Dobe Ju/'hoansi Marriage Practices

Ju/’hoansi men and women are on considerably equal footing in social matters. “There is no support in the Ju/’hoansi data of women in the ‘state of nature’ as oppressed or dominated by men.” Once again, we do not want to sensationalize this belief, but merely use it to explain the multifarious aspects of Dobe Ju/’hoansi marriage.

Endogamy and polygamy: The Ju/’hoansi perspective
Endogamy among the Dobe Ju/’hoansi cannot be studied without considering the link between marriage and kinship in this society. The Ju/’hoansi have avoidance relationships with their parents’ generation, and joking ones with their grandparents’ generation. Husbands and wives have joking relationships with each other. Seems straightforward? Hold on to that thought!

The Ju/’hoansi have a custom of naming children after relatives. Because of this, there are only a limited number of names in Ju/’hoansi society. This feature of society “leapfrogs over genealogical ties and creates close kinship even with distant relationships”. So how does this complicated kinship system relate to marriage, and endogamous marriage in particular?

For a woman, a man bearing the same name as her father will also be acknowledged as her ‘father’. She has an avoidance relationship with her father, and therefore cannot marry this man. In general, she cannot marry any man who shares a name with one of her male ‘avoidance’ relatives. A girl therefore has many “kinship and name restrictions” when it comes to choosing her life-partner. If a woman cannot marry someone with the same name as a male relative, what about the relative himself?

Endogamy - patrilateral parallal marriage in particular – is strictly prohibited. Thus, in Ju/’hoansi society, kinship ties reduce marriage prospects. Shared names as well as shared blood are not accepted as foundations for marriage.

If endogamy is not that common, what can we say about polygamy? (Once again, we are focusing on polygyny for the sake of this analysis of the Dobe Ju/’hoansi)

Let us give you some statistics:
A study was conducted in 1968 among a sample of 131 married Ju/’hoansi men.
  • 122 (93%) were living monogamously
  • 9 (7%) were living polygynously
From these statistics, we can glean that the percentage of polygynous relationships in Ju/’hoansi society is not that high.

Usually, Ju/’hoansi men with multiple wives are those who are accorded a high status in society. One common measure of social status is the ability to heal the sick and dying. As this ability is not ubiquitous, those who have it are believed to possess great power and strength. And it is these ‘powerful’ and ‘strong’ men that are the polygynous ones. All nine polygynous men mentioned earlier had reputations as being “the strongest and most effective healers in the Dobe area”. Simply put, a Ju/’hoansi man must possess certain powers and skills before a woman is willing to be his second or third wife.

But why is monogamy still the preferred marriage structure here? First wives often raise objections to polygyny on the grounds of sexual jealousy, sometimes causing their husbands to totally drop the idea of taking another wife. Why are first wives’ opinions are so crucial in a man’s decision to practice polygyny? As mentioned earlier, Ju/’hoansi women hold a reasonably high level of power. They, as gatherers, supply two-thirds of the tribe’s diet. They are truly a force to be reckoned with here!

Although first wives often oppose polygynous marriages, it is interesting to note that co-wives actually do get along with each other very well! Whether consanguineously related or not, co-wives aim to maintain peaceful relations and collaborate in food gathering and childcare. They all live together, with the man discretely carrying out sexual intercourse with each wife in turn.

Marriage rights and sexuality: Are modesty and chastity valued here, too?
Women are prized in Ju/’hoansi society because girls of marriageable age are scarce, and also because they serve the vital function of providing for the tribe, as discussed earlier. A prospective husband therefore has to prove that he is worthy of the girl’s hand.

What about sexuality? In Ju/’hoansi society, sexuality is treated as a ‘natural’ part of both men and women. In fact, sexual play is an integral aspect of childhood – allowing awareness of sex in children from a very young age. To become a ‘women’ in Ju/’hoansi terms is to have sex with one’s husband. It is also clear that women aim to achieve orgasm, or tain, in intercourse. Interestingly, tain is also the word used to describe the taste of wild honey.

