ǃKung people

"!Kung" redirects here. For the language of the !Kung people, see !Kung language.

The ǃKung, also spelled ǃXun, are a San people living in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, Botswana and in Angola.[1] They speak the !Kung language, noted for its extensive use of click consonants. The "!K" in the name "ǃKung" is a click that sounds something like a cork pulled from a bottle. However, the click is generally ignored in English, where the name is pronounced "Kung".

Historically, the ǃKung lived in semi-permanent camps of about 10–30 people usually located around a water body. Once the water and resources around the village were depleted, the band would relocate to a more resource-rich area. They lived a hunting and gathering lifestyle with the men responsible for providing meat, making tools, and maintaining a supply of poison-tipped arrows and spears. The women provided most of the food by spending between two and three days per week foraging for roots, nuts and berries in the Kalahari Desert.[2] As a hunter-gatherer society, they were highly dependent on each other for survival. Hoarding and stinginess were frowned upon, and the ǃKung's emphasis was on collective wealth for the tribe, rather than on individual wealth.[3]


The ǃKung people of southern Africa are both animistic and animatistic, which means they believe in both personifications and impersonal forces. They believe in a god named Prishiboro who had a wife that was an elephant. Prishiboro's older brother tricked him into killing his wife and, later, into eating her flesh. Her herd tried to kill Prishiboro in revenge, but his brother defeated them.

ǃKung people also have many taboos concerning the dead, as they believe that the ghosts (ǁgangwasi) of the deceased would cause them injury or death. It is against the rules to even say the name of someone dead, once an annual ceremony to release the spirits of the dead has been performed.

The ǃKung practice shamanism to communicate with the spirit world, and to cure what they call Star Sickness. The communication with the spirit world is done by a natural healer entering a trance state and running through a fire, thereby chasing away bad spirits. Star Sickness is cured by laying hands on the diseased. Nisa, a ǃKung woman, reports through anthropologist Marjorie Shostak[4] that a healer in training is given a root to help induce trance. Nisa says, "I drank it a number of times and threw up again and again. Finally I started to tremble. People rubbed my body as I sat there feeling the effect getting stronger and stronger. . . . Trance-medicine really hurts! As you begin to trance, the n/um [power to heal] slowly heats inside you and pulls at you. It rises until it grabs your insides and takes your thoughts away."

Child birth

The ǃKung consider the earth the first mother of all people in the tribe.

ǃKung women give birth with the earth as primary midwife (a form of unassisted childbirth) walking away from the village camp as far as a mile during labour and bearing the child alone, delivering it into a small leaf-lined hole dug into the warm sand. The child's cord is not clamped or cut (a form of Lotus birth or umbilical nonseverance), and the placenta is delivered and put next to the child, as guardian. Shortly thereafter, the baby-placenta is lightly covered with another large leaf, and the new mother walks a short way to verbally alert the older women of the completed birth, at which time they join the mother and child in a ritual welcoming. If a labouring woman is delayed in returning a sign to the village that she has given birth, the older women will come looking for her to assist; however, it is said to be a rare occurrence.[5]

Time between the births of children was traditionally about 3 - 5 years. Because there weren't cereal grains to feed children before they could eat adult food, children nursed for 3 - 5 years. This ended when a mother was pregnant with another child. This made travelling long distances on foot, like to a gathering site or new settlement, easier, since fewer children required carrying and population numbers remained controlled.[6]

During times of deprivation, infanticide was permitted to preserve resources.[7]

Gender roles

Traditionally, especially among Juǀʼhoansi ǃKung, women generally collected plant foods and water, providing 60–80% of sustenance to the group, while men hunted. However, these were not strict and people do jobs as needed with little or no shame. So women could grow up hunting and men could do gathering. Women generally took care of children and preparing of food, however, this didn't restrict them to homes, because these activities were generally done with, or close to, others, so women could socialise and help each other. Men also engaged in these activities.[6]

Children would be raised in village groups of other children of a wide age range. Sexual activities amongst children were seen as natural play for both sexes.[6]

Marriage was generally between a man in his twenties and a girl in her teens (14–18 years old). Newlyweds lived in the same village as the wife's family so that she had family support during her new life. Often, young wives would return to their parents' houses to sleep until they become comfortable with their husbands. During this time, the husband would hunt for his wife's family (bridewealth). If the couple never became comfortable, separation was acceptable, prompted by either partner. If they did become a stable couple, they could reside with either family, settling with which ever was beneficial at a time. Divorce remained possible throughout marriage. Extramarital sex wasn't condoned, but was equally acceptable for each spouse. Domestic violence was prevented because villages were small and close and houses were open so that neighbours and relatives could intervene as needed.[6]

ǃKung women often share an intimate sociability and spend many hours together discussing their lives, enjoying each other's company and children. In the short documentary film "A Group of Women" ǃKung women rest, talk and nurse their babies while lying in the shade of a baobab tree. This film is a good illustration of "collective mothering" in which several women support each other and share the nurturing role.[8]

Social structure and hierarchy

Within complex food-foraging groups it can often be possible to have a chieftain or headman in position of power over the other members. In the case of the ǃKung, this is a special circumstance. These San are not devoid of leadership, but neither are they dependent on it in the slightest. San groups of the Southern Kalahari have had chieftains in the past, however it is a somewhat complicated process through which these members of the group would ascertain said position. Chieftainship within these San groups is not a position that has more power than the others; having the same social status as those members of "aged years".[9] Naming oneself as chieftain is closer to the simple addition of a name. There are responsibilities that the chieftain assumes, such as becoming the tribe's 'logical head'. This duty entails such roles as dividing up the meat from hunter's kills and these leaders do not get a larger portion than any other member of the village.[9]

Use of kinship terms

The ǃKung classify everyone who bears the same name as close kinsmen as if they were relatives proper. If a ǃKung man's sister is called Kxaru (a female name), then all women named Kxaru are his "sisters." A ǃKung man may not sit too close to his sisters or tell sexual jokes in their presence, and he cannot marry them. The same rules apply to his sisters' namesakes. To the ǃKung, such customs identify "true" and not merely metaphorical kinship. The ǃKung believe that all namesakes are descended from the same original namesake ancestor, and in effect they treat the status of namesake as a genealogical position, like father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter.

