Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Richard Borshay Lee - The !Kung San: Men, Women & Work in a Foraging Society

Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongos in the world? - /Xashe, a !Kung man from Mahopa

Richard B Lee's classic book on the hunter-gatherer people known as the !Kung San, who call themselves the Juǀʼhoansi, was the product of several expeditions and years of field work by Lee and his associates. But it is also the product of a uniquely radical period for anthropology. Lee first visited the !Kung in the mid-1960s and left to become part of the anti-Vietnam movement. His later return and further studies mixed with his experiences of US Imperialism and knowledge of the Vietnamese resistance movements, as well as his radical Marxist politics, to produce one of the most insightful and important books ever written about foraging societies.

Lee is careful not to speculate too much about what his studies of the !Kung tell us about other, prehistoric communities. Though he does acknowledge that we can have some insights into how those societies behaved. However Lee visited the !Kung in a period of transition. For tens of thousands of years people had lived in the Kalahari desert, likely in societies similar to the !Kung's contemporary life. But from the 19th century onward the !Kung had encountered new groups of people, in particular those from European colonial communities. More recently the !Kung's foraging life-style was being transformed by their relations with the capitalist market - through wage labour in particular.

In contrast to the tradition view of hunter-gatherers as living a life that was "nasty, brutish and short", Lee shows how the !Kung actually had a life that was marked by low levels of work (compared to Western capitalist society), with a usually (outside of droughts) varied and excellent diet and, perhaps most importantly, a "fiercely egalitarian" self organisation. Lee describes differences with other societies, noting for instance that young people and children did not have to labour to provide food (unlike peasant societies). Describing one group of !Kung he explains:
Their camps... do not consist of a core of males related through the male line [as previous anthropologists had argued]. But neither is the camp a random assortment of unrelated individuals whom adverse circumstances have thrown together. In essence, !Kung camp consists of kinspeople and affines who have found that they can live and work well together. under this flexible principle of organisation, brothers may be united or divided and fathers and sins may live together or apart. Furthermore, through the visiting network an individual may, during the course of his life, live for varying times at many water holes, as establishing residence and one camp does not require one to relinquish a claim to any other.
Lee's book works on a number of levels. Firstly it is a detailed account of the life and labour of the !Kung. Lee demonstrates how the !Kung's mode of production works - their tools, social organisation and relations. But it is also a wonderful example of the use of Marxism to understand how people (and communities) relate to the natural world. But Lee's work is far from the crude understanding of hunter-gatherers that we sometimes hear:
[An] inaccuracy is the view of hunters as having no private property. Land and its resources are collectively owned and utilised, but tools and other belongings are the property of the owner. Nonperishable goods are dealt with differently from foods. Meat many be distributed throughout the camp, but the bow and arrow that killed the animal belongs to the hunter. Material goods are important items of trade, and dyadic trade networks are a key means of cementing social relations; but the 'worker' owns the means of production.
Finally the book is a deeply personal account. Lee describes the dialectical relationship between observer and observed. He knows that his presence changes things, and uses this (to sometimes comic effect) to better understand the people that he is with. A case in point is when Lee provides a cow for a feast when he is leaving, failing to understand why the !Kung mock his gift as being small and inadequate despite it providing a hearty feast for all. Only later does he realise that this is part of how !Kung organise - their mocking of his largesse is an example of how they tackle arrogance, self-importance and any tendency to inequality or hierarchy.

The egalitarian, sharing, non-hierarchical society tells us a great deal about how human societies change. But perhaps of most interest in this book, and high relevance to contemporary discussions, is the emphasis that Lee puts on understanding the role of men and women in !Kung society. Food is always shared beyond the immediate family group. But the food that is shared is provided mostly by the women. There is a division of labour - women tend to forage and gather, and men hunt. Though it is clear that this is not strict. Men do often forage and collect food alongside the women, and women "very occasionally hunt". Lee writes that "the actual productive process may be individual or cooperative. Men may hunt singly or in groups; women may gather alone or with others".

