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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

Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

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).

Dec 15, 1969

Eating Christmas in the Kalahari - December 1969 Natural History Magazine - by Richard Borshay Lee


Richard Borshay Lee wrote "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" published in the Dec 1969 issue of Natural History. The San Ju/'hoansi tease an anthropologist that an ox selected for Christmas festitivities was not fat enough. The article features extensive examples of how important fat is to the diet. “My friend, the way it is with us Bushmen,” he began, “is that we love meat. And even more than that, we love fat.”

Eating Christmas in the Kalahari

Richard Lee

“Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” by Richard Borshay Lee was published in the December 1969 issue of Natural History. It is one of the magazine’s most frequently reprinted stories. In the final paragraph, Lee wondered what the future would hold for the !Kung Bushmen with whom he had shared a memorable Christmas feast. The University of Toronto anthropologist answers that question for the Botswana San, in a 2000 postscript to his original article. (The postscript follows the main story). A more recent update will be found in Unit 3.

The "Bushmen" are more properly referred to as San in anthropology, and refer to themselves as Ju/’hoansi. The San will also be our example of a foraging mode of production, since that is what they were when Lee began his study in the late 1960's. Lee studied the San in Botswana, although they are also found in Namibia, living in one of the most difficult environments, the Kalahari Desert. Foraging will be discussed later in Unit 1, and you will read more about the San.

Editor’s Note: The !Kung and other Bushmen speak click languages. In the story, three different clicks are used:

  1. The dental click (/), as in /Xai/xai, /ontah, and /gaugo. The click is sometimes written in English as tsk-tsk.

  2. The alveopalatal click (!), as in Ben!a and !Kung.

  3. The lateral click (//), as in //gom. Clicks function as consonants; a word may have more than one, as in /n!au.

he !Kung Bushmen’s knowledge of Christmas is thirdhand. The London Missionary Society brought the holiday to the southern Tswana tribes in the early nineteenth century. Later, native catechists spread the idea far and wide among the Bantu-speaking pastoralists, even in the remotest corners of the Kalahari Desert. The Bushmen’s idea of the Christmas story, stripped to its essentials, is “praise the birth of white man’s god-chief”; what keeps their interest in the holiday high is the Tswana-Herero custom of slaughtering an ox for his Bushmen neighbors as an annual goodwill gesture. Since the 1930’s, part of the Bushmen’s annual round of activities has included a December congregation at the cattle posts for trading, marriage brokering, and several days of trance-dance feasting at which the local Tswana headman is host.

As a social anthropologist working with !Kung Bushmen, I found that the Christmas ox custom suited my purposes. I had come to the Kalahari to study the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the !Kung, and to accomplish this it was essential not to provide them with food, share my own food, or interfere in any way with their food-gathering activities. While liberal handouts of tobacco and medical supplies were appreciated, they were scarcely adequate to erase the glaring disparity in wealth between the anthropologist, who maintained a two-month inventory of canned goods, and the Bushmen, who rarely had a day’s supply of food on hand. My approach, while paying off in terms of data, left me open to frequent accusations of stinginess and hard-heartedness. By their lights, I was a miser.

The Christmas ox was to be my way of saying thank you for the co-operation of the past year; and since it was to be our last Christmas in the field, I determined to slaughter the largest, meatiest ox that money could buy, insuring that the feast and trance dance would be a success.

Through December I kept my eyes open at the wells as the cattle were brought down for watering. Several animals were offered, but none had quite the grossness that I had in mind. Then, ten days before the holiday, a Herero friend led an ox of astonishing size and mass up to our camp. It was solid black, stood five feet high at the shoulder, had a five-foot span of horns, and must have weighed 1,200 pounds on the hoof. Food consumption calculations are my specialty, and I quickly figured that bones and viscera aside, there was enough meat—at least four pounds—for every man, woman, and child of the 150 Bushmen in the vicinity of the /Xai/xai who were expected at the feast.

Having found the right animal at last, I paid the Herero £20 ($56) and asked him to keep the beast with his herd until Christmas day. The next morning word spread among the people that the big solid black one was the ox chosen by /ontah (my Bushman name; it means, roughly, “whitey”) for the Christmas feast. That afternoon I received the first delegation. Ben!a, an outspoken sixty-year-old mother of five, came to the point slowly.

“Where were you planning to eat Christmas?”

“Right here at /Xai/xai,” I replied.

“Alone or with others?”

“I expect to invite all the people to eat Christmas with me.

