Strictly speaking, the !Kung are members of a Khoisan language family occupying the Kalahari regions of part of Namibia, Botswana, Angola, and Zambia; however, the term has come to be used conventionally to refer to the forager peoples of the Western Kalahari surrounding the border between Namibia and Botswana. Specifically, the term is often applied to the Ju/’hoansi—a forager group belonging to the !Kung language family. The confusion over this set of nomenclature stems from changing trends in political preference both among !Kung-speaking peoples and anthropologists. For the sake of continuity, the term !Kung will be used here in its older, conventional sense.
For several reasons, research concerning the !Kung was extremely important within the ecological anthropology of the second half of the 20th century. First reason is the idea, which even extends as far back as early Enlightenment thought, that foragers are somehow closer to nature or to some original state of humankind. This idea was very important to foundational cultural ecologists such as Julian Steward, and also to contemporary anthropologists dealing with issues of human evolution. The second important reason was the understanding that humans had evolved as foragers and had lived with that economic lifeway for the vast majority of human history. For these reasons, there was a great deal of interest in the !Kung and other Kalahari foragers as possible evolutionary models.
Evolutionary Models Based on the !Kung
The earliest major anthropological research in the Kalahari was done by members of the Marshall family. Beginning her second career as an anthropologist in the 1950s, Lorna Marshall offered early descriptions of !Kung economic and social behavior. Most important among these were her early accounts of sharing and reciprocity networks, which became a key long-term research focus among the !Kung. Marshall depicted the !Kung as gentle and nonviolent people living in peace, with egalitarian social and economic practices and no differentiation in status between individuals. She saw a society in which all economic resources were shared, accumulation of resources was not tolerated, and status differences were quickly and forcefully diffused. Despite this somewhat utopian flavor, Marshall’s ethnography was excellent in its detail and extremely influential in its effect on contemporary anthropologists dealing with foragers. In addition, her accounts influenced a great deal of the evolutionary thinking of the 1960s and established food sharing as an important feature of early hominid evolution. Filmmaker John Marshall captured vivid images of the !Kung that became prominent features of anthropology classrooms around the world for decades, further securing the place of !Kung as evolutionary models even in the minds of lower-level students. John Marshall filmed his important images of the !Kung over a long span of time, documenting the changes in !Kung culture during this time. Thus the Marshalls established the persistent and popular image of the !Kung as isolated, autonomous, egalitarian foragers living in a manner very close to the earliest humans. Harvard physical anthropologist Sherwood Washburn, in the latter part of his career by the 1960s, was also important in promoting forager research in order to document analogues with which to understand the past and build evolutionary models.
Due to this early information, a generation of ecological and evolutionary anthropologists made their careers working with the !Kung in the Kalahari. Perhaps the most prominent of this generation was Richard Lee. Working under the direction of Washburn’s student, Irven Devore, Lee went to the Kalahari to gather information concerning the economics and social organization of foragers to use a baseline in formulating a synthetic model. Lee elaborated on Marshall’s description of the !Kung as having an egalitarian social and political structure, focusing on the strong sharing and leveling norms of the !Kung. He saw these features as ways of dealing with economic dynamics of the forager life way. Lee viewed sharing as a way of coping with resources, such as large animals that are cooperatively hunted and too large to be consumed by individuals of close kin units. During this time period, Lee saw this egalitarianism as a feature of all forager societies, a feature also evident in models of human evolution during the 1960s. These ethnographic feature of the !Kung continue to figure prominently in current discussion.
Lee’s work in the Kalahari was the cornerstone of the important Man the Hunter conference convened in Chicago in 1966. Lee and Devore put together the Man the Hunter conference with the idea of establishing hunter-gatherers as a cultural type defined by a fixed set of cultural features. This conference brought together the elite scholars working with foragers either archaeologically or ethnographically, and has had a long-lasting impact on the field. Lee and Devore sought to establish the view of all hunter-gatherers as egalitarian, with strong sharing and leveling norms and extensive reciprocity networks—a view taken directly from ethnography of the !Kung. This kind of forager research (and particularly that among the !Kung in the Kalahari) came to constitute a paradigmatic industry within the anthropology of the 1960s and 1970s. The model that emerged stated that humans evolved from early australopithecines through the increased hunting of large animals, which stimulated social food sharing, more complex social organization, larger brains and other anatomical changes. This relationship between hunting, food sharing, and complex social organization stemmed directly from these early ethnographic accounts of the !Kung.
