David Freeman

Dobe Ju/'hoansi: Law of a Hunter-Gatherer Society

Introduction: Life of a Hunter-Gatherer

            In central-south Africa, on the outskirts of the Kalahari Desert, lives the remnants of an artifact of anthropological study: a society of people who rely entirely on hunting and gathering for subsistence. Along  the borders of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa live the San. Although they are most famously known as the "Bushmen" the Dutch explorers encountered in the northern side of South Africa, these people are generally known as San by their neighbors, the Khoi. (p. 9) The San actually have two variations, known by western academics as Yellow San and Black San.  The Yellow San and Khoi, who are similar in physical appearance,  live amongst each other around eastern Namibia and speak a variety of click languages between them. (p. 11) The major distinguishing feature between the groups is the Khoi keep livestock while the Yellow San traditionally rely on hunting and gathering. (Id) Both the Yellow San and Khoi are shorter and lighter skinned than the Bantu-speaking Black San. (Id) Similarly, Yellow San themselves vary by location, speaking !Kung in the north, Tshu-Khwe (a  Bantu language) in the middle, and !Xo (another click language) in the south. Yellow San in the north tend to be full-time hunter-gatherers or mixed hunter-gatherer and herders. Yellow San in the middle and south can vary in occupation from mixed farmers and mixed herders to contracted farmers and herders. Black San tend to be full time farmers and herders, and tend to be the ones contracting Yellow San.

            Amongst the !Kung speaking Yellow San in North-Eastern Namibia lives a small village which boasts the titles of being the most well documented foraging society in the world: The Dobe Ju/'hoansi. (p.14)  Ju/'hoansi is one of several languages of the !Kung family spoken in the area around the Dobe area, and it is predominantly used by those camps with very limited contact with Black San. Confusingly, the area was named Dobe because of a specific camp around the Dobe waterhole by the anthropologist Richard B. Lee when he was exited to finally study a small camp of pure hunter-gatherers. Thus, the Dobe Ju refers to a specific camp of about 35 people, while there are several dozen other waterholes of Ju speaking camps who go by other names but also reside in the Dobe area. The individual camp that is of primary concern here is the camp of Ju/'hoansi speaking Yellow San that reside around the Dobe waterhole, named the Dobe Ju. As we shall see, however, studying the network of camps which the Dobe live within is an important aspect to understanding how they resolve conflicts.

            Camps in the Dobe area vary in size and subsistence strategy, but tend to retain very similar social structures to those observed in the Dobe Ju. In 1964, the Dobe area was home to a total of 466: 379 residents and 87 seasonal visitors. (p. 14-15) The camps which these people called home varied in size. The Dobe Ju had a slightly small 35 residents, and the !Goshe Ju (a nearby settlement that is closely linked to the Dobe) had a more typical 75 residents. (Id) The biggest camp were the / Xai/ xai with 117 residents and 30 seasonal visitors, and the smallest was the !Kangwa Matse with a total of 9 residents. (Id) While these camps all appear interconnected, prior to the official inclusion in the state of Botswana, the Ju/'hoansi living in and around the Dobe area were a people without any sort of overriding authority to settle disputes or maintain order. Instead, The Ju/'hoansi and other nearby hunter-gatherer peoples lived in relative harmony by the use of societal structures that work to release tension before conflicts become a problem.  The reason these non-legal structures work in place of where a sedentary society needs law is because of the different necessities of a society that survives by foraging rather than growing food.

Foraging for a living

            Unlike the assumption of many outsides, the amount of work needed to thrive by living off the land in the Kalahari desert is only about 20 hours a week. (p. 39) The studies of subsistence strategy are based generally on the !Kung speakers, which includes the Dobe Ju as well as the other camps previously mentioned. In general they get about 70% of their caloric intake from vegetation of various other berries, roots, and nuts found in the area, with the nut from the Mongongo tree being their favorite gathered food and primary source of protein in their diet. (p. 40-41)  There are a variety of different foods to gather at different times of the year, and many !Kung specialize in being expert of local botany. (Id) It seems a camp could survive solely off of the food gathered without any need of meat, and in general !Kung do not go hungry when hunting is scarce. 