“Eat what?”

“I have purchased Yehave’s black ox, and I am going to slaughter and cook it.”

“That’s what we were told at the well but refused to believe it until we heard it from yourself.”

“Well, it’s the black one,” I replied expansively, although wondering what she was driving at.

“Oh, no!” Ben!a groaned, turning to her group. “They were right.” Turning back to me she asked, “Do you expect us to eat that bag of bones?”

“Bag of bones! It’s the biggest ox at /Xai/xai.”

“Big, yes, but old. And thin. Everybody knows there’s no meat on that old ox. What did you expect us to eat off it, the horns?”

Everybody chuckled at Ben!a’s one-liner as they walked away, but all I could manage was a weak grin.

That evening it was the turn of the young men. They came to sit at our evening fire. /gaugo, about my age, spoke to me man-to-man.

“/ontah, you have always been square with us,” he lied. “What has happened to change your heart? That sack of guts and bones of Yehave’s will hardly feed one camp, let alone all the Bushmen around /Xai/xai.” And he proceeded to enumerate the seven camps in the /Xai/xai vicinity, family by family. “Perhaps you have forgotten that we are not few, but many. Or are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck? That ox is thin to the point of death.”

“Look, you guys,” I retorted, “that is a beautiful animal, and I’m sure you will eat it with pleasure at Christmas.”

“Of course we will eat it; it’s food. But it won’t fill us up to the point where we will have enough strength to dance. We will eat and go home to bed with stomachs rumbling.”

That night as we turned in, I asked my wife, Nancy: “What did you think of the black ox?”

“It looked enormous to me. Why?”

“Well, about eight different people have told me I got gypped; that the ox is nothing but bones.”

“What’s the angle?” Nancy asked. “Did they have a better one to sell?”

“No, they just said that it was going to be a grim Christmas because there won’t be enough meat to go around. Maybe I’ll get an independent judge to look at the beast in the morning.”

Bright and early, Halingisi, a Tswana cattle owner, appeared at our camp. But before I could ask him to give me his opinion on Yehave’s black ox, he gave me the eye signal that indicated a confidential chat. We left the camp and sat down.

“/ontah, I’m surprised at you; you’ve lived here for three years and still haven’t learned anything about cattle.”

“But what else can a person do but choose the biggest, strongest animal one can find?” I retorted.

“Look, just because an animal is big doesn’t mean that it has plenty of meat on it. The black one was a beauty when it was younger, but now it is thin to the point of death.”

“Well I’ve already bought it. What can I do at this stage?”

“Bought it already? I thought you were just considering it. Well, you’ll have to kill it and serve it, I suppose. But don’t expect much of a dance to follow.”

My spirits dropped rapidly. I could believe that Ben!a and /gaugo just might be putting me on about the black ox, but Halingisi seemed to be an impartial critic. I went around that day feeling as though I had bought a lemon of a used car.

“My friend, the way it is with us Bushmen,” he began, “is that we love meat. And even more than that, we love fat.”

In the afternoon it was Tomazo’s turn. Tomazo is a fine hunter, a top trance performer, and one of my most reliable informants. He approached the subject of the Christmas cow as part of my continuing Bushmen education.

“My friend, the way it is with us Bushmen,” he began, “is that we love meat. And even more than that, we love fat. When we hunt we always search for the fat ones, the ones dripping with layers of white fat: fat that turns into a clear, thick oil in the cooking pot, fat that slides down your gullet, fills your stomach and gives you a roaring diarrhea,” he rhapsodized.

“So, feeling as we do,” he continued, “it gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing as Yehave’s black ox. It is big, yes, and no doubt its giant bones are good for soup, but fat is what we really crave and so we will eat Christmas this year with a heavy heart.”

The prospect of a gloomy Christmas now had me worried, so I asked Tomazo what I could do about it.

“Look for a fat one, a young one . . . smaller, but fat. Fat enough to make us //gom (‘evacuate the bowels’), then we will be happy.”

My suspicions were aroused when Tomazo said that he happened to know of a young, fat, barren cow that the owner was willing to part with. Was Toma working on commission, I wondered? But I dispelled this unworthy thought when we approached the Herero owner of the cow in question and found that he had decided not to sell.

