Unit 1: Genetics & Evolution

The Dobe !Kung

Edited from: Human Adaptive Strategies (Bates and Plog 1991)


[This article, based upon the research of Richard B. Lee --author of the required article "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari"--provides a comprehensive view of the !Kung San. The San are our example of a culture with a foraging mode of production.]


The !Kung are one of five physically and culturally related groups of Africans who are know collectively as the San. (Until recently, they were known as Bushmen, a name given to them by the Dutch who settled in South Africa in the seventeenth century. Africanists, however, now prefer the term San, which means "original settlers" in the Cape Hottentot dialect. To confuse matters further, the preferred usage of the Botswana government is Basarwa.) [The !Kung San call themselves Ju/'Hoausi.] ...They once occupied most of southern Africa but were eventually displaced by successive waves of Bantu and European invaders. Those who were not killed or absorbed into the invaders' populations were gradually forced back into the arid wastes of the Kalahari Desert and its surrounding areas in Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. Most of the ...San who still live in and around the Kalahari are slowly being absorbed by the surrounding agricultural, industrial, and pastoral communities.

Area where the San (among other groups) live shown in red

The several hundred !Kung San who live in the Dobe area, on the northern edge of the Kalahari, are an exception. Although the Dobe !Kung have been in contact with Bantu and Europeans since the 1920"s, share water holes with Bantu pastoralists, and sometimes work for them, the majority (over 70 percent) remain almost self-sufficient hunters and gathers. [This was true until almost the very end of the 20th century; it is no longer true today.] In the mid-1960's, when Richard B. Lee lived with them, they had no interest in agriculture, herd animals, or firearms. They neither paid taxes to nor received services (except for smallpox vaccinations) from the government of Botswana. They traded with neighboring Bantu pastoralists but worked for them only occasionally. Thus although the Dobe !Kung are not isolated, until recently they were largely independent, mainly because the occupy territory that no one else wants. [Due to local political events near the end of the 20th century, the lives of the San in Botswana and Namibia were completely changed, and most have been forced to abandon foraging for herding or various low paying jobs.]


The Dobe Environment: Climate and Resources

The Dobe area is an inhospitable environment for humans, a fact that has protected the !Kung from invasion and assimilation. Dobe is a transition zone between the Kalahari Desert to the south and the lusher regions, inhabited mainly by agriculturalists and pastoralists, to the north. It consists of semiarid savanna, with a scattering of trees and grasslands and very few permanent water holes. The temperature ranges from below freezing on winter nights to 100 degrees in the shade during the summer. For six months of the year the area is completely dry; during the other six months there are heavy rains. Furthermore, rainfall varies considerably from year to year...variations in rainfall, along with the sandiness of the soil, makes agriculture impossible. Nor is the area an ideal hunting ground; because the vegetation is scattered, it cannot support large migratory herds.

Nevertheless, the !Kung manage a livelihood in this environment, in part because they exploit such a wide variety of resources. Despite the extremes of climate, Dobe supports about 500 species of plants and animals. Of these resources the !Kung use about 150 plants and about 100 animals, and they eat approximately 100 species of plants and 50 animals. They gather wild nuts (chiefly from mongongo trees), berries, melons, and other fruits; dig for roots and tubers; collect honey in season; and hunt everything from warthogs, kudu, and leopard tortoise (three favorites) to springhare, guinea fowl, and rock pythons. The larger animals, such as the antelope and kudu, are shot down with poisoned arrows. The !Kung hunt the smaller animals with dogs or trap them in ingenious snares...They are seldom without something to eat.

San Women Cooking Mongongo Nuts

Most of their other needs are also easily supplied by the resources of the area. Their huts are constructed of branches and grass found throughout the area. Ostrich eggshells, also readily available, make ideal water containers. A wooden digging stick, whittled in an hour, last several months. A bow, arrows, and a quiver, which take several days to make, last years. The people's few luxuries--ostrich eggshell necklaces, thumb pianos, intricately carved pipes, and children's toys--are likewise made from materials readily at hand. Indeed, there is only one important resource that the Dobe !kung traditionally obtain through exchange with other groups: iron for making tools.

