Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung: Food, Fatness, and Well-being over the Life-span / Edition 1

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Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung reexamines an important anthropological data set collected by Nancy Howell and colleagues for the Dobe !Kung, the well-known “Bushmen” of the Kalahari Desert. Using life history analysis, Howell reinterprets this rich material to address the question of how these hunter-gatherers maintain their notably good health from childhood through old age in the Kalahari's harsh environment.

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Editorial Reviews

American Scientist - Melvin Konner
"Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung is an enormous achievement, confirming what can be done with unique archival data in the right hands."
Journal Of Anthropological Research - Jane B. Lancaster
“The volume is full of stimulating information.”
American Ethnologist
“Nicely written and very readable. It will be widely read.”
Gastronomica - Jon Holtzman
“A detailed and engaging analysis of nutritional and demographic data on !Kung foragers from the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa.”
Human Nature - Jonathan C. K. Wells
“A very rewarding book . . . her findings are likely to prove very stimulating to the field.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520262348
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 5/6/2010
  • Series: Origins of Human Behavior and Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Howell is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

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Read an Excerpt

Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung

Food, Fatness, and Well-being Over the Life Span

By Nancy Howell


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94617-0


Another Look at the !Kung

A Life History Approach

In 1967 I was privileged to go to southern Africa to live with the !Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari desert. I was in the final stages of my Ph.D. in sociology at Harvard, and recently married to Richard Lee, who had already spent a year and a half living with the !Kung San people and learning their language. Richard was a lecturer at Harvard at that time, and he applied to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health with his longtime collaborator Irven DeVore (a new professor at Harvard then) for funding to support a substantial study of the !Kung, involving fourteen scholars, including me. When they were awarded the grant in 1966, I hurried to finish my dissertation before the !Kung project started.


Richard and I flew to Johannesburg, consulted with colleagues, bought a truck, and loaded it up, adding supplies at each stage of the journey. We drove first to Gaborone, the new capital of Botswana, to get final research permissions; then to Francistown, where we left the paved road parallel to the only railroad line in the country to drive west and north to Maun, on the Okavango delta. We rented a mailbox at the post office in Maun, and bought our last-minute supplies from their few general stores and a garage, and finally drove in our new truck to Nokaneng, a small town on the edge of the Kalahari. There we offloaded all but one of the drums of petrol we had brought from Maun, to create a storage system that would allow us to move safely between Maun and the isolated Dobe area on the Namibian border, where we were headed. From Nokaneng, in July 1967, we drove the last eight-hour stretch across the waterless 100 km or so that we called "the Middle Passage," to the string of ten waterholes on the Botswana-Namibia border that maps call the Xangwa (or Gwanwa) area, but which we always called the Dobe area. The name Dobe, easy to spell and pronounce (doe-bee), refers to one of the smallest waterholes there, where Richard had been welcomed into the !Kung kinship system in 1964 during his earlier visit.

That was a long time ago. The results of the research we did over the next two years have been described in detail in a book of preliminary research reports (Lee and DeVore, 1976) and in research monographs (Howell, 1979; see also Lee 1979) and the dozens of articles and books cited there and published since that time. The research that the fourteen of us as a research group carried out from 1967 to 1969 included studies of the biology, culture, social structure, economics, and psychology of the !Kung (or the ju /'hoansi, as they call themselves and are increasingly often called by scholars).

My own research focused on the demography. After learning the language well enough to make my questions understood, and after pre-testing the format with Richard Lee's help, I started a data collection of reproductive histories of the 165 ever-married women in the Dobe area alive in 1967 to 1969. Eventually I got them all, plus another twenty-five reproductive histories from adult women who visited the Dobe area but who did not usually live there, which I ended up not using. This data collection included all of the marriages and marriage terminations, pregnancies and pregnancy terminations, and a history of survival of each of the husbands and children mentioned by the 165 adult women.