The scrawny wreck of a Christmas ox now became the talk of the /Xai/xai water hole and was the first news told to the outlying groups as they began to come in from the bush for the feast. What finally convinced me that real trouble might be brewing was the visit from u!lau, an old conservative with a reputation for fierceness. His nickname meant spear and referred to an incident thirty years ago in which he had speared a man to death. He had an intense manner; fixing me with his eyes, he said in clipped tones:

“I have only just heard about the black ox today, or else I would have come here earlier. /ontah, do you honestly think you can serve meat like that to people and avoid a fight?” He paused, letting the implications sink in. “I don’t mean fight you, /ontah; you are a white man. I mean a fight between Bushmen. There are many fierce ones here, and with such a small quantity of meat to distribute, how can you give everybody a fair share? Someone is sure to accuse another of taking too much or hogging all the choice pieces. Then you will see what happens when some go hungry while others eat.”

The possibility of at least a serious argument struck me as all too real. I had witnessed the tension that surrounds the distribution of meat from a kudu or gemsbok kill, and had documented many arguments that sprang up from a real or imagined slight in meat distribution. The owners of a kill may spend up to two hours arranging and rearranging the piles of meat under the gaze of a circle of recipients before handing them out. And I also knew that the Christmas feast at /Xai/xai would be bringing together groups that had feuded in the past.

Convinced now of the gravity of the situation, I went in earnest to search for a second cow; but all my inquiries failed to turn one up.

The Christmas feast was evidently going to be a disaster, and the incessant complaints about the meagerness of the ox had already taken the fun out of it for me. Moreover, I was getting bored with the wisecracks, and after losing my temper a few times, I resolved to serve the beast anyway. If the meat fell short, the hell with it. In the Bushmen idiom, I announced to all who would listen:

“I am a poor man and blind. If I have chosen one that is too old and too thin, we will eat it anyway and see if there is enough meat there to quiet the rumbling of our stomachs.”

On hearing this speech, Ben!a offered me a rare word of comfort. “It’s thin,” she said philosophically, “but the bones will make a good soup.”

At dawn Christmas morning, instinct told me to turn over the butchering and cooking to a friend and take off with Nancy to spend Christmas alone in the bush. But curiosity kept me from retreating. I wanted to see what such a scrawny ox looked like on butchering, and if there was going to be a fight, I wanted to catch every word of it. Anthropologists are incurable that way.

The great beast was driven up to our dancing ground, and a shot in the forehead dropped it in its tracks. Then, freshly cut branches were heaped around the fallen carcass to receive the meat. Ten men volunteered to help with the cutting. I asked /gaugo to make the breast bone cut. This cut, which begins the butchering process for most large game, offers easy access for removal of the viscera. But it also allows the hunter to spot-check the amount of fat on the animal. A fat game animal carries a white layer up to an inch thick on the chest, while in a thin one, the knife will quickly cut to bone. All eyes fixed on his hand as /gaugo, dwarfed by the great carcass, knelt to the breast. The first cut opened a pool of solid white in the black skin. The second and third cut widened and deepened the creamy white. Still no bone. It was pure fat; it must have been two inches thick.

“Hey /gau,” I burst out, “that ox is loaded with fat. What’s this about the ox being too thin to bother eating? Are you out of your mind?”

“Fat?” /gau shot back, “You call that fat? This wreck is thin, sick, dead!” And he broke out laughing. So did everyone else. They rolled on the ground, paralyzed with laughter. Everybody laughed except me; I was thinking.

I ran back to the tent and burst in just as Nancy was getting up. “Hey, the black ox. It’s fat as hell! They were kidding about it being too thin to eat. It was a joke or something. A put-on. Everyone is really delighted with it!”

“Some joke,” my wife replied. “It was so funny that you were ready to pack up and leave /Xai/xai.”

If it had indeed been a joke, it had been an extraordinarily convincing one, and tinged, I thought, with more than a touch of malice as many jokes are. Nevertheless, that it was a joke lifted my spirits considerably, and I returned to the butchering site where the shape of the ox was rapidly disappearing under the axes and knives of the butchers. The atmosphere had become festive. Grinning broadly, their arms covered with blood well past the elbow, men packed chunks of meat into the big cast-iron cooking pots, fifty pounds to the load, and muttered and chuckled all the while about the thinness and worthlessness of the animal and /ontah’s poor judgment.

We danced and ate that ox two days and two nights; we cooked and distributed fourteen potfuls of meat and no one went home hungry and no fights broke out.