Limited in their needs and resourceful in filling them, the Dobe !kung have little difficulty obtaining food and raw materials. The scarcity of water is the major problem, and it is this factor that in large part makes the Dobe !Kung a nomadic people.

Settlement Patterns

As rainfall determines the availability of water in the Kalahari, it also determines the people's settlement patterns. During the dry season, from June through September, the !Kung congregate in relatively large camps [bands] of about twenty to forty people around the large permanent water holes, the only available sources of water. In this period, the people rely primarily on roots and tubers [and mongongo nuts] found within a day's walk...By August...the !Kung [must] turn to less desirable foods--gums and the larger, bitter-tasting roots and melons that they had passed up a month or two earlier.

But this period of austerity does not last long. In October the rains begin...This is the season of plenty. The !Kung now separate into groups of perhaps two or four families and scatter over the land to take advantage of the new...fruits, melons, berries...and the new generations of birds and animals that follow the rains. ...This pattern continues through April, when the pools of water begin to dry up. In May the wandering upcountry groups return to the permanent water hole to set up new camps, and the cycle begins again.

The Dobe !Kung, then, are an extremely mobile people. Accordingly, their goods are the kind that can be moved easily or left behind. Even houses fall into this category. When a group sets up camp, in a matter of two or three hours each woman constructs a small hut (perhaps about 5 feet in both height and diameter) for her own nuclear family. The huts are arranged in a circle around an open space where the camp activity takes place. Very little goes on in the huts....A hut serves simply as a storehouse and as a marker, a sign of a family's residence in the camp. When the camp is broken up, the huts, representing little investment of time, energy, or material, are abandoned. Each member of the !Kung tribe can pack all of his or her possessions into a pair of leather carrying sacks and be ready to move in a few minutes.

San Hut

Social Practices and Group Composition

The Dobe !Kung are very gregarious people; they spend about a third of their time visiting other camps and another third entertaining guests. This tradition of conviviality, along with fluctuations in the availability of resources, keeps the !Kung on the move. The two factors should not be thought of a as independent. In fact, the habit of visiting is probably an adaptation to the necessity of adjusting the populations of camps to local resources. It also facilitates exchange of information about game and other matters of concern to the dispersed local groups.

!Kung social customs provide not only short-term visits but also for much lengthier stays. When a couple marries, for example, the husband moves to the wife's band for an indefinite period of bride service--payment for his bride in the form of labor [a form of bridewealth or brideprice]--and he may well bring his parents or a sibling with him. Usually he stays with his wife's people until the birth of their third child (about ten years). At that point he may return to the group into which he was born [the common patrilocal residency], or stay where he is, or move to a camp where one of his brothers is doing bride service or where his wife's siblings have settled.

Any !Kung family may leave their group and move into another groups where they have kin. Kinship is interpreted very broadly The !Kung recognize ties among all individuals who share the same name, and address all of that person's relatives by kinship terms. Because the number of names used among the !Kung is limited, a person is quite likely to find a name-mate in [bands]where she or he has no relatives and be welcomed there too. Thus the !Kung have considerable freedom of choice with regard to residence.

These changes in group composition, like the rounds of brief visits,help the !Kung to tailor the populations of their bands to local resources. At the same time, the flexibility of the group helps to prevent quarrels from turning into serious fights, which are carefully avoided. The !Kung are keenly aware that they all possess poisoned arrows and that fights have been known to end in killing. To avoid such an outcome, families that cannot get along together simply separate, one or both of them moving to another group.

Reciprocity [Balanced Reciprocal Exchange]

The !Kung have a saying, "Only lions eat alone."One of the characteristics that distinguish human beings from other animals, they are saying, is sharing and exchange. Though all humans share periodically, the !Kung system of distributing goods is characterized by continuous giving and receiving of gifts. Reciprocity [reciprocal exchange] is the basis of their economy.