            Meat only makes up only about 30% of the total caloric intake of the !Kung. (p. 48) Unlike gathering, which is an activity both men and women participate in, only men go hunting. The type of game varies between large and small game, including large game like Kudu, gemsbok and warthog as well as small game like ant bear, porcupine, and springhare. (Id) In general, a good hunter is lucky to get two large game kills a year, so the majority of meat comes from kills from small animals. (p. 51) Because of its rarity, distribution of meat holds a special place in !Kung society (as I explain in the sections Arrow Sharing, Insulting the Meat, and Meat Distribution).

            Apart from pure food gathering activities, !Kung also spend an average of 2-3 hours a day on other miscellaneous tasks. (p. 56) This figure includes everything from building new camps, building and repairing tools, cooking, and other housework. (Id) The amount of time actually spend varies from time to time, because much of it is the time spent building new huts, and this only happens 3-4 times a year. In total, !Kung spend about 40 hours a week on both gathering food and other tasks. However, when compared to statistics from western societies, the miscellaneous tasks are not included in the work week. When compared to the traditional western 40-hour work week, !Kung can be considered to only work a comparable 20-hours to achieve the same general tasks.

It is safe to say that !Kung tend to spend less time working to obtain a decent diet and a rounded lifestyle than their western counterparts. This ease of life only occurs when a camp can live with a egalitarian lifestyle, because when a camp does not share with each other, the amount of work needed by each individual goes up. If this occurs, the ability to survive in the unforgiving conditions of the Kalahari desert go from accomplishable with minimal work to dangerously close to starvation. Thus, the structures of the !Kung society tend to encourage egalitarianism while leaving escape routes for a camp that is on the brink of falling apart.

In a foraging society, where survival depends on the ability to live cooperatively with your immediate neighbors and rely on them in your time of need, the primary goal of the society is to reinforce sharing and egalitarianism. It appears that the most effective way to approach this is to allow individuals to cooperate with each other or not based on his own terms. This is accomplished with the traditions and rules of society acting as a blueprint for different camps to organize themselves with rather than be forced into strict rule structures. As such, western notions of legal systems with violable rules resulting in punishment for the offender do not promote the goal of egalitarianism, and are thus not implemented. Instead, conflicts are avoided or resolved by bond forming, bond flexibility, and the use of public discourse to dissuade bad behavior and promote good behavior . Conflict is limited so that, at any time during a dispute, one party can use one of the release mechanisms built into society to simply avoid escalation of further conflict. Because the necessities of maintaining a hunter-gatherer society are different from a sedentary society, the use of a legal system with punishments is not effective. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, along with other !Kung groups, use communication in combination with flexible living arrangements to accommodate individuals rather than stigmatize and punish them.

Conflict and Resolution

            While the society relies on a lack of internal fighting, conflicts are not uncommon in !Kung society. Richard B. Lee observed three different levels of conflict between the Dobe Ju, each of which has its own strategy built in to avoid the fight escalating to the next step. The three levels of dispute are "Talking", "Hand-to-hand" fighting, and "deadly conflict" with the use of weapons. (p. 113)


            As with most societies, most violent conflicts are born from a verbal dispute between two individuals. The !Kung similarly have a level of conflicts which never make it past a good shouting match. Known as nwa, language used in a fight is differentiated from normal verbal complaining (known as horehore or obaoba) by its stylized and staccato form of speech. (p. 113) Talking conflicts can often be the accidental result of excessive horehore (as is explained later under Complaint Discourse), but it can also be a sudden outpouring of frustration by a single individual. As discussed later, a nwa can often suddenly end by an individual switching style and making a joke to ease the tensions. Thus, while talk fighting is distinct from normal conversation, transitions to and from the use of nwa styled language can happen quickly. This allows many potential conflicts to disappear as quickly as they spring up.

