Survival of the !Kung San people in the Kalahari Desert
An analysis of the lifestyle of the Kung san people, including their social organization, division of labor, available resources, status differentiation, and material culture.
The hostile environment of the Kalahari desert of Africa offers its own set of unique challenges for the Kung people to overcome, and they were studied by Marjorie Shostak in her book Nisa in order to gain a more complete understanding of this culture and their way of life. The following information is based on research collected and presented by Shostak, which is further analyzed and expanded upon.
In order to ensure their survival, the Kung practice the adaptive strategy of foraging as hunter-gatherers. This system shapes many aspects of Kung life beyond simple food acquisition. The division of labor is divided between the sexes and also between different age groups. Typically, women and children gather foods such as the mongongo nut and others, among the over 200 varieties of plants which grow in that region. The reliability of these resources is extremely stable and women pride themselves on being able to feed their families in the three days per week devoted to gathering. The vegetables collected by women comprise about 80% of the Kung diet, and are therefore necessities. Women also hunt for small game by setting traps, which supplements the Kung diet with lizards, snakes, tortoises and birds eggs, and insects and caterpillars and some small mammals. Women exercise autonomy when deciding when and where to gather, just as men decide when and where to hunt.
The bringing of meat to the village is very highly celebrated, so men display a wider range of influence and power in the village because they control the distribution of the highly prized food they bring back. Thus, there is some degree of status differentiation between men and women, but the greater autonomy of men can also be attributed to their greater ability to protect themselves in the wilderness away from camp and the fact that women are in charge of raising children. This situation results in men embarking on hunting trips for days at a time, but women only go for short excursions to gather food because of safety and childcare responsibilities. Mens dominance can also be shown in their roles as spiritual leaders and their prerogative to initiate sex, among other things.
Sometimes children accompany their mothers in gathering, though they are not considered to have a responsibility to provide food for the group. Children are allowed to play and entertain themselves, and it is not until they grow older that they must provide a contribution to the group. Only after a young man has made his first big game kill can he be seen as a man and eligible for marriage because he has proven that he can support a wife and family. Therefore, it is seen as the responsibility of the man to ensure food for his family, though the husband and wife and children all contribute.
The emphasis on modesty enforces the egalitarian nature of Kung society, so that no achievements in hunting or other aspects cause differentiation between people based on class. The lack of social stratification is key for their adaptive strategy because it provides for a cooperative atmosphere where gift-giving and reciprocal altruism can be necessary for survival. The community organization is based on gift-giving, though there is no emphasis on material culture in terms of accumulation of wealth. Material culture is seen as objects to be shared or given to others in order to form alliances, such as between families before, during, and after a wedding. Accumulation of wealth is not practical because of the mobile nature of the group. They must be prepared to move when resources are depleted in an area, and moving excessive amounts of goods would be detrimental and impractical. Items of material culture are often provided by men for use by women, such as tanned skins to make carrying sacs, digging sticks, mortars and pestles, sinew, and shoes, and women care for them and maintain them as they are used.
Another interesting aspect of community organization is the respect for elders, which is shown by respectful titles. The elderly are few and cannot contribute greatly to the economic benefit of the group, but their wisdom and knowledge of history are valued, and they help preserve Kung culture as it was before outside influences.