Do the !Kung San like to share?

October 19, 2010

Not according to David Kaplan:

Everyone who has worked among the Bushmen has commented upon the continual dunning [badgering] and constant pressures to share that go on. Here is Patricia Draper (1978:45):

The give and take of tangibles and intangibles goes on in the midst of a high level of bickering. Until one learns the cultural meaning of this continual verbal assault, the outsider wonders how the !Kung can stand to live with each other. . . . People continually dun the Europeans and especially the European anthropologists since unlike most Europeans, the anthropologists speak !Kung. In the early months of my own field work I despaired of ever getting away from continual harassment. As my knowledge of !Kung increased, I learned that the !Kung are equally merciless in dunning each other.

Both Wiessner (1982:79) and Marshall (1968:94) have commented on the fact that the persistent pressures to share have led the !Kung to limit their work effort, since in working harder they would likely expose themselves to demands to share the fruits of their additional labors. To refuse to share opens oneself to accusations of stinginess or worse. Here are Wiessner’s (1982:79) observations:

In reciprocal relations, one means that a person uses to prevent being exploited in a relationship … is to prevent him or herself from becoming a “have”…. As mentioned earlier, men who have killed a number of larger animals sit back for a pause to enjoy reciprocation. Women gather enough for their families for a few days, but rarely more. . . . And so, in deciding whether or not to work on a certain day, a !Kung may assess debts and debtors, decide how much wild food harvest will go to family, close relatives and others to whom he or she really wants to reciprocate, versus how much will be claimed by freeloaders.

The !Kung, we are told, spend a great deal of time talking about who has what and who gave what to whom or failed to give it to whom (Wiessner 1982:68). A lot of the exchange and sharing that goes on seems to be as much motivated by jealousy and envy as it is by any value of generosity or a “liberal custom of sharing.” In his survey of foraging societies, Kelly (1995:164-65) notes that “Sharing… strains relations between people. Consequently, many foragers try to find ways to avoid its demands …. Students new to anthropology..,. are often disappointed to learn that these acts of sharing come no more naturally to hunter- gatherers than to members of industrial societies.”

Score this round for Steven Pinker.

If you’re lost, read this. And this.


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