            A good example of a  nwa is the tale from the Dobe waterhole of the frustrated wife Nisa and her more popular husband Kashe. (p. 112) One night, around the camp's communal campfire, Nisa began pestering her husband about him potentially having had an extra-marital affair. This got out of hand when Nisa started pointing fingers at the young women of the camp, trying to figure out who the culprit was. Lee observed that the general consensus of the camp was that Kashe was a faithful husband, and Nisa  was being unreasonably suspicious. Eventually one of the women, Kwoba, slapped Nisa for disrespecting her, and the two women had a brief physical fight before the men broke them apart. By this point, the language of the discourse had shifted from the normal style to the altered style of a nwa. For the rest of the night, Nisa had a number of similar arguments with her husband and other women of the camp. The next morning, Nisa and Kashe left Dobe to spend several days visiting a relative at a different waterhole. After they returned, Nisa went out of her way to mend the relationships with the women she insulted for about three weeks until the camp appeared to be normal again. Lee points out that this fight is typical many nwa he recorded over the course of his studies because of the pattern of escalation, restrain encouraged by the onlookers, release mechanisms used to avoid more serious conflict, and broken relationships fixed amongst individuals who choose to continue to live in the same camp. (p. 113) As was witnessed, however, the line between a talking conflict and one which erupts in hand-to-hand combat can be quite blurry.


Combat engaged in without weapons or the intent to kill is often the stage reached when a nwa between individuals escalates. Fighting without weapons occur between individuals of both genders. Of the 34 fights recorded by Lee in the Dobe waterhole, "11 involved men only, 8 were between women, and 15 were between men and women." (p. 113) Such combat tends to be engaged in publicly promptly following a shouting match, and the audience may either attempt to separate the fighters, or in certain circumstances, may egg on the fighters. (p. 113-114) Fighting without weapons tends to be 2-5 minute of wrestling and hitting at close quarters, and are normally ended by the others separating the fighters. (p. 114) This usually leads to more nwa, and sometimes more actual fighting. However, the talk just as often turns from anger to laughter and joking, giving the fighters an escape after angst has been released. Similarly, one or both parties to a dispute will go and visit different a different camp for a few days or weeks. (Id) Lee observes that this separation, "is an excellent form of conflict resolution, and people like the Ju/'hoansi, with little investment in fixed property, find it easier to split up temporarily than stay locked together in a difficult argument." (p. 114) Thus, while they can avoid the need to set up a traditional legal system in order to mitigate their disputes, it appears these systems would not be applicable to societies with a sedentary lifestyle.

Deadly Conflict

When neither reverting to talking nor fission resolve a dispute between two males with hunting equipment, the result can have fatal consequences. While not common, there were a recorded 22 cases of homicide in the Dobe area between 1920 and 1955, with 15 other cases of nonfatal fights where poison tipped weapons were used. (p. 113) (starting around 1955, the intrusion of anthropologists and the extra resources they brought caused deadly conflicts to become non-existent until the 1970s) Deadly combat is most often between men of hunting age (around 20 to 50 years), partially because they own poison tipped hunting weapons and partially because they generally escalate rather than retreat from a fight. (p. 115) Similarly, all 25 killers in the 22 cases of homicide were men, and 19 of the 22 victims were also men. (p. 116) Of the three female victims, two were actually unfortunate bystanders. (Id)  As such, many prevention mechanisms are aimed at stopping men of hunting age from having any reason to fight.

Because !Kung own little property, the main foci of violent conflict are sexuality and marriage. (p. 85) Since most homicides occur between two men fighting over a woman, marriage negotiations are often the most stressful time for a camp. (p. 115) A good example of this is the case of Debe (a suitor) and Bo (Tisa's sister's husband) over whether Debe could marry Tisa. (p. 115-117) They all lived in the same camp, and Debe wanted to marry Tisa, but Bo wanted to take her as his second wife. The two quarreled until they started fighting. Then Bo started firing poisoned arrows at Debe's family. This lead to Bo's friend and Debe's father, Hxome, (a k"ausi of a n!ore)  dead along with several other wounded. This conflict was then temporarily halted because Debe's family left to live at another waterhole.

Debe's fight with Bo gives two insights into the normal occurrences of a deadly conflict. First, members of a deadly conflict are often members of the same camp. Second, because the fight is often a public quarrel, they escalate quickly and can draw in participation from others when arrows start hitting unintended targets. Because killings can draw lines between kin groups, blood feuds can result. Of the 22 homicides in the Dobe area, 15 were from connected blood feuds. (p. 116) Similarly, in the nearby area of Nyae Nyae, 9 people were killed over the course of an 20-year blood feud resulting from bad marriage negotiations. (Id) These feuds are not stopped by the normal fission strategies because of the lasting determination to be the party who killed last, and can sometimes result in a bizarre ending that Lee describes as the Ju/'hoansi's "trump card" used to end a string of homicides.

