The affluence of the !Kung San has been greatly exaggerated

October 12, 2010



Kalahari Desert CC: Elmar Thiel

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re trying to establish what kind of life prehistoric hunter-gatherers may have lived. Because we don’t have any prehistoric hunter-gatherers on hand, we’re first going to see what we can learn from the modern version. Specifically, let’s take a look at the !Kung San Bushmen (Bushfolk?) of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa.

The !Kung are hunter gatherers, adapting to their semi-arid environment by gathering roots, berries, fruits, and nuts that they gather from the desert, and from the meat provided by the hunters. … !Kung men are responsible for providing the meat, although women might occasionally kill small mammals. Game is not plentiful and the hunters sometimes must travel great distances. Meat is usually sparse and is shared fairly among the group when a hunter is successful. Every part of the animal is used; hides are tanned for blankets and bones are cracked for the marrow. Typical game sought in the hunt includes wildebeest, gemsbok, and giraffe; they also kill various reptiles and birds, and collect honey when it is available. The men provide household tools and maintain a supply of poison tipped arrows and spears for hunting.

!Kung women provide the majority of the food, spending two to three days a week foraging varying distances from the camp, and are also responsible for child care, gathering wood for fires, carrying water, and cooking. Typical foods they might return with are mongongo nuts, baobab fruits, water roots, bitter melon, or !Gwa berries. Children are left at home to be watched over by those remaining in camp, but nursing children are carried on these foraging trips, adding to the load the !Kung women must carry.

Note the part about !Kung women “spending two to three days a week foraging.” I’m guessing the author bases that fact on work by anthropologist Richard Lee, who lived among a group of !Kung San in in the 1960s in an area of the Kalahari (above) called Dobe. Over the course of four weeks, from early July to August 1964, Lee recorded the comings and goings of the Dobe foragers and found that they spent a mere fifteen hours per week, or 2.5 working days, outside of camp acquiring food.

Sex at Dawn (p. 176) quotes the following passage from Lee’s paper:

A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, or entertaining visitors from other camps. For each day at home, kitchen routines, such as cooking, nut cracking, collecting firewood, and fetching water, occupy one to three hours of her time. This rhythm of steady work and steady leisure is maintained throughout the year.

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins took Lee’s data and ran with it in his influential essay, “The Original Affluent Society“:

A good case can be made that hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.

I became aware of Lee and Sahlins by reading the book Sex at Dawn, and now I’m telling you about it, thus passing on this bit of lore. But a quick dip into the literature around Sahlins’ essay suggests that Lee’s finding is misleading on its face.

As David Kaplan points out in his paper “The Darker Side of the ‘Original Affluent Society’,” Lee’s numbers

were somewhat puzzling to some anthropologists who have conducted similar investigations in similar societies. Hawkes and O’Connell (1981) observed that the Bushmen figures were one-half to one-fifth of the time required by the Alyawarra, a central Australian foraging group. They expressed some surprise because the !Kung and Alyawarra are very similar in habitat as well as technology. The difference, it turned out, was explainable by Hawkes and O’Connell’s definition of work: in their calculations of work, they included time spent in processing food as well as hunting and gathering it.

When Lee factored in processing time in later work, he found that the !Kung San’s total work time was 40.1 hours per week for women and 44.5 hours per week for men, which takes away much of the force of Sahlins’ argument.

In addition, Lee’s four week period was not representative of the whole seasonal cycle. According to his own report, during the dry season, the women sometimes had to hike 10 to 15 miles for food.

Crucially, Lee’s data also leave open the possibility the !Kung San were going to bed hungry. He claimed the Dobe Bushfolk “live[d] well … on wild plants and meat, in spite of the fact that they are confined to the least productive portion of the range in which Bushmen peoples were formerly found,” but he also acknowledged it was “impossible to exclude the possibility that subclinical signs of malnutrition existed.”

According to Kaplan, subsequent researchers have cast doubt on Lee’s notion of well-fed Bushfolk:

[P]erhaps the most critical and telling remarks concerning the well-fed !Kung come from the demographer Nancy Howell (1986:171-72), who spent two years with them:

While the !Kung way of life is far from one of uniform drudgery-there is a great deal of leisure in the !Kung camp, even in the worst time of the year- it is also true that the !Kung are very thin and complain often of hunger, at all times of the year. It is likely that hunger is a contributing cause to many deaths which are immediately caused by infectious and parasitic diseases, even though it is rare for anyone simply to starve to death.

Kaplan quotes other researchers who say that what the !Kung lack is an “‘appetizing, compact, high-energy’ foodstuff such as animal fat in reliable quantities.”

Moreover, Kaplan says, like “virtually all hunter-gatherers,” the !Kung San are subject to “periodic failure of all major [food] resources.” For example, mongongo nut trees may fail during the Kalahari’s frequent droughts.

One such failure reported by Wilmsen (1982:108) occurred in 1979; by September of that year, drought conditions had become so serious that the government had to step in with food relief programs. In 1980 the nut crop was a good one, but Wilmsen indicates that it was barely touched because most people preferred maize meal.

And further:

Wiessner … informs us that in 1974, high winds destroyed most of the mongongo nut crop in the Xai/Xai area where she did field research. Because of the heavy rains, the game scattered, and gathering and snaring became difficult. Insects and cattle disease made domestic foods scarce. By August, she says, work effort came to a standstill as the !Kung said there was nothing worth hunting or gathering. People spent their “leisure” time lounging, chatting, and repairing or adding to their tool assemblage.

Bottom line: The habits of the !Kung San cannot be taken as evidence that modern hunter-gatherers enjoy such a natural bounty that their wants are easily satisfied by a couple days’ light work. However, the significance for our prehistoric hunter-gatherers is less clear. The !Kung San have managed to eke out a living in what I gather is one of the worst modern environments for their way of life. As Lee stated:

It is likely that an even more substantial subsistence base would have been characteristic of these hunters and gatherers in the past, when they had the pick of African habitats to choose from.

One Response to “The affluence of the !Kung San has been greatly exaggerated”

  1. […] poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better […]

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