This work was interspersed with occasional "campaigns" of data collection with Richard Lee. We took the truck to each of the ten waterholes in turn to visit each of the thirty-five or so villages, usually staying at each waterhole for a few days to make sure we had covered all the residents there. Richard and I conducted censuses in October 1967, November 1968, and April 1969, and in addition we collected measures of height, weight, and skin-fold thickness in August 1968, October 1968, January 1969, and April 1969. We measured weights, especially of children, continuously, wherever we had people and the scale in the same place, but the "campaigns" were especially organized to include all of the members of the population, to look for seasonal changes in weight and height. These sweeps through the population also provided occasions for successive stages of my estimations of the ages of individuals, which consisted of rank ordering the people in local areas by age, and then merging those local age-ranks into a single rank order, later fitting a curve from stable-population theory to the rank order to estimate individual ages, and then checking the plausibility of the resulting estimates.

These data collections were designed to be holistic inventories of the contemporary Dobe !Kung people, including everything that was possible to observe about an ongoing population of people that would allow us to describe in detail how their society operated. Howell (2000) details the data collection and analysis of the fieldwork from 1967 to 1969.


Briefly, the book Demography of the Dobe !Kung shows one way to construct a demographic description of a small population in which there are no historical records and people don't know their own ages. After sorting out the interrelated issues of the age estimates and the population age structure, I presented a chapter on causes of death during recent decades, and then the life tables, for the two sexes, and for different periods of time. The study revealed that mortality was high overall (an approximate Expectation of Life at Birth of thirty years and an Infant Mortality Rate of 200 deaths in the first year per 1,000 births) but that most !Kung appeared to be remarkably healthy (strong, energetic, cheerful) most of the time. Next, in that book, the fertility history of the women was laid out, first for the older post-reproductive women; and then for the younger women who were still building their families, showing that the fertility is remarkably low for a population that marries young and doesn't use any methods of contraception. The !Kung were found to have a Total Fertility Rate of about 4.6 children born to women who survive to the end of the childbearing period, which is a remarkably low level of natural fertility.

To examine the interactions of fertility and mortality, a computer micro-simulation program called AMBUSH was invented and used (Howell and Lehotay, 1978; Howell, 2000). The program is a stochastic model that shows what happens when you start with a population identical to the !Kung as we observed them in 1968 and simulate a future based on the observed probabilities of birth and death for varying periods of time in the future. The simulations can be thought of as an answer to the question: If there were a continent with 100 (or any number) of independent populations with the probabilities of survival and reproduction that the !Kung have, what range of variation would we expect to see in their functioning? The simulations are not entirely realistic (some of the complexities of life are not included in the models) but they are helpful for confirming the plausibility of the estimates of the real population and for stimulating thinking about the fluctuations that one would expect in such populations, without any complex causal processes. The simulations are best thought of as a variety of the null hypothesis, valuable in a world in which hunting and gathering societies are few and far between. Unfortunately, the AMBUSH program is no longer available for use as it was written in a machine language, IBM Assembler, which is no longer usable, but alternative simulation programs are readily available now.

The original work went on to look at detailed aspects of the population in some detail, to describe marriage, divorce, widowhood, and remarriage, and to explore the networks of kinship ties of consanguinity (birth) and affinity (marriage) generated by the demography. The analysis based on the women's fertility and mortality is repeated for the men, in condensed form. The population was found to be essentially stationary (not growing) as a result of the balance of their moderate fertility and mortality. The people are shown to be small in size, short and thin, and we considered the possible importance of thinness in keeping fertility low, as proposed by the Frisch hypothesis (Frisch, Revelle, et al., 1971). Computer simulations were used to spell out implications of the population parameters over long periods of time, specifically the degree of inequality in reproductive success to be expected in successive generations, and the numbers of living kin to be expected by people of varying ages and sex.