Hunting rituals

Hunting could take days of tracking, attacking, and following a wounded animal. The Juǀʼhoansi had rituals to prevent arrogance amongst male hunters. When a man killed an animal, he would not take it directly into the settlement, but would leave the body and return as if he was unsuccessful. An older man would inquire about his hunt and remark upon his failure, at which the hunter must avoid credit and accept humility. Through a long process, eventually, likely the next day, a group would go "see if some small animal was nicked by an arrow." Upon finding the hunter would be reassured of the little value of the kill which is finally returned. Additionally, the kill may belong not to him, but to the person who gave him arrows (a man or woman), who then followed rules on how to distribute the meat to everyone in the group.[6] Upon returning from a successful hunt, if the kill is transportable, it would be brought back to the village. The ǃKung promote the belief of community well-being and so the village elders or "those of mature years" will allot meat to the members of the group. Also believing in the betterment of other tribes, if the kill is too large to move or there is a surplus of meat, word will be spread to villages that are close by to collect meat for themselves.[9]


Main article: !Kung language

The !Kung language, commonly called Ju, is one of the larger Khoisan languages. Khoisan is a typological grouping of languages with clicks; the !Kung language was only satisfactorily demonstrated to be related to another language in 2010 (see Kx'a languages).

Recent history

Since the 1950s, the Juǀʼhoansi population had increased. Cattle ranches have brought cows to their traditional lands. Cows eat the sparse vegetation which the Juǀʼhoansi and their game animals need, as well as dirty the Juǀʼhoansi's water holes. This water pollution, along with the disappearance of native vegetation, has increased disease.

In addition to the problems involved in sharing water with cows, the Juǀʼhoansi are less mobile than in the past. The current governments of Namibia and Botswana, where the Juǀʼhoansi live, encourage permanent settlements with European style houses. With urban employment and industrialization, indigenous people are changing their nomadic lifestyle.

European-descended settlers have encouraged wage-paid agricultural labour, especially for men. Due to increased dependence on them and their access to wealth, men are valued more. Women, who traditionally prepared food, have taken up the preparing of millet. Millet is more difficult to process than traditional Joǀʼhoansi foods, and therefore women must spend more time preparing food for their household, leaving less time for employment outside the home.

The changing gender roles, growing inequality between the sexes, and transformation from a wandering hunter-gatherer lifestyle to life in a village have contributed to more domestic violence, as women are more dependent on men and are more restricted from outside intervention (they now have closed doors). Houses that are less open and wealth collection also challenge traditional sharing ideology.[6]

They also face problems involving their traditional lands' being sought after by cattle ranching peoples, European-descended peoples, wildlife reservers, and state governments.

In popular culture


  1. "Profiles: !Kung". OrvileJenkinscom.
  2. Fielder, Christine; King, Chris (1 February 2004). "Culture Out of Africa". Sexual Paradox: Complementarity, Reproductive Conflict, and Human Emergence. pp. 102–146. ISBN 1-4116-5532-X. Retrieved 2006-02-17.
  3. Shostak, Marjorie "Nisa: The Life and Words of a ǃKung woman, ISBN 0-674-00432-9, pp. 87–89, 2nd edition 2006, Harvard University Press, Marjorie Shostack
  4. Shostak, Marjorie "Nisa: The Life and Words of a ǃKung woman, ISBN 0-674-00432-9, pp. 316–317, 2nd edition 2006, Harvard University Press, Marjorie Shostack
  5. Shostak, Marjorie "Nisa: The Life and Words of a ǃKung woman, ISBN 0-674-00432-9, pp. 77–81, 2nd edition 2006, Harvard University Press,
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Bonvillain, Nancy (2001). Women and Men: Cultural Constructs of Gender
  7. http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21569005-americas-best-known-geographer-shows-what-there-learn-early-man-no-beating Traditional societies: No beating about the bush
  8. Documentary Film: "A Group of Women" (from the San (Ju/Wasi) Series, John Marshal, 1961, available through Documentary Educational Resources
  9. 1 2 3 Brownlee, Frank (1943). The Social Organization of the Kung (ǃUn) Bushmen of the North-Western Kalahari
  10. "Kung History". Phish.net. Retrieved 18 December 2015.

Further reading

  • Katz, Richard: Boiling Energy, Community Healing among the Kalahari Kung (1982). Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
  • Lee, Richard B.: Subsistence Ecology of ǃKung Bushmen (1965), PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
  • Lee, Richard B.: The ǃKung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society (1979), Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 9 available here)
  • Lee, Richard B.: Politics, sexual and non-sexual, in an egalitarian society (1982). In E. Leacock & R. B. Lee (Eds.), Politics and History in Band Societies (pp. 37–59). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lee, Richard B.: Art, science, or politics? The crisis in hunter-gatherer studies (March 1992). American Anthropologist 94(1), 31–54.
  • Lee, Richard B.: The Dobe Juǀʼhoansi (2003), 3rd ed., Thomson Learning/Wadsworth.
  • Sahlins, Marshall: "The Original Affluent Society"
  • Shostak, Marjorie: Nisa The Life and Words of a ǃKung Woman, (2006 special edition) Boston: Harvard University Press.
  • Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall: The Old Way, A Story of the First People (2006), New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

External links

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