Each morning a number of adults strike out from the camp in various directions to search for food. By working individually or in pairs they are able to cover a wider range and have a better chance of acquiring desirable foods than they could if they worked as a group. Whatever they obtain is brought back to the camp, and all the camp residents share it, whether or not they participated in that day's hunting or gathering.

It is easy to overromanticize the altruism of this system. The appropriate distribution of food is a common cause of quarrelling among the !kung. The way the day's take is divided depends on a variety of factors. In some cases, as when someone has brought in a large animal, the distribution is rather formalized. The owner (the person who owns the fatal arrow, whether or not he actually killed the animal) divides the meat into portions according to the size of the hunting party. The recipients then cut up their shares and distribute them among their relatives and friends who, in turn gave pieces to their relatives, and so forth until everyone has eaten.

The size and distribution of shares of meat are matters of individual discretion...A family may invite someone standing nearby to sit at their fire, send children to neighbors with gifts of raw or cooked vegetables, or take fatty bits of meat and nuts with them on a visit. Thus each family's dinner is a combination of the food its members collected and the food they are given. The exchange of food constitutes an effective system that permits each family to store up goodwill and obligation against times of need.

The various artifacts used or enjoyed in daily life circulate in a similar manner. When a person receives an arrow or a dance rattle as a gift, he keeps it for a few months, then passes it on to someone else with the expectation of receiving a gift of more or less equal value in the future. As with food, the giver expects no immediate return; nor is there any systematic way to calculate the relative worth of gifts or to guarantee that the other person will reciprocate in kind. the !Kung consider bargaining and direct exchange undignified, and although they trade with the Bantu, they never trade among themselves. [Trade is a form of market exchange.]

The Quality of Life

We have briefly described the Dobe !Kung's way of life. Before Lee and his colleagues began their study of these people, it was widely assumed that the Dobe !Kung (indeed all the San) waged a constant struggle for survival, battling hunger and poor nutrition from day to day. After all, they live in an area where game is scarce, their weapons are unsophisticated, and they have no way of storing their food. On the surface, they seem to lead a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence. Yet as Lee established through his painstaking research in the the 1960's, the appearance bears little relation to the reality. In comparison with some other groups, the Dobe !kung lead secure and easy lives.

Diet and Nutrition

From July 6 through August 2, 1964, Lee kept a diary of subsistence activities at an average dry-season camp [a period of relative scarcity]. Each day he recorded the number of people in camp, the number that went out to hunt or gather, and the hours each spent acquiring food. He weighed all the animals the hunters brought back to camp during this period and all the bags of nuts and other foods that the women acquired in the course of each day's foraging. He even counted the number of mongongo nuts the !Kung cracked and consumed in an hour. By dividing the population of the camp in a given week into the total amount of meat and vegetable foods acquired and then into the total number of hours devoted to their preparation, Lee was able to calculate the !Kung workweek and daily consumption of food. The results were surprising.

Lee found that the vegetable foods the women gather account for the bulk of the !Kung diet; the meat that the men bring in amounts to only 20 to 25 percent. Meat, the, is a delicacy for the !Kung, not a staple. The reason is obvious: a man who spends four hours hunting may kill one animal (this is the average), whereas a woman who goes out to gather vegetable food always finds something for her family to eat, even if it is not an especially choice item. Lee estimates that gathering is 2.4 times as productive as hunting in the Dobe area.One man-hour of hunting brings in approximately 800 calories; one woman-hour of gathering, approximately 2,000 calories. Thus the success of the hunt is not the critical variable in survival, as it was once thought to be. It is the vegetable foods, not meats that form the basis of the !kung diet--and it is the women, not the men, who are the chief breadwinners in !Kung society.

Drought-resistant mongongo nuts are the !Kung staple, making up 50 percent of the the vegetable diet. The average daily consumption (about 300 nuts) provides an individual with 1,260 calories and 56 grams of protein--the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of rice or 9 ounces of lean meat. In addition, everyone in the camp Lee studied ate an average of about 9 ounces of meat per day. Together mongongo nuts and meat gave each person 2,140 calories and 92.1 grams of protein per day--well over the U.S. recommended daily allowance (1,975 calories and 60 grams of protein) for small, active people such as the !Kung.

