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First Contact:

gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization


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About the Tribe

!Kung Bushmen

Each waterhole has a hinterland lying within a six-mile radius which is regularly exploited for vegetable and animal foods. These areas are not territories in the zoological sense, since they are not defended against outsiders. Rather they constitute the resources that lie within a convenient walking distance of a waterhole. The camp is a self-sufficient sub­ sistence unit. The members move out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a way that every person present receives an equitable share.

Another measure of nutritional adequacy is the average consumption of calories and pro­teins per person per day. The estimate for the Bushmen is based on observations of the weights of foods of known composition that were brought into Dobe camp on each day of the study period. The per-capita figure is ob­tained by dividing the total weight offoodstuffs by the total number of persons in the camp. These results are set out in detail elsewhere (Lee, 1969) and can only be summarized here. During the study period 410 pounds of meat were brought in by the hunters of the Dobe camp, for a daily share of nine ounces of meat per person. About 700 pounds of vege­table foods were gathered and consumed dur­ ing the same period. Table 5 sets out the calories and proteins available per capita in the !Kung Bushman dietary from meat, mongongo nuts, and other vegetable sources.

I have discussed how the !Kung Bushmen are able to manage on the scarce resources of their inhospitable environment. The essence of their successful strategy seems to be that while they depend primarily on the more stable and abundant food sources (vegetables in their case), they are nevertheless willing to devote considerable energy to the less reliable and more highly valued food sources such as medium and large mammals.


Importance of Animal Products

In their meat-eating habits, the Bushmen
show a similar selectivity. Of the 223 local
species of animals known and named by the
Bushmen, 54 species are classified as edible,
and of these only 17 species were hunted on a
regular basis. Only a handful of the dozens of edible species of small mammals, birds, rep­tiles, and insects that occur locally are regarded as food. Such animals as rodents, snakes, lizards, termites, and grasshoppers, which in the literature are included in the Bushman dietary ( Schapera, 1 930), are despised by the Bushmen of the Dobe area.

Listed in urder of their importance, the principal species in the diet are : 

wart hog, 








ant bear, 


guinea fowl, 

francolin (two species), 




they are nevertheless willing to devote considerable energy to the less reliable and more highly valued food sources such as medium and large mammals.

Importance of Plants

Here all the edible plant species are arranged in classes according to the frequency with which they were observed to be eaten. It should be noted, that although there are some 85 species available, about 90 per cent of the vegetable diet by weight is drawn from only 23 species. In other words, 75 per cent of the listed species provide only 1 0 per cent of the food value.

Vegetable foods comprise from 60-80 per cent of the total diet by weight, and col­lecting involves two or three days of work per woman per week. The men also collect plants and small animals but their major contribution to the diet is the hunting of medium and large game. The men are conscientious but not par­ticularly successful hunters; although men's and women's work input is roughly equivalent in terms of man-day of effort, the women pro­vide two to three times as much food by weight as the men.

It is impossible to define "abundance" of re­ sources absolutely. However, one index of relative abundance is whether or not a popula­ tion exhausts all the food available from a given area. By this criterion, the habitat ofthe Dobe­ area Bushmen is abundant in naturally occur­ ring foods. By far the most important food is the Mongongo (mangetti) nut (Ricinodendron rautanenii Schinz) . Although tens of thousands of pounds ofthese nuts are harvested and eaten each year, thousands more rot on the ground each year for want of picking.

The mongongo nut, because ofits abundance and reliability, alone accounts for 50 per cent of the vegetable diet by weight. In this respect it resembles a cultivated staple crop such as maize or rice. Nutritionally it is even more re­ markable, for it contains five times the calories and ten times the proteins per cooked unit of the cereal crops. The average daily per­ capita consumption of 300 nuts yields about

1,260 calories and 56 grams of protein. This modest portion, weighing only about 7.5 ounces, contains the caloric equivalent  o f 2 . 5 pounds o f cooked rice and the protein equiva­ lent of 14 ounces of lean beef (Vlatt and Merrill, 1963).

