The Mahabharata records the names of tribes existing at the time of the Great War, thus reflecting the power and prestige of the tribal settlements, which were then a major political and military force. The tribal inventory has great historical value for modern scholars. Broadly, there are following principal lists in Mahabharata:
- Names of the principal Naga chiefs:Adi Parva, Mahabharata/Mahabharata Book I Chapter 35
- Names of all those Nagas that fell into the fire of the snake-sacrifice: Adi Parva, Mahabharata/Mahabharata Book I Chapter 57
- Genealogy of the Danavas, Asuras, Kauravas, Pandavas, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Rakshasas: Adi Parva, Mahabharata/Mahabharata Book I Chapter 67
- Genealogies of Yadavas, Kurus, Bharatas: Adi Parva, Mahabharata/Mahabharata Book I Chapter 75
- Kshatriyas came on Swayamvara of Draupadi : Adi Parva, Mahabharata/Mahabharata Book I Chapter 188
- Comprising respectively the tribes defeated by Yudhisthira's four brothers (Sabha Parva, Book 2 Chapters 23-29
- Tribes bringing gifts at Yudhisthira's consecration as king emperor Sabha Parva, Book 2 Chapters 45-48
- Tribes mentioned in the 'geography' in Bhishma Parva, Book 6 Chapter X
- Kings and warriors of various tribes, who came to the ceremony for investing Kartikeya with the status of generalissimo: Shalya Parva, Book IX Chapter 44
The tribes that participated in the Kurukshetra War find repeated mention in the daily battle formations of both sides. Some minor list of peoples are recorded in the digvijayas undertaken by the warriors on both sides (Robert Shafer prepared thirteen lists based on the Critical Edition). However, as the epic's ethnography is coloured by the Great War, the tribes mentioned (on the battlefield or in connection with conquests) are mainly the ruling clans of warrior tribes. The Mahabharata, it is worth recollecting is the story of India's greatest war since the Rig Vedic Battle of Ten Kings, and hence documents the largest number of tribes. An almost equal number of tribes fought on both sides of the conflict. Scholars consider the "geographical list" at the beginning of the war as an archetype of similar narratives in the Puranas.
The geographical list attempts to specify the locations of the various settlements of Bharatavarsha. It was probably compiled by a geographer of Madhyadesa,who placed the Kuru-Panchala country at the centre of his efforts and enumerated the various lands and people, arriving at a fairly comprehensive ethnographic dictionary of India. The tribal tributes to Yudhisthira give an idea of the wealth of the janapadas (Upayanaparva list) and document the economic products of India. Of course, it is not possible to clearly identify all the Mahabharata tribes today as tribal migrations and changes of name were fairly common. Another problem encountered is that the lists of peoples include those belonging to the pre-historic period as well as those of a later age. Altogether some 361 tribes have been listed, not all of which can be clearly located or identified; indeed, many of the tribes listed by K.C. Misra are also the names of clans, kingdoms, regions and territories.