles such as smiths, jewelers, carpenters, and leather artisans.
- Agguta – The Agguta were musicians, singers, and storytellers.
6. Songbun (North Korea)
Location: North Korea
Era: 1950 – Present
Songbun is an official policy of North Korea that splits people into three distinct groups based upon their families’ perceived allegiance to the Communist revolution during the Korean civil war.
The concept of Songbun is a Stalinist upending of capitalist class structures. Those whose ancestors were communist sympathising peasants prior to the revolution enjoy the highest status while capitalists, landowners, and Christians prior to the revolution tainted their families in the eyes of the Kim dynasty.
The three categories are:
- Friendly – Accounting for about 30% of the population these are the descendants of revolutionary fighters, factory workers, laborers, and peasants. Today, they can be higher-ranking party officials and form the upper and middle classes of Pyongyang.
- Neutral – This group accounts for about 40% of the population. They are seen as the wavering class. These were ordinary people whose ancestors were either neutral or silent during the revolution.
- Hostile – Accounting for about 30% of the population, this class includes the former landlords, merchants, lawyers, and Christians.
The communist party maintains files on all North Koreans and updates them every 2 years.
7. Edo Society (Japan)
Era: 1603 BCE – 1868 BCE
The Edo society in Japan was in place from 1603 to 1868. This society was ruled by a military government called the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The Tokugawa Shogunate created four official social classes as well as an underclass of untouchables. People could not marry outside of their class or move between professions.
The classes were:
- Samurai – The Samurai were noble warriors who accounted for about 10% of the population. Because there was not much war during the Edo period, they were paid stipends to maintain their skills but were otherwise largely idle. They were denied the right to own land but were the only people allowed to own swords.
- Peasants – The peasants were commoners who could own land and paid taxes. They were respected members of society because they produced the food. They could gain a lot of wealth but could not cross class lines.
- Artisans – The artisans accounted for about 10% of the population. They produced the non-essential goods, so were below the peasants, and lived in their own sections within the big cities.
- Merchants – The merchants were not producers so they were situated at the bottom of the official social structure. Unlike untouchables, they could build wealth and were considered a valuable part of society. Like the artisans, they lived in their own segregated sectors of the cities.
- Untouchables – The untouchables included Ethnic minorities and people whose professions were tainted by death, including executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers, and tanners.
There have been caste systems throughout the world. Historically, their existence has been justified for a range of political, economic, social, and religious purposes. However, sometimes they’re justified through appeal to tradition – in other words, “it’s always been done this way!”
In modern liberal societies, caste systems have been more-or-less disbanded. Nevertheless, their effects live on in diluted forms due to intergenerational passing-down of cultural beliefs and wealth obtained during caste-based periods.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]