Furthermore the mongongo nut is drought resistant and it will still be abundant in the dry years when cultivated crops may fail. The extremely hard outer shell protects the inner kernel from rot and allows the nuts to be har­ vested for up to twelve months after they have fallen to the ground. A diet based on mongongo nuts is in fact more reliable than one based on cultivated foods, and it is not surprising, there­ fore, that when a Bushman was asked why he hadn't taken to agriculture he replied : "Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world ?"

Apart from the mongongo, the Bushmen have available 84 other species of edible food plants, including 29 species of fruits, berries, and melons and 30 species of roots and bulbs. The existence of this variety allows for a wide range of alternatives in subsistence strategy. During the summer months the Bushmen have no problem other than to choose among the tastiest and most easily collected foods. Many species, which are quite edible but less attractive, are bypassed, so that gathering never ex­hausts all the available plant foods of an area. During the dry season the diet becomes much more eclectic and the many species of roots, bulbs, and edible resins make an important contribution. It is this broad base that pro­vides an essential margin of safety during the end of the dry season when the mongongo nut forests are difficult to reach. In addition, it is likely that these rarely utilized species provide important nutritional and mineral trace ele­ments that may be lacking in the more popular foods.

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Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Miki Ben-Dor and Ran Barkai write in 2020 'The importance of large prey animals during the Pleistocene and the implications of their extinction on the use of dietary ethnographic analogies' :

The San and, more specifically, the Ju/’hoansi(!Kung) are one of the most thoroughly researched HG societies in Africa (Lee and Guenther, 1993). They were at the center of the debate known, among other names, as 'The Great Kalahari Debate.' The extent to which recent HG groups can be considered a real example of traditional, autonomous HG groups stands at the center of this debate. Epitomizing the 'traditionalists' side, Richard Lee claimed that although the Ju/’hoansi were “living under changed circumstances” (Lee and Guenther, 1993), they were sufficiently isolated from their pastoralist neighbors to represent a pristine in- digenous culture that is adapted to these changes. The other side of the debate, epitomized by Wilmsen (1983) and others (e.g., Mitchell,

2017), claimed that the Ju/’hoansi have been so entangled with other, more modern, groups that they cannot represent traditional HG.

Lee (1979) documented a high plant diet for the Ju/’hoansi. The discussion here deals with parameters that could affect the Ju/'hoansi's Pla-AniR in the northern part of the Kalahari.

5.3.1. Ju/’hoansi – Ecological history
Lee's research took place in the Dobe area in the northwest Kalahari

Desert. In 1963, when Lee began his research, the area consisted of ten

waterholes spread over about 8000 km . A fence, marking the border

between Botswana and Namibia, was erected in 1965, cutting off about one-third of the area available for Ju/’hoansi foraging (Lee, 2012). Fragmentation, such as that caused by this fence, can negatively impact the abundance of animals in the fragmented area (Hoag and Svenning, 2017).

Lee and Yellen (1976:36) describe the marked change in large game abundance in the area over the previous 50 years: “There has been a diminution of game in the northwestern Kalahari over the past fifty years. Rhino, hippo, and springbok have disappeared completely, while zebra are rare. Buffalo and elephant were formerly numerous but now are only oc- casional summer visitors.”

As of 1964, 340 Bantu people with several thousand heads of live- stock were sharing nine of the ten waterholes in the Dobe area with 460 Ju/’hoansi. Some 28% of the Ju/’hoansi worked for the herders. There was a frequent movement of people between the waterholes. Lee claims that until the 1920′s the Dobe area was occupied exclusively by the Ju/ ’hoansi. It is not clear, however, when this exclusivity began as there is archaeological evidence that compound HG-pastoralist economies al- ready prevailed in the area early in the first millennium CE (Denbow and Wilmsen, 1986; Robbins et al., 2005).