But the “joke” stayed in my mind. I had a growing feeling that something important had happened in my relationship with the Bushmen and that the clue lay in the meaning of the joke. Several days later, when most of the people had dispersed back to the bush camps, I raised the question with Hakekgose, a Tswana man who had grown up among the !Kung, married a !Kung girl, and who probably knew their culture better than any other non-Bushmen.

“With us whites,” I began, “Christmas is supposed to be the day of friendship and brotherly love. What I can’t figure out is why the Bushmen went to such lengths to criticize and belittle the ox I had bought for the feast. The animal was perfectly good and their jokes and wisecracks practically ruined the holiday for me.”

“So it really did bother you,” said Hakekgose. “Well, that’s the way they always talk. When I take my rifle and go hunting with them, if I miss, they laugh at me for the rest of the day. But even if I hit and bring one down, it’s no better. To them, the kill is always too small or too old or too thin; and as we sit down on the kill site to cook and eat the liver, they keep grumbling, even with their mouths full of meat. They say things like, ‘Oh, this is awful! What a worthless animal! Whatever made me think that this Tswana rascal could hunt!’”

“Is this the way outsiders are treated?” I asked.

“No, it is their custom; they talk that way to each other too. Go and ask them.”

/gaugo had been one of the most enthusiastic in making me feel bad about the merit of the Christmas ox. I sought him out first.

“Why did you tell me the black ox was worthless, when you could see that it was loaded with fat and meat?”

“It is our way,” he said smiling. “We always like to fool people about that. Say there is a Bushman who has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggard, ‘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 [pause] just a little tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself,” /gaugo continued, “because I know he has killed something big.”

In the morning we make up a party of four or five people to cut up and carry the meat back to the camp. When we arrive at the kill we examine it and cry out, ‘You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here in order to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn’t have come.’ Another one pipes up, ‘People, to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.’ If the horns are big, someone says, ’Did you think that somehow you were going to boil down the horns for soup?’

“To all this you must respond in kind. ‘I agree,’” you say, ’this one is not worth the effort; let’s just cook the liver for strength and leave the rest for the hyenas. It is not too late to hunt today and even a duiker or a steenbok would be better than this mess.’”

“Then you set to work nevertheless; butcher the animal, carry the meat back to the camp and everyone eats,” /gaugo concluded.

“But,” I asked, “why insult a man after he has gone to all that trouble to track and kill an animal and when he is going to share the meat with you so that your children will have something to eat?”

Things were beginning to make sense. Next, I went to Tomazo. He corroborated /gaugo’s story of the obligatory insults over a kill and added a few details of his own.

“But,” I asked, “why insult a man after he has gone to all that trouble to track and kill an animal and when he is going to share the meat with you so that your children will have something to eat?”

“Arrogance,” was his cryptic answer.


“Yes, when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

“But why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked Tomazo with some heat.

“Because you never asked me,” said Tomazo, echoing the refrain that has come to haunt every field ethnographer.

I had been taught an object lesson by the Bushmen; it had come from an unexpected corner and had hurt me in a vulnerable area.

The pieces now fell into place. I had known for a long time that in situations of social conflict with Bushmen I held all the cards. I was the only source of tobacco in a thousand square miles, and I was not incapable of cutting an individual off for noncooperation. Though my boycott never lasted longer than a few days, it was an indication of my strength. People resented my presence at the water hole, yet simultaneously dreaded my leaving. In short I was a perfect target for the charge of arrogance and for the Bushmen tactic of enforcing humility.

I had been taught an object lesson by the Bushmen; it had come from an unexpected corner and had hurt me in a vulnerable area. For the big black ox was to be the one totally generous, unstinting act of my year at /Xai/xai, and I was quite unprepared for the reaction I received.

As I read it, their message was this: There are no totally generous acts. All “acts” have an element of calculation. One black ox slaughtered at Christmas does not wipe out a year of careful manipulation of gifts given to serve your own ends. After all, to kill an animal and share the meat with people is really no more than Bushmen do for each other every day and with far less fanfare.

In the end, I had to admire how the Bushmen had played out the farce-collectively straight-faced to the end. Curiously, the episode reminded me of the Good Soldier Schweik and his marvelous encounters with authority. Like Schweik, the Bushmen had retained a thoroughgoing skepticism of good intentions. Was it this independence of spirit, I wondered, that had kept them culturally viable in the face of generations of contact with more powerful societies, both black and white? The thought that the Bushmen were alive and well in the Kalahari was strangely comforting. Perhaps, armed with that independence and with their superb knowledge of their environment, they might yet survive the future.

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