The Ju/'hoansi culture


Seeking objective reality is the ultimate goal of scientists. As anthropologists, our goal is to identify the forces that shape the way human beings act, communicate, and perceive the world around them. What makes someone the way they are? Anthropologists have the task of building social constructs to communicate these forces, and when necessary, amend the constructs to fit the subject's most recent understanding. In this case study the construct of gender roles has been scrutinized. The Ju/'hoansi of the Kalahari Desert treat the role gender in a drastically different way than many modern societies. What can be learned from the Ju/'hoansi's egalitarian approach to gender roles? Perhaps the study of this hunter-gather society will compel anthropologist and others alike to "modify" the constructs of gender. The study provides insight into the unique socialization that occurs within the Ju/'hoansi hunter-gatherer society. In societies such as these, the ultimate goal is for all members of the community to survive. Little room is left for the accumulation of wealth, or the attaining of material possessions. With these conditions of society, the roles of the Ju men and women do not exactly mirror that of the modern counterparts. The implications are that gender roles are not as inherent as they once were thought to be.

Introducing the Ju/’hoansi

In the fall of 1963, Canadian anthropologist Richard B. Lee ventured to the Kalahari Desert to conduct one of the most in depth ethnographies on modern day foraging societies. He traveled in search of the Ju/’hoansi, members of the famed San peoples that had hunted and foraged the area of southern Africa for millennia. What is left of these elusive people, often referred to as “Bushmen”, exists out of the grasp of modern society. Due to growing European settlement in the South African region, tribal conflict became rampant, and the marginalized San population was pushed to the most secluded of areas—the Kalahari Desert. The San peoples are identified as Indigenous residents of southern Africa, having a history of being hunters and foragers who speak a “click” language. By 2001, the San population was estimated at around 100,000, with a strong majority residing in present day Botswana (Lee, 11).

Richard Lee studied a particular population of the San called the Ju/’hoansi. The Ju/’hoansi, also known as the !Kung, inhabit southern Angola, western and central Botswana, and Northern and eastern Namibia (Lee, 11). The Dobe area became Lee’s focal point of study, an area on the Botswana Namibia border, where the Ju/’hoansi residents lived a life sustained solely on hunting and gathering. Lee’s study continued for three years, over the course of which he gained substantial knowledge regarding hunter-gatherer society.

The Egalitarian Ju/’hoansi

Anthropologists are attracted to the elusive Ju/’hoan people largely because of their egalitarian foundation of society. Ju/’hoan people appear to live carefree lives, free from the general negative sentiments of jealousy, anger, depression, and anxiety that plagues modern society. The Ju/’hoansi culture revolves around group collectively, as opposed to individual prosperity as found in the modernized world. This type of equality is often one of the “core” elements of what historians, anthropologists, and sociologists attribute to the nature of hunter-gatherer societies. In these societies there are very few material possessions. As such, the most important aspect of hunter-gatherer life is that every one of the group members is fed. The Ju/’hoan economy revolves around sharing. Since adequate food consumption is the most pressing concern of the Ju/’hoansi, all other hindrances that would compromise the success of this task are suppressed.

Egalitarian Practices: Insulting the Meat

In coalition with the egalitarian Ju/’hoansi culture, humility is of utmost importance. One of the most interesting occurrences observed by Richard Lee was the Ju/’hoansi tendency to criticize a successful and skillful hunter. Although meat comprises immense value with the Ju/’hoansi and a skillful hunter is much appreciated, upholding an egalitarian society has a greater priority. Lee refers to this compelling tradition as “insulting the meat”. Lee also describes the importance of the tradition as one of the Ju/’hoan core beliefs. The phenomenon was explained to Lee in a short anecdote:

Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, “I have killed a big on in the bush!” He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, “What did you see today?” He replies quietly, “Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all… maybe just a tiny one.” Then I smile to myself because I know he has killed something big (Lee, 52).

At a glance, this story might appear to be quite perplexing. It seems absurd that the Ju/’hoansi hunter, following a successful hunt, would relent to tell his other tribesman. When hunters make a good kill, there is no room for praise or boastfulness. The Ju/’hoansi have a tradition referred to as “insulting the meat”, whereby fellow tribesmen express negativity and aguish towards him. The custom appears to be out of jealousy or resentment, however on the contrary, “insulting the meat” serves to perpetuate the egalitarian nature of Ju/’hoansi society. One of the /Xai/ xai men explained that when young hunters return from a successful hunt, they will indeed feel a sense of superiority. These types of sentiments should not persist, for if they do, the egalitarian society of the Ju/’hoansi stands in question.