Resolution Solutions for Feuds: Execution and Foreign Courts

The conflict between Debe and Bo could have gone on as a feud if it were not ended after a ritual which westerners can only describe as an execution. During the weeks immediately after Debe's family left to live at another camp, Debe was told by his elder kinsmen that the fight had ended unfairly because Hxome was a k"ausi (leader and elder of the camp), whilst Bo's family had only lost a young man from poison. Thus, Debe should go kill Bo's father,  Gau, because Gau is also a k"ausi and was the one who killed Hxome. So, "One evening Debe walked right into Gau's camp and without saying a word short three arrows into Gau, one in the left shoulder, one in the forehead, and a third in the chest. Gau's people made no move to protect him."(p. 117) Then, Gau's people peacefully asked Debe to leave, and no more conflict occurred. Lee states that there is no explanation for the actions of Gau's people not protecting Gau other than the general knowledge that Gau had killed, and the only way to resolve the conflict was to allow Gau to himself be killed. Gau is not a unique case either, as three other homicide victims were themselves murders who were publically executed in similar manners. (p. 116) All four recorded examples of executions effectively ended the feud, indicating that this strategy is used because it is truly useful in avoiding future conflict.

Since the Ju/'hoansi people of eastern Namibia have been included in Botswana's political power starting in the 1950s, courts of the Botswana Black Sans have been increasingly used by the Ju to resolve disputes. (p. 118) The universal headman, Isak Utigile, was appointed to make dealing with the distinct camps easier for their sedentary neighbors. This centralized structure allowed the headman to preside over internal disputes brought to him by different Ju. When the court is used to resolve an internal dispute, it is called the kgotla. The kgotla was used to either resolve homicides or prevent disputes from reaching the level of deadly conflict, and it is a primary reason for the lack of violent conflict between the 1950s and the 1970s. (Id) The lack of law means the court is not binding in any way, so it relies on the parties of the dispute to respect the resolution proposed by the headman.  As such, after violence returned in the 1970s when Namibia began suffering from a civil war, many court rulings were ignored. One case from Nyae Nyae includes an offender who was killed after he served a prison sentence in South African prisons based on the recommendation of the kgotla. (Id) It seems that while Ju are often willing to respect the ending of a conflict by the use of execution, there is less willingness to respect the decision of a foreign court of law.

Prevention and Release Mechanisms: A Replacement for Law in Foraging Societies

            Prevention and release mechanisms come in a variety of social and cultural norms. Rather then, as violable laws do, functioning to discourage bad behavior by punishing it, many of these mechanisms discourage bad behavior by instilling escape routes and discouraging discourse at virtually every step leading up to a conflict. These mechanisms, while overlap in many aspects, generally fall within three categories: bond formation, bond maintenance, and the use of public discourse by members of a camp to encourage sharing and discourage violence.

Bond Forming

            The primary mechanism by which !Kung prevent and resolve conflicts is by voluntary ostracism from the camp by one of both members of the dispute. In order to always have this as an option, Ju need to have lasting bonds with individuals from other camps so that there is another camp that can welcome the ostracized. The ability to seamlessly transition to another waterhole is resolved by the flexible kinship rules, while long distance relationships are kept strong by three distinct forms of cultural trading.


            While many sedentary societies rely on kinship to define unbreakable bonds between individuals used to draw lines in conflicts, the Ju/'hoansi tend to use kinship in a different way. By allowing new bonds to be formed just as easily as old bonds are discarded, kinship for the Ju is one of the mechanisms that help a party to a dispute seamlessly transition to live at a different camp after leaving many former kinsmen behind. The intricacies of how this function requires an understanding of relationship between the three levels of kinship: familial kin, naming kin, and a process by which differences between those two are resolved, called wi. While there are whole books written on the subject, this will be as brief a discussion as possible while still including the basics needed to understand how kinship functions as a dispute resolution mechanism.

            While there are many nuances to how to define the kinship between two individuals, doing so is as necessary as exchanging names is in our culture. Essentially, there are two types of kin defined relationships: familiar and avoidance. Deciding who is in each category starts with the relationships within the first line or two of familial kinship. In general, everyone of your familial kin who are in your generation (siblings, cousins) or a skipped generation (grandparent/grandchild) are familiar. Likewise, everyone in a generation immediately above or below (parents, children, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces) are avoidance. Familiar individuals will joke and discuss private and sexual matters with each other, while avoidance individuals only interact in respectful and public ways.