The aforementioned Ju/’hoansi traits - viewing women as prized possessions and the lack of inhibition with one’s sexuality - have implications on marriage. Ju/’hoansi marriage consists of a marriage-by-capture ritual, in which the groom steals the bride. In spite of this forced nature of marriage, there are some interesting features that indicate the woman’s autonomy:
  • A mock forcible carrying of the girl from her parent’s house to the marriage hut, in which the resistance of the girl is quite common. The girls do this not because they are expected to as a symbol of modesty, but as a means of exerting their independence.
  • A bride that is won after a struggle is actually slightly more appealing than one that is acquired easily.
Thus, women may be forced into marriage, but they are not afraid to exert their independence once they enter this marriage.

The Dobe Ju/'hoansi Marriage Practices - Anthropology & the Human Condition
Figure 8: A young Ju/'hoansi woman nearing the age of puberty and marriage


Divorce and remarriage: The Ju/’hoansi way
In Ju/’hoansi society, divorce is a simple affair provided that there is mutual consent between the husband and wife. Since the Ju/’hoansi do not live under legal jurisdiction, the martial bond has no legal validity that would normally complicate divorce proceedings. Given the egalitarian nature of the Ju/’hoansi society, women and men have equal rights to initiate a divorce. Women also have a greater influence over child-care, and therefore children are almost always placed in their mother’s custody.

Literature on divorce and remarriage among Ju/’hoansi concur that there is a high frequency of divorce during early marriage – and that these divorces are most often initiated by women. Why is this? As discussed earlier, all first marriages are usually arranged by the family-of-origin with little regard to the woman’s desires. However, women are allowed to express their rights - and independence from their natal kin - by choosing to end this marriage. Some authors have called such short-lived first marriages “trial marriages”.

Let us now turn to what happens post-divorce: remarriage. The Ju/’hoansi do not have a word for ‘virginity’ in their language and thus, no premium is placed on virgin brides. Women therefore find it relatively easy to remarry, and many do so within just a year post-divorce. Author Richard Lee talks about how his adopted Ju/’hoansi parents had actually gone on to live in adjacent huts with their new spouses post-divorce, all the while maintaining joking relationships with each other. This illustrates that the Ju/’hoansi people not consider divorce to be a necessarily negative event, but rather accept the phenomenon in all its complexity. In fact, it is often the second (or third) marriages that prove to be fulfilling and long-lasting.

There is, however, an emotional aspect of divorce that has to be considered. Even though stigma may be largely absent, emotions often ride high as arguments for and against divorce drag on for several weeks. Everyone in the tribe voices their opinion, and eventually a decision will be made based on these opinions. Such elaborate divorce proceedings are more likely to occur in the absence of mutual consent from both parties.

View from the top: Understanding Ju/’hoansi marriage from an economic and social perspective
Ju/’hoansi parents often arrange marriages for their children when they are very young, allowing for a decade or more of gift exchange, or hxaro, between the two families. The boy’s mother will approach the girl’s family with a marriage proposal. Once an agreement is reached, there will ensue the giving of the kamasi (a special gift exchanged between two families that have consented to marriage) that seals the betrothal.

In order to benefit the bride’s family in the long run, the following criteria are considered paramount in a groom:
  • The groom must be a good hunter
  • He must not have a reputation as a fighter
  • He should be from a congenial family of people that fancy the practice of hxaro. If the gift exchange is not kept up, the deal will be called off and a new betrothal will be sought.
The credentials of a prospective groom are especially important to the bride’s family as the preferred form of post-marital residence is uxorilocal (the groom lives with the bride’s kin). Thus, these criteria are not decided by the bride as an individual, but by her family as a whole.

For the nomadic Ju/’hoansi, marriage is a major form of intergroup alliance. A couple’s marriage, if successful, promotes peace and harmony between both camps. As mentioned earlier (refer to the section on endogamy), marriage forms an important part of the Ju/’hoansi system of social security. Good relations among the families of the bride and the groom ensure that no one will ever go hungry - there will always be another waterhole to go to if there is a dearth of food resources in home-territory. And ultimately, nothing is more important than food-security in a non-agrarian hunter-gatherer society.

Connecting the dots...
In Ju/’hoansi culture, the rarity of endogamy can be explained by economic factors, while the paucity of polygamy (polygyny, in particular) can be understood by studying Ju/’hoansi social hierarchies. The equal status of women within divorce can be explained by their high economic value, while the rights accorded to them within marriage can be elucidated by their high social value. Thus, all aspects of Ju/’hoansi marriage are inexorably connected and above all, influenced by extrinsic economic and social factors.

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