There is little doubt that herding diminishes hunting and gathering opportunities in the same area (Thomas et al., 2000). The introduction of cattle herding to the Dobe area must have had a pronounced effect on the local ecology. Lee (1979) quotes a 70-year-old Ju/’hoansi man from /Xai/Xai waterhole: “When I was young the elephants, buffalo, and rhino were thick at /Xai/Xai. Before I was born white hunters would visit /Xai/Xai and shoot the elephants with guns.” Another witness describes the /Xai/ Xai area as a place where he went hunting elephants, and in which hippos and waterfowl abounded. Today the area is a “dustbowl” in the words of Lee. On the effect of the arrival of pastoral herders to another San area, Malherbe (1983) writes: “After a while, the San noticed that livestock scared the game away, damaged the veldkos (plant food) and made the water dirty. Their food supply decreased...”. This evidence amounts to a complete replacement of a fauna-rich ecosystem by a fauna-depleted ecosystem.

Extensive ecological changes may have occurred even before the introduction of herding to the area in 1920 (Lee, 2012:155). The Dobe area was not at the center of the ivory trade that flourished during the second half of the 19th century in Africa. Nonetheless, reports of the mass killing of elephants in the area by white hunters do exist (Lee and Guenther, 1993). Ju/’hoansi hunted elephants in pre-colonial times for subsistence, while Lee's reports on present hunting techniques mention mainly smaller animals, the largest being the kudu (Lee, 2012:53,257).

Similarly to the case of the baobab tree in the Hadza's territory, the decline in the elephant population may have been responsible for the abundance of mongongo nuts that the Ju'/hoansi rely on to a large extent. The mongongo nut accounts for 50% of the plant-sourced diet by weight, but as Lee and DeVore (1968) remark, its nutritional density is so high that it contributes some 1,260 calories per day, amounting to some 50% of the whole diet. On the potential effects of elephants on the Ju/’hoansi's primary food source, Lee (1973:312) writes: “One thing that can affect the year's harvest is the presence of elephants. During the rains, they may move through a grove breaking off branches to reach the immature fruits. This ruins the year's fall and reduces the size of the nut-bearing tree for future years.”

The three leading hunting techniques that Lee (2012:53) describes

involve the use of tools and technologies that were not available during the Pleistocene or a large part of it. All three facilitate the hunting of smaller animals. Bows and arrows with metal tips were used for hunting medium-size animals like kudu and wildebeest. Dogs were used throughout the Kalahari to hunt smaller animals like warthogs, steenbok, duikers, and hares but never big game except for gemsbok (Lee and Yellen, 1976; Mitchell, 2008). Most hunters in Dobe owned dogs, and hunting with dogs was the second most common means by which they obtained meat. Lee (1979) cites a Dobe hunter as saying that “if you do not have dogs, you do not even bother to hunt warthogs.” Part of the hunting by the Ju/’hoansi is done underground, pursuing burrowing animals to their lairs. Some of these animals are dug out using a long pole with an iron hook at the end.

Also, the Ju/’hoansi have had, at least since the 1920 s, access to iron knives and cooking pots, which they have used for butchering, plant food processing, and cooking. In earlier periods, they had access to clay pots (Lee, 2012:155,257). It is worth mentioning here that most of the Ju/’hoansi plant food (mongongo, for example) requires heavy processing before consumption, including cooking, roasting, and mil- ling, for which metal tools provide an advantage over the stone tools of the Paleolithic (Lee, 1979:198). According to Hawkes and O’Connell (1985), the caloric return per forager hour for mongongo drops from 1900 kcal to 670 kcal when processing is considered. Presumably, the yield would have dropped further if stone tools, instead of iron tools, were used for processing. Just for comparison, the return per hour on hunting is 20 to 60 times greater than for mongongo, depending on the size of the prey animal (Stiner and Kuhn, 2009).

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