The !Kung Bushmen of Botswana inhabit the semi-arid northwest region of the Kalahari Desert. Their average annual rainfall is poor, only six to nine inches a year. Field work for this article written by Richard B. Lee, was done in the Dobe area, which is a line of eight permanent waterholes. The Dobe area has a population of 466 Bushmen. This includes 379 permanent residents living in independent camps or associated with Bantu cattle posts, as well as 87 seasonal visitors. The Bushmen living in independent camps lack firearms, livestock, and agriculture. The !Kung are entirely dependent upon hunting and gathering for subsistence. Although Dobe-area !Kung have had some contact with outsiders since the 1880’s, the majority of them continue to hunt and gather because there is no viable alternatives locally available to them.
During the dry season (May-October) the entire population is clustered around the water wells. There are “camps” around each well, which is an open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day. 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.
Vegetable foods comprise from 60 to 80 percent of the total diet by weight, and collecting involves two or three days of work per woman per week. The major contribution of the male bushmen to their diet is the hunting of medium and large game. 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.
For the greater part of the year, food is plentiful and easily collected. Although during the end of the dry season people have to hike farther for food, the food still remains constant. The most important food is the mongongo nut. This nut accounts for 50 percent of the vegetable diet by weight. Although tens of thousands of pounds of these nuts are eaten every year, thousands more are left on the ground to rot. Also, a diet based on mongongo nut is more beneficial health-wise as cereal crops such as maize or rice.
In addition to the mongongo, the Bushmen have available eighty-four other species of fruits, berries, and melons, and another thirty species of roots and bulbs. There are 54 species of animals classified as edible by the Bushmen, but only 17 species were hunted on a regular basis. All of the !Kung’s food supply can be obtained in a six-mile radius of camp, and usually takes a full day to travel the twelve mile round-trip.
The !Kung Bushmen of the Dobe area live a long productive, and seemingly satisfying lives. Longevity compares favorably to any industrialized society. The old people are fed and cared for by their children and grandchildren. The old people are also actively involved indecision making and ritual curing. Young people are not expected to provide food regularly until they are married. Girls usually marry between the ages of fifteen and twenty, and boys about five years later. It is not unusual to find healthy, active teenagers visiting from camp to camp while their older relatives provide food for them.
The people in the age group of twenty to sixty support the nonproductive and old. These productive members work about two and a half days a week, about twelve to nineteen hours a week to get food. A woman gathers enough food in one day to feed her family for three days, and spends the rest of the time relaxing and enjoying her leisure time. The men hunt for a week and then do nothing for two or three weeks and spend their leisure time visiting and dancing. In a camp with five or more hunters, two or three are actively hunting while others are inactive. The amount and the type of food the !Kung hunt and gather is sufficient enough calorie-wise to supply all the nutrients required for good health.