Foraging for wild plants and hunting wild animals is the most ancient of human subsistence patterns. Prior to 10,000 years ago, all people lived in this way. Hunting and gathering continues to be the subsistence pattern of some societies around the world including the !Kung. The !Kung population is located in the Kalahari Desert, in isolated parts of Botswana, Angola, and Namibia. The !Kung live in a harsh environment with temperatures during the winter frequently below freezing, but during the summer well above 100F. The !Kung, like most hunter-gatherer societies, have a division of labor based mainly on gender and age.
(Body) Gender in the Division of Labor
For the most part in the !Kung society the men do the hunting and the women do the foraging. The women gather roots, berries, fruits, and nuts. Typical foods they might return with are mongongo nuts, baobab fruits, water roots, bitter melon, or !Gwa berries. A women will walk between two and twelve miles two or three times a week to go gathering. Food brought back by women makes up over two-thirds of the nourishment in a !Kung village. Typical game sought in the hunt includes wildebeest, gemsbok, and giraffe; they also kill various reptiles and birds, and collect honey when it is available. A man will walk between 1200 and 2100 miles a year in the pursuit of the fifty-five species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects considered edible. However if a hunt is unsuccessful, he may collect some vegetable foods on his way home so as not to come back to the village empty handed.
It was once believed that hunting was the main source of livelihood among hunter-gatherer people, and that it was the single most important activity. "Research on nutrition
has revealed that the most important source of nutrition are tubers, insects, edible plants, and small creatures gathered by the women, while the men's hunting activities are irregular, uncertain and form no reliable basis for subsistence" (Eriksen 1995: 126-127). Nonetheless, the men see their society as a hunting society, and the women's routine work was not given the same symbolic importance as hunting. This is probably because the hunts are so dangerous and takes great skill, while the women's gathering is routine work. Meat is considered more valuable than gathered foods. When someone comes back with meat from a hunt excitement, creeps over the entire village. Nisa explains, "Once, when our father came back carrying meat, we both called out, Ho, ho, Daddy! Ho, ho, Daddy!
Daddys bringing home meat! Daddys coming home with meat!" (Shostak 1981: 79). Afterwards everyone sits around the fire and tells stories of the hunt and the kill.
!Kung men vary widely in their skill at hunting, but different levels of success do not lead to differences in status. The hunter is very modest about his kill and quietly sits around the fire. If his demeanor is interpreted as boastful, pointed jokes may be used to pressure him back into line. The problem for the truly accomplished hunter is to perform as well as possible without provoking envy or anger in others. This strain may be decreased by the custom of sharing arrows, which helps to diffuse responsibility for the kill. A less successful hunter may feel empowered with confidence when using a more successful hunter's arrow. In addition, hunters alternate hunting with long periods of inactivity, thereby affording others the opportunity to bring in meat and to receive praise and attention of the group.
Women play a major role in the household in cooking, collecting wood and water, and are responsible for close to 90 percent of child care. The !Kung infant is almost never separated from their mother and is carried in a sling all day and sleeps beside the mother at night. Separation from the mother becomes more frequent after the middle of the second year, but even then it is initiated by the child, who is steadily drawn into the...
Cited: Shostak, Marjorie. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Women. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1981
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Small Places, Large Issues. Pluto Press. Sterling, VA. 1995
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