The central features of the !Kung economic and social systems that continued to be elaborated upon were the prominent egalitarian sharing and leveling mechanisms and food sharing practices. In particular, a great deal of attention was paid to the xaro reciprocity networks; this topic was addressed notably in the research of Polly Wiessner. Xaro networks were pathways along which prestige items (jewelry, arrows, etc.) were exchanged, denoting important relationships in terms of individual group membership, residency, and access to resources. Wiessner argued that these exchange pathways, sharing and leveling practices, and food sharing were ways of managing the risk inherent in the forager lifestyle. For example, foragers are susceptible to resource shortages, and hunting is a risky economic practice prone to frequent failure. In addition, successful hunts result in the acquisition of meat packages too large to be consumed by individuals or strictly kin units, and therefore can sensibly be shared. Finally, sharing is the logical outcome of corporate labor practices such as hunting. Shared labor investment results in sharing of the final product. With these explanations as central features, the egalitarian sharing practices and reciprocity networks of the !Kung became vital aspects of evolutionary theory.
Revision and the Kalahari Debate
The direct analogy of the modern, living !Kung with the earliest time periods of human evolution was not without its political problems. By the early 1980s, an important critique was emerging. Critics such as Carmel Schrire, John Denbow, and Ed Wilmsen suggested that !Kung were not isolated, but instead had been incorporated in regional economic networks for thousands of years. In addition, the !Kung were not autonomous, but had actually been exploited by neighboring ethnic groups in varying degrees over the last several millennia. Finally, they suggested that the !Kung were not entirely foragers, but had lived with mixed economies in relationships with neighboring groups in the past. The critics argued that evolutionary models based on !Kung ethnography were problematic in the sense that they promoted an image of primitive backwardness, or “fossils” of Stone Age. In short, these critics suggested that much of what anthropologists like Lee were describing as innate features of forager peoples were, in fact, the result of historical relationships, and were actually symptoms of rural poverty.
The debate that ensued (often glossed as the “Kalahari debate”) was acrimonious and divisive among anthropologists working with the !Kung. Lee and his followers continued to promote the !Kung as forager analogues appropriate for interpretation of the past. Wilmsen and his followers continued to reject this practice on both intellectual and political grounds. From this context, most recent studies have focused on variability and diversity among forager groups, particularly the !Kung. Prominent among this set of researchers was Susan Kent, who argued that using the !Kung as a kind of modal forager society denied the variability inherent among all foragers. Instead, she argued, it is more productive to document this variability, understand its causes, and use this knowledge to understand variability in the past. This approach is also advocated by Robert Kelly and Lewis Binford in their recent synthetic volumes concerning forager societies. The !Kung continue to be incorporated into evolutionary models, but not as direct analogues or fossils of the human evolutionary past.
Today the !Kung live mainly in Namibia and Botswana, incorporated into global economic networks. In Namibia, the !Kung participated as soldiers in the Namibian war for independence, drastically changing their economic systems and dramatically increasing the importance of cash economics. The !Kung fought mainly on the South African side of the conflict, and this provided a considerable amount of cash income to numerous !Kung men who chose to participate. Following the end of the war, despite the disappearance of the prominent military incomes, wage labor and cash continued to be primary economic pathways. Currently, tourism and government agencies provide the bulk of employment, and state-paid, old-age pensions inject a good deal of cash into the region. On the Botswana side, where military employment was never present, the !Kung continue to participate in patron-client employment relationships with local Tswana herders in the context of difficult and controversial relationships with the government. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on both sides of the border provide important resources, and many anthropologists have important relationships with these NGOs. Finally, foraging continues to be an important practice for both economic and cosmological reasons despite the important role of cash economics. In many respects, future prospects look bleak as the !Kung are confronted by a lack of economic development and increasing dissolution of foraging opportunities in the context of Third World African poverty and global economic systems.
- Kelly, R. L. (1995). The foraging spectrum: Diversity n hunter-gatherer lifeways. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Marshall, L. (1961). Talking, sharing and giving: Relief of social tensions among the !Kung bushmen. Africa, 31, 231-249.
- Marshall, L. (1976). The !Kung of Nyae Nyae. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Lee, R. B. (1979). The !Kung San: Men, women and work in a foraging society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Lee, R. B., & Devore, I. (Eds.). (1968). Man the hunter. Chicago: Aldine.
- Schrire, C. (1980). An inquiry into the evolutionary status and apparent identity of San hunter-gatherers. Human Ecology, 8, 9-32.
- Wiessner, P. (1982). Risk, reciprocity and social influences on !Kung San economics. In E. Leacock & R. Lee (Eds.), Politics and history in band societies (pp. 61-84). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Wilmsen, E. N. (1989). Land filled with flies: A political economy of the Kalahari. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wilmsen, E. N., & Denbow, J. R. (1990). Paradigmatic history of the San-speaking peoples and current attempts at revision. Current Anthropology, 31, 489-524.