Food Provision

Equality resides in nearly all aspects of Ju/’hoan society. Concerning food consumption, both men and women share nearly equal roles in the task of attaining food resources. The Ju/hoansi diet consists of both animal products as well as vegetation, where these items account for 30% and 70% of the diet, respectively. The one notable difference between men and women in the Ju/’hoansi culture regarding food resources, is that only men hunt, while both men and women gather. Still, all in all, the Dobe men contribute to roughly 45% of the food resources compared to the 55% gathered by women (Lee, 54). However, since women are able to forage freely on their own, and their contributions are imperative to the survival of the community, women attain strong social status. It should be noted that their status does not exceed that of men, but neither does fall below.

Ju/’hoan Male and female Relations

Another aspect of Ju/’hoansi culture that accentuates equality is their idea of marriage, and the powers associated with the husband and wife. Contrary to the common depiction of hunter gatherer gender relation, where the males completely dominate the females, the husband and wife of Ju/’hoansi tradition experiences nearly equal authority. In the Ju/’hoan culture, first marriages are arranged by parents. Quite commonly the wife will protest and cry for the primary months of marriage. Interestingly, though the marriage was arranged by the parents, if the wife protests enough the marriage will be called off. Lee comments that, “the fact that close to half of all first marriages fail among the Ju/’hoansi is eloquent testimony to the independence of Ju women from both parents and husbands”.

Lee’s study of the Ju/’hoan people provides substantial evidence to shatter common ideas, particularly ideas that arise in patriarchal societies regarding male-female relations. From the data, one can conclude that the Ju males and females have nearly equal roles. For instance, in the Ju/’hoan society,
“There is no support in the Ju/’hoansi data for a view of women in ‘the state of nature’ as oppressed or dominated by men or as subject to sexual exploitation at the hands of males” (Lee, 90). In marriage, it may be said that men have the upper hand in that they, in agreement with the desired wife’s parents, make future arrangements of marriage. Although the wife is given no say in this matter, she has the power to veto the marriage if she so pleases. In addition, within these marriages extramarital affairs are not alien to either sex. The practice of “marriage by capture” among the Ju is not as male dominant as it sounds. Marriage by capture is more of a ceremonial tradition than anything else.

The discussion of gender equality continues with the idea that both male and female Ju/’hoansi seek sexual pleasure. Furthermore, there is no such concept of “enforced chastity”, so common in other cultures. Ju men and women operate on equal playing fields, where there is no striking difference regarding gender roles. This idea may shatter commonly held beliefs of what Lee identified as women in their “natural state”. The natural state of women, propagated by the Ju/’hoansi, does not include female subordination to the wills of men.

An Outside Perspective on Ju/’hoan Women

In examining the relationship between the Ju/’hoansi and their neighbors, one can further understand the nature of equality amongst the Ju. The most common non-!Kung people of the Dobe area are the Hereros, Bantu speaking pastoralist peoples. Evidentially, the Hereros look to the Ju people for wives; however, marrying the strong-willed Ju women is cautioned and considered risky business. “The Ju girls, thought undeniably attractive, were by Herero standards free spirits. Herero gender relations were patriarchal, or at least more patriarchal than the egalitarian Ju/’hoansi” (Lee, 147).

Future Threats of the Ju/’hoansi

As a result of increasing exposure to the outside world, the future of the Ju people is uncertain. The Ju/’hoansi people are no longer secluded from the outside world as they once were. The Ju/’hoansi have become more and more assimilated in the “modern world” by the governments of the Ju/’hoansi resident nations. Over the course of thirty years the Ju/’hoansi transitioned from society based on prehistoric hunter-gather society practices, to one based on herding, wage labor, farming, and minimal hunting-gathering (Lee, 168). Perhaps, through this metamorphosis, powerful insights can be gained regarding the societal and cultural influence on what is deemed as “human nature”. As the Ju/’hoansi people assimilate further and further into modern society, perhaps the notion of egalitarianism will vanish. It’s possible that with modern influence the Ju/’hoansi will adopt a patriarchal structure of society, much like that of the developed nations.

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