Everyone a Ju will ever meet will fall within a kinship group, which is based on the relationship between the familial kin and the naming kin. Naming kinship, again, has many nuanced rules which are not needed for this paper, but the basics are hard wired into the Ju/'hoansi language. In the whole of the Ju/'hoansi language, there are only 35 male and 32 female names. (p. 69) Thus, virtually everyone a Ju meets has a name the Ju already associates with a familial relative or non-familial kinsman at his home camp. This also results in the classification of the new found friend as either a familiar or avoidance relationship based on the relationship with the family member or friend who shares that name. 

              The fact that all individuals who meet each other decide how to act around one another based on two potentially conflicting kinship trees is resolved by the third level of kinship: wi. Wi is the generally practiced rule that the older of the two individuals decides the kinship relationship as either familiar or avoidance based on the older individual's already existing kinship relationships with people who share the younger individual's name. (p. 72-73) Being treated as an elder comes with certain benefits (as explained below under Complaint Discourse), and determining when you are an elder is based on when you wied more than half of the people you are kin with. (p. 73) While there are many other nuances to this practice, when wi is combined with familial and naming kinship, it allows any individual to treat a new acquaintance as kin. This allows the Ju to visit different camps and know how to act around anybody as soon as kinship is established. Because visiting a camp means being included in the work and sharing of the camp, it is important that all individuals living in a camp treat one another as kin, by either being respectful to an avoidance kin or friendly with a familiar kin. This can allow, when forced by a fight, a permanent move to a previously visited waterhole to be a readily available option. This system where everyone an individual knows is treated as kin, however, has the drawback that not all kin are treated as close relationships.

Marriage: Gifts and limitations

            The most important kinship link to a foreign camp tends to be family through marriages. If a marriage lasts the first few years, it is likely to last until someone dies. (p. 81) In order to make sure a lasting bond is struck between two compatible families, a suitor must first persuade the family to begin marriage negations be initiating an exchange of traditional betrothal gifts known as kamasi. Although the objects traded tend to not be very useful, they are traditional, symbolic, or interesting items freely given from the suitor to the bride's family members. (p. 78-79) A suitor's commitment to both the marriage and the lasting bonds with her family are judged by the gifts, and failure to exchange good gifts can often be the cause of dissolving marriage negotiations and sometimes the beginning of a violent conflict. (Id) To avoid complicated and accidental disputes arising from young marriages, first marriages are traditionally arranged by the parents. (p. 77-78) This allows the complicated kamasi exchange and relationship forming to be carried out by the parents to reduce the risk of complications and to encourages specific alliances between camps.

            Naming kinship has an interesting intersect with marriages. a spouse who shares a name with the one of the other spouse's avoidance familial relationship (parents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews) or is of the same generation relationship (siblings, cousins) is not acceptable because it is considered incest. (p. 78) Application of the rule drastically reduces the amount of appropriate potential spouses, and often an individual will not know whether or not marriage is possible until full kinship information is exchanged. Combined with the open and relaxed approach the !Kung generally take towards sexual promiscuity in childhood, this rule makes marriage something that is almost purely considered for long-term alliance building.

 Because marriages build such important alliances, marriage negotiations and kamasi exchange are a precarious situations for all parties involved, and can often melt down or turn into violent conflict.  This threat of violence is the driving force for arranging marriages of children when they are very young. (p. 85) To demonstrate this, Lee observed that the area whose average age of a girl's arranged marriage was youngest was the Nyae Nyae region that also boasted the highest number of homicides. While the negotiating phase can be dangerous, once a marriage alliance is formed, it becomes the basis for the primary method of retaining long-distance relationships: traditional trading of symbolic items.