Hunting is tremendously important to the group. Boys are taught from a young age to track and identify animals. Women's input on hunting is sought and is important because "they cover much ground on their gathering trips and because they are as keen observers of the environment as are the men, their observations are sought and taken seriously".  Men actually have a higher work effort than women (even when taking into account the rearing of children), but it is the women who provide most calories for the group. Work is key to Lee's study. He writes:
The beauty of the study of work is that work can be precisely quantified and can be tied into a whole gamut of social and economic variables. underlying the network of social relations anthropologists are so fond of studying is a network of energy relations to which we pay little or no attention. Yet the basic units of social behaviour and interaction have never been satisfactorily defined and isolated, although the basic units of energy relations are relatively easy to define and measure. The advantage of the study of work for anthropology is that it anchors the ephemera of social life on the foundations of the natural sciences.
This is not to say that Lee neglects the "ephemera" of !Kung life. In fact he spends a great deal on their tools, their camp life, their marital relations and how women and men work, play and rest (and they have a lot of rest - far more than those of us who work a 9-5 job have).

Time an again we are reminded of the inter-relations between men and women. Both men and women make tools, that might be used by the other sex. How does the labour break down?
Men clearly have the heavier share of work in subsistence and tool making and repair. Women do more housework than men, but overall the men appear to have a longer work week. The shorter subsistence workday of the women does not result in a lower return in foodstuffs... women provide more food per day of gathering than men provide per day of hunting. Women return to the camp earlier in the day than men. They use the time to ensure that the ostrich eggshell canteens are filled and that some food is prepared.
He continues:
A major category of work... is child care, and to the child's own mother falls 60 to 80 percent of the work with young children, a proportion that more than redresses the apparent disparity between men's and women;'s work... Neither do these figures support the notion that women are the exploited members of !Kung society. Their weekly work effort, including housework, is less than that of the men, and even adding the work of child rearing does not raise the women's total work load significantly above the range of the men's.
As the last quote indicates Lee's arguments are backed up with tremendous amounts of observational data. But this doesn't make the book dry. On the contrary it is readable and engaging. In fact there is so much here that I cannot hope to cover it all in the review. Whether it is the detailed description of how a !Kung hunter makes his most important tool - the arrow quiver, or how they poison their arrows or the spacing that !Kung women have of children and how this relates to hunter-gatherer life the book covers it all. There is also a detailed but extremely important discussion of violence within !Kung communities.

The final part of the book shows how the interaction between the hunter-gatherer communities and capitalist market networks had, at the time of study, begun to break down social relations. Lee shows how other groups' agriculture had encouraged sedentary life for some !Kung. Social relations are transformed with contact with a market economy - the production of commodities to be sold to tourist markets, or !Kung working in the mines. As Lee concludes:
The informal leadership, vague boundaries, and reciprocal access to resources worked well for the !Kung when the land was vast and the people were few. But with the transition to village life the old mechanisms have proved quite inadequate. The process of moving to a new mode of production involved the !Kung not only in changes in the economic base, but also has necessitated the emergence of new kinds of political relations, new forms of leadership and new methods of resolving disputes.
Lee's book is one of the best works of anthropology I have ever read. But that's not simply because his style is accessible, it is because his approach to the !Kung is one that begins from an attempt to study their life as part of a wider understanding of human society in all its forms. Lee's Marxist approach aids this but doesn't obscure it in jargon. His own humanity is written on every page, but the most important story is that of the !Kung whose story is captured at a particularly moment in their history. Richard B Lee's book tells their story but also part of own our history too.

Related Reviews

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Scott - Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Bellwood - The First Farmers
Martin - The Death of Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots
Flannery and Marcus - The Creation of Inequality
McAnany and Yoffee - Questioning Collapse
Engels - Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State
Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer
Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer
Gilligan - Climate, Clothing & Agriculture in Prehistory

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