The !Kung San

NAVIGATION: The !Kung San | The Toraja | The S'porean Chinese | Comparisons, Conclusions, and Final Thoughts | Sources & References

The !Kung San people are nomadic hunter gatherers, surviving in harsh conditions often avoided by most others. When it comes to perceptions towards death, the !Kung San believe that illness and death is caused by the baleful spirits of dead San people, which they call the //gangwasi.

Perceptions towards Death
From the simple procedures of death rituals and burials, we can tell that the Dobe Ju/’hoansi do not view death as an event that calls for much fanfare. It seems like a natural part of life and when the burial is over, the Ju/’hoansi move on, by setting up camp elsewhere. There is no concept of an afterlife, but that the dead will turn into //gangwasi. Hence, a death is probably not worth too much attention and they try to carry on with their lives with careful avoidance of the site of the buried.

Wiessner (1983a, cited in Pearce, 2008) who witnessed the burial of a woman at Dobe and listed her observations as followed. When the woman had passed away, other women sewed her blanket, covering her body. They left her wearing her traditional front and back aprons, as well as her bracelets and anklets. The entrance of her hut was also closed with an animal hide and a barrel.

The funeral takes place either in the early morning or in the evening. A speech will first be made to the great god before the body is taken to the grave, which is dug half a kilometre away from the !Kung camp. After the body is laid in the grave, a family member might start going into a solo trance without music or dance. Scented powder is sprinkled over the grave, followed by the throwing of earth by the funeral attendees in turns. The grave is later covered with earth by the men who shovel earth into it. Women brought bowls of water in which the men washed in them. Other attendees then wash their hands as a symbolic ritual cleansing (Wiessner, 1983a, cited in Pearce, 2008).

There is no ritualistc consumption or avoidance of any food before and during the funeral, or during the period of mourning, as observed by Marshall (1991, cited in Pearce, 2008).

The head of the corpse is covered with a leather bag. Leather bags are considered symbols of religious transformation and travel between the cosmos (Pearce, 2008). The Ju also explained that it protects the eyes, ears and nostrils from flies (Marshall, 1999, cited in Pearce, 2008).

Special attention is paid to the orientation of the grave and body. The grave is oriented in the north-south axis and the body is laid on its right, facing the east (Pearce, 2008). After filling the grave with earth, a mound with a flat top is made about 0.6 metres above the ground. A grave may be marked using stones, sticks or both. This is to prevent the grave from being treaded upon. The grave is then abandoned and camps avoid being set up there, probably due to the fear of the malicious //gangwasi.

No grave goods accompany the dead for use in the afterlife (Marshall 1965, 1999, cited in Pearce, 2008). The dead’s possessions may be passed on to his or her hxaro partners (see ‘Hxaro Exchange Relationship & Inheritance’ below). The elaborate funerary rituals of the Heroro, the !Kung San's Kalahari neighbours have influenced those of the San people's (Rosenberg, 2009). The general manner of death (natural or unnatural) may cause variability in burial practices. However, the specific manner of death does not exert influence on the rites.

Other factors that influences the the manner of burial include circumstances of the death, preferences of the people performing the burial, and conditions of the soil. The social status of the deceased does not influence the manner of burial.

The funeral is followed by a short mourning period, as observed by Wiessner (1983, cited in Pearce, 2008). However, Marshall (1991, cited in Pearce, 2008) did not observe any obvious signs of mourning among the !Kung. Grieving is never lengthy and often accompanied by bouts of neglect. Attention is not given to the dead himself, but to the living relationships he has. This brings us to the topic of inheritance and hxaro exchange relationships.

A person’s hxaro relationship may be inherited if not passed on before the person’s death. The possessions of the dead may be given to his or her hxaro partners by the family members with the request that the relationship continue after the death (Wiessner, 1983a, cited in Pearce, 2008)

Concluding Statement
Over time, little of the !Kung San death rituals has changed. We can see that the !Kung San are a very practical group of people, and as such things that serve no tangible purpose for their culture, such as death and death rituals, hold little to no importance in their culture.

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NAVIGATION: The !Kung San | The Toraja | The S'porean Chinese | Comparisons, Conclusions, and Final Thoughts | Sources & References

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