Hxaro trade

            In essence, hxaro trading is distinguished from equivocal trading of useful goods in three major respects. First, the exchange is nonequivocal, so giving an individual a gift of certain value or type does not have any say in the sort of gift which will be given in return so long as things balance out in the long run. (p. 118) The reason for hxaro gifts are not to get and receive things of use but rather to build a long-term relationship with the trading partner. Second, there are specific norms and limitations on what sorts of items as to the sorts of items that can be used for hxaro exchange. Some standard examples include tools, pipes, jewelry, dogs, women's beadwork, foreign goods from Bantu-speaking neighbors, and especially goods from Europe. (p. 119) While not often useful, the items traded and number of trading partners is a social expression of wealth that most Ju strive to achieve. As an individual named !Xoma put it, "You see, we don't trade with things, we trade with people!" (p. 119) The two major limitations are that food and people, even for marriage, are never given through hxaro. (p 120) Thus, marriage exchange of kamasi may resemble hxaro, but the two are distinct systems of forming and maintaining bonds. Third, the gifts are delayed, so that during each meeting of hxaro trading the end of one exchange takes place before the beginning of a new exchange happens prior to the parties going their separate ways. (p. 121) This third aspect intertwines with the conflict prevention and release mechanism functions of the hxaro trade.

            In order to maintain a hxaro trading partner, a trip must be made to visit the trading partner's camp for several days once every year or so. The visit at the foreign waterhole can last from a few days to a few weeks, and allows the visiting party ample opportunity to acquire new wi kinship with the other members of the camp. (p. 120) Lee points out that all of his studies could not shed light as to whether the trade was an excuse to visit friends or the decision to go on a trip was an excuse to engage in trade. (Id) Regardless, it appears that the primary social function of having hxaro trade is to retain a network of other camps which one can, at any time for any reason, decide to up and go live at for any amount of time. (p. 122) Since the individual has already stayed at the camp for several days on several prior occasions, it does not unsettle the subsistence strategies or political balance of the camp to suddenly decide to go visit the camp in order to alleviate a fight. Similarly, if killing or unlivable conditions arise, a permanent move is similarly not that difficult to consider.

The other primary social function of the hxaro trading is to level wealth differences between individuals, families, and waterholes. Since having many hxaro trading partners is more of a sign of wealth than actually owning property is, individuals who have things worth trading will spend time seeking hxaro partners to trade with. (p. 122) This process first begins between in-laws of a marriage after kamasi exchange stopped. During the visit to the waterhole of the in-laws, new hxaro trading partners can be found among the residents of the foreign camp. As individuals move from camp to camp for one reason or another, this network can then grow to encompass virtually every camp within a reasonable distance. Since the ability to visit a camp is also the ability to move to that camp in a time of need, having more options is a more useful type of wealth than hording wealth in the form of pieces of art or objects traded from foreigners.

Trading partners are not permanent commitments, and actually take maintenance. If the item exchanged is not up to expectations, it could be a sign that the trading partner is losing interest in the relationship. (p. 121) Similarly, if too much time has passed since that last exchange, the ability to rely on that camp as a place to go to in a time of need because questionable. Lee stated, however, that "fights about hxaro are usually a symptom of an underlying conflict rather than the cause in themselves." (Id) Trading partners also tend to dissolve as the individuals age, mostly due to the inability of people past the age of about 60 to make regular visits to other camps.

Arrow sharing

            As elaborated further upon below, the Ju/'hoansi have many societal norms regarding the ownership and distribution of meat. One of these rules has bond forming implications related to hxaro trading: the owner of the arrow is the owner of the meat. (p. 53) This is important because the owner of the meat decides the meat distribution, so regardless of who actually killed the game, the owner of the arrow receives the social benefit of the kill. Arrows are also a traditional hxaro gift to give to men, and can be given from either men or women. Thus, trading arrows is an especially strong use of trading to form long-distance bonds because of the lasting obligation to owe meat. If, as often is the case, the owner of the arrow lives at a far away camp, the hunter must save a portion of the dried meat to give to the arrow owner to get rid of that debt. Failure to do so can result in dissolving of a trading relationship and may lead to violence.

Bond Flexibility

            The systems which have already been looked at are in place to allow lasting bonds with other camps turn into new living arrangements. Ju/'hoansi camps, property ownership, marriages, and kinship are all flexible to allow such decisions to live at a different camp to be a viable option as soon as a conflict emerges.

Flexibility in camp arrangements

The Ju/'hoansi camp is the Chu/ o, literally "the face of the huts." Traditionally, a waterhole group will build 3-5 camps a year, ranging from the fairly permanent dry season village near the waterhole to the rainy season camp built of different materials to be more easily repairable, and also include spring/fall camps that do not have actual huts. (p. 32-33) In general, the lack of permanent settlement means that, at any time and for any reason, an individual or family can choose to leave a certain camp and go live with a different chu/ o around a different waterhole.