Leisure Time

Not only do the !Kung eat well; they do so with little effort. By counting the numbers of hours each person devoted to acquiring food during the twenty-eight day period, Lee discovered that by Western standards the !Kung invest relatively little energy in the quest for food. Typically a man will spend five or six days hunting, then take a week or two off to rest, visit, and arrange the all-night dances that the !Kung hold two or three times a week. Furthermore, it is not at all unusual for a man to decide his luck has run out temporarily and take a month's vacation. The women also have considerable leisure. In one day a woman collects enough food to feed her family for three days. Household chores take between one and three hours. Plenty of free time is left to rest, visit and entertain. Lee calculated that the average Dobe !Kung adult spends only six hours a day acquiring food, two and a half days a week--a total of fifteen hours a week.


The workweek figures are all the more surprising when one considers !Kung demography. It was once though that few people in such societies lived beyond what we consider middle age. This assumption, too, has proved to be unfounded--at least for the Dobe !Kung. Lee found that 10 percent of the Dobe residents were over sixty years old. These old people do not participate directly in food procurement. Neither do the young, who constitute another 30 percent of the population. (!Kung do not expect young people to work regularly until they marry, usually between ages fifteen and twenty for women, twenty and twenty-five for men.) Thus 40 percent of the population are dependents, who live on the food that the young and middle-aged adults bring in. Such a proportion of nonproducers is surprisingly high, resembling that in agricultural communities.

At first glance these figures may suggest that if the Dobe !Kung worked harder, they could support a much larger population. This is not the case, however, for while the people as a whole could certainly spend, say, twice as many hours collecting food, the Dobe environment could not produce twice as much food for them to collect, to say nothing of twice as much water for them to drink.

This observation brings us to a factor that is crucial to the Dobe !Kung way of life: the control of population growth. The well-being of any group, human or otherwise, depends in large part on the ratio of population to resources. For hunter-gatherers this ratio is especially critical, since unlike agriculturalists, they cannot increase their resources.

The Dobe !Kung are particularly interesting in this regard, for their fertility is unusually low. On the average, !Kung women do not become pregnant again until four years after the birth of the previous child. The !Kung do not have a long postpartum taboo (that is, prescribed abstinence from sexual intercourse after childbirth), nor do they use chemical or mechanical birth-control devices. The women of Dobe attribute their low fertility to "the stinginess of their god, who loves children and tries to keep them all to himself in heaven". Prolonged breast feeding is probably a factor. Because they have no soft foods on which to wean infants, !Kung mothers nurse their babies for a least three years, until the child is able to digest the tough foods of the !Kung diet. Breast feeding is not a guaranteed birth-control technique, but it does inhibit ovulation to some degree [particularly when combined with an physically active life-style and a low-fat diet]...Of course, infant mortality, including occasional infanticide, is also a factor in the wide spacing of !Kung siblings. Twenty percent of infants die in their first year.

This factor of controlled population, along with other factors that we have discussed--high mobility, flexibility of group membership, reciprocity, and a low energy budget--allows the !Kung to strike a balance with their environment. As long as their population continues to grow slowly and steadily--at a rate of less than 0.5 percent a year, as it does now--the Dobe area can continue to support them for a long time. By keeping their numbers and their energy needs low and by operating on the principle of flow--flow of groups over the land, flow of people between groups, flow of resources among people--they are able to fit their needs to what their habitat has to offer from day to day.[In etic terms, these cultural traits are an example of adaptation.]

As a result, they live a relatively easy life; they eat well, work only in their middle years, and have time to rest and play. They are also well prepared for hardship. In times of shortage, Bantu pastoralists fare worse than the !Kung, and Bantu women turn to foraging with the !Kung to feed their families. Though the Dobe !Kung may not qualify as "the original affluent society," as Marshall Sahlins has termed the early hunter-gatherers, their adaptive pattern is still remarkable in that it yields them such a stable and comfortable existence within such an austere habitat.