Flexibility in Property Ownership: N!ore and K"ausi

            The area of wilderness around each waterhole is known as the n!ore. Because the chu/ o (camp) that lives near any particular waterhole is the basic political group by which the !Kung organize themselves by, this group needs some sort of leadership. While there is no such thing as a chief in traditional !Kung culture, there is always a group of related elders who have an ambiguous amount of power over what goes on around their n!ore. (p. 61) This group of owners of the waterhole and its natural resources are known as the k"ausi. If anyone from the chu/ o wishes to have a hxaro trading visitor, they must first gain permission from the k"ausi; who must be asked and how many must agree seems to vary by the camp. (p. 109) K"ausi are often related siblings or cousins, using the name of an already dead common relative for the name of the chu/ o, but there are camps who's k"ausi are a group of unrelated elders using the name from just one individual's ancestor. (p. 111) This ambiguous amount of power separated between an ever-changing group of elders seems to be a flexible trait of Ju/'hoansi society that allows even the most civil-war type disputes to find lasting resolution after a n!ore changes ownership.

Flexibility in marriage

            Marriage amongst the !Kung may be governed by strict incest rules, but it exists without any other sort of restraint. While the arranging of marriages may be a strict and dangerous issue to deal with, once a ceremony has occurred, there seems to be little to stop individuals from doing as they please. Either spouse may, for any reason at any time, divorce the other and move away. (p. 81) About half of all arranged first marriages end in divorce. Similarly, once divorced, there is no stigma attached to the divorced concerning ability to remarry. Because !Kung children engage in sexual play starting at an early age, conceptions of virginity are not present. Thus, there is no resisting societal force stopping a second, third, or fourth marriage of an individual with a bad divorce record. (p. 88) Also, polygamy in all forms is practiced, although rarely, in varying way as consenting partners see fit. (p. 82) Because of the lack of stigma attached to sexual activity, homosexuality is not shunned or considered bizarre. (p. 89) Another result of the lack of stigma is that rape and sexual assault were almost completely unheard of until the introduction of alcohol consumption in the 1990s. (Id)

Flexibility in kinship

            As explained above, kinship in Ju/'hoansi society is malleable to allow proper long-term relationships to arise between individuals who are not familialy related. This flexibility is useful for the survival of a camp. (p. 63-64) When a conflict arises, sharing strategies for food collection and distribution break down, causing the survival of the camp to go into question. The ability to up and leave the present camp for a different one without conflicts is a very useful mechanism that an average Ju may exercise several times through his life.  

Use of Public Discourse

            The Ju/'hoansi's primary replacement for the incentives and disincentives of a traditional legal system of violable rules is the constant use of semi-serious complaining as the main means of expressing one's desires to another. It is semi-serious in the sense that while the ultimate goal of what the person is complaining about is a desire they wish to incentivize or deter, the accusations of violating the norms of sharing tend to be overstated. The three purposes which this use of public discussion to promote or deter certain conduct are to deter hunters becoming egomaniacs, to promote equitable sharing of meat, and to force proper sharing of work and care needed to look after elders. In each, there are examples of public discourse which use outrageous rhetoric to promote sensible ideas.

Insulting the meat

            As explained above, meat makes up less than a third of the total caloric intake, and is really relied on more for its social value than its nutritional value. A problem caused by this is that because only men of a certain age and physical prowess can hunt, there can be a tendency of those individuals to gain the sort of inflated ego that can cause conflict and disrupt egalitarian life. (p. 48) One of the primary ways to avoid hunters from becoming too self-obsessed is the tradition known as "Insulting the meat." Essentially, when a hunter returns with a successful large kill, he is expected to display act like it didn't happen. (p. 51) Similarly, upon hearing the news, others will display indifference or negativity at the news. The reality of these exchanges appears more of a knowing "wink-wink, nudge-nudge," as / Gaugo explains:

Say that a man has been hunting. he must not come home and announce like a braggart, "I have killed a big one 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.

(p. 52). This trend of negativity and indifference continues throughout the game recovery and butchery process. The joking is all aimed at one goal: to make sure that the man who killed the animal does not feel special for having done so. This strategy to prevent conflict is deeply imbedded in something as mundane as the verbal exchanges between a successful hunter and his camp-members, but it clearly promotes egalitarian sharing of resources while preventing the primary source of deadly conflict from becoming the sort of person to get in fights.

Meat distribution

            The rule of "owner of the arrow owners the meat" results simply in deciding who is responsible for meat distribution. Any kill of sizable game is expected to be shared with the people of the camp from the n!ore which the animal was killed in. After a kill, sizable distributions of meat are expected to be given to the k"ausi, to the hunter who killed it, to all family members living at the camp, and smaller portions are given to virtually everyone at the camp. (p. 48) Improper distribution of meat can be the cause of complaints and bickers for weeks, and on rare occasions can lead to more serious conflicts. As a note, because women can own arrows, women are also often the owner/distributor a meat even though they do not hunt. (p. 53)

Complaint Discourse

            One of the disadvantageous results of the flexible kinship systems is a reduction in the incentive to provide care for one's kin. This can be a very bad thing for a camp of kin who rely on egalitarian subsistence strategies to continue surviving in the Kalahari desert.  The Ju/'hoansi, as well as other !Kung language speaker, have a solution to the lack of internal motivation: external motivation in the form of horehore or obaoba  ("yikady-yak"). (p. 98) Generally, this is joking but adversarial complaining used to reinforce obligations to share all forms of work and wealth through the camp.

Amongst the anthropologists, one of the first things every notices is how the Ju seemed constantly on the verge of an argument that never seemed to erupt. Examples of this behavior include the fact that the evening campfire conversation often centered around accusations of improper meat distribution, improper hxaro gift exchange, stinginess, and the general shortcoming of others. (p. 98) In a bizarre twist, these barrages of insults and complaints were often broken up by jokes and laughter. (p. 98-99) Harriet Rosenberg relayed a story of how she was receiving a long list of public accusations from a local woman, the woman "stepped out of character, altered the tone of her voice, and in a whisper announced, 'We have to talk this way. It's out custom.' Then she stepped back into character and resumed her attacks." (p. 98) It seems that this norm in exchanging verbal critiques of each other in a semi-serious manner serves as both an incentive to share in work and property as well as a deterrence of undesirable activity.

One of the key functions of this is to encourage elder care and to avoid elder abuse. If one were to observe the interaction between an elder and the rest of the camp, it would appear as if the elder is demeaning and unappreciative of the care provided. (p. 103) Similarly, siblings and cousins of an individual with whom an elder is staying with will also berate the person for not providing adequate care. In fact, there is no binding obligation for a child to care for anyone, be it parents, grandparents, or other elder kin. (p. 104) The only deterrence is by the verbal complaints from the elder and other related kin. However, the incentive of having a similar unquestioned right to be cared for as an elder encourages younger individuals to make sure those who are currently elders are well cared for. Another aspect to this is that, in general, an elder may have a vast network of different kin who are tasked with providing some care, allowing for proper sharing of the work. (p. 106) One case showed a group of 8 related elders were being taken care of by a network of 44 individual. (p. 106) Like with all of the other semi-legal mechanisms of the Ju/'hoansi, this too relies on the interplay of several other societal mechanisms to provide the appropriate effect. 





Lee, Richard B. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi. South Melbourne: Wadsworth Publishing/Thomson          Learning, 2003. 


A Note on the Source

The only source for this paper is The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, which is part of a series of case studies in cultural anthropology published by Thomson Learning designed for beginner to intermediate anthropology students. The book is written and assembled by Richard B. Lee of university of Toronto, who was the first anthropologist to make contact with the Dobe Ju in 1963, and the author and editor of the preeminent collection of articles on the Dobe Ju/'hoansi (which shares its name with this book but was originally published as The Dobe !Kung). Lee is one of the most prolific anthropologists of for the region, having devoted virtually his whole career to the !Kung, and having visited them many times between 1963 and 2001 (as of the writing of the book). He states that while he does use much of his own material in the book, he often relies on the studies of others (and when he does so, he cites the source). Internet research as indicated that a fourth edition of this book was published in 2012, but this paper relies on the third edition from 2003.

Chapter 8, titled "Complaint Discourse",  is a case study contributed to the book by Harriet Rosenberg. Everything cited between p. 91 and 108 is written by her.