The first edition (Howell, 1979) ended with some predictions about the future to the year 2000; the second edition (Howell, 2000) evaluates those predictions (they were pretty accurate) and discusses the ways that population has changed from the late 1960s to the year 2000, and the probable trends in future decades. Demography of the Dobe !Kung included pretty much everything I knew about the !Kung at that time and could infer from the models that I developed. When data archives became available at the University of Toronto Data Library in the 1990s, the raw data from these studies were entered to be made available to any interested researchers who cared to access it. My impression is that few researchers have used the raw data, but many researchers have used the published versions of detailed empirical descriptions of the !Kung (Howell, 2000) in their studies, for comparative or exemplary purposes. Later in this chapter, we will consider a new generation of data archives.


Why, then, one might ask, is there any need for another book on the same people, based on the same data? Some scholars have complained that the Dobe !Kung case has already been vastly overused in archaeological and ethnographic modeling: Isaac (1990) refers to a "Sanitation phenomenon" in understanding early human societies, and suggests that the field should give the !Kung a rest. There is no new data in this book (although some of the old data are described in more detail than has been done before). The !Kung way of life has changed so much since the 1960s that any new data collected now would be interesting but it would not illuminate the hunting and gathering way of life. In any case, I have not done any fieldwork since 1969, although I was pleased to have the chance to go back to Dobe with Pat Draper for a short visit in 1991–1992 (Howell, 2000). Others in the research group (Richard Lee, Patricia Draper, Henry Harpending, Megan Biesele, and Polly Wiessner) have continued to do fieldwork when they get the chance, but this book is not based on their new data.

What I have is the old data set, some new but mostly old ethnographic background to that data, and the conviction that there is still much to be learned from it. The niche for another book on the !Kung arises from new questions that have been raised, and new models that have been proposed, from the great advances made by the many multidisciplinary colleagues who have contributed to what Roth (2004) has called "anthropological demography" and "human behavioral ecology" or evolutionary biology since the original analysis was completed in 1978. In the course of using the old data to try to answer these new questions, I am trying to make the data more accessible to other scholars, in the hope that it can be used by others to explore the current set of questions and perhaps also others that haven't been thought of yet.

My first book on the !Kung came out of the field of demography (the study of population), with some influence from social-cultural anthropology and sociology. Demography and anthropology seemed quite distant disciplines in those days, but since that time some demographers (Watkins, 1995) have enthusiastically embraced data collection methods and insights from anthropology into demography to enrich the sometimes thin descriptive understanding of populations that are studied by demographers from census and vital statistics registration records. Some circles in anthropology have welcomed the more rigorous models and more systematic data collection methods from demography into their field, in their publications, and in training offered to young anthropologists in graduate programs. By now (2010) most graduate programs in anthropology seem to have some expertise in demography, and some have a great deal.

Roth (2004) argued in a recent book that there are two distinct streams of interest in demographic studies in anthropology, "anthropological demography" consisting of social-cultural anthropologists (and some demographers) who are largely interested in understanding the contributions that demography can make to understanding social structure in the populations that anthropologists study. The other, "behavioral ecology," is primarily made up of biological or physical anthropologists looking for insight into human evolution. Both streams are interesting: it is odd that they tend to ignore each other. Perhaps this is because they draw upon different disciplines for their expertise, and there are only a few scholars like Roth who have mastered both streams of research and methods.

Theoretical and empirical studies of other hunting and gathering peoples (and some horticulturalists and pastoralists) since 1979 have also posed new questions and have suggested new techniques of analysis. There are now detailed accounts of the Ache of Paraguay (Hill and Hurtado, 1996), the Hadza of Tanzania (Woodburn, 1968; Dyson, 1977; Hawkes, O'Connell, et al., 1991; Blurton Jones, Smith, et al., 1992), the Agta of the Philippines (Early and Headland, 1998), the Ganj of New Guinea (Wood, 1980), the Aka (Hewlett, 1988), and Efe Pygmies (Bailey and Peacock, 1988) of West Africa, and the Yanamamo of the Amazon basin (Divale and Harris, 1976; Chagnon and Irons, 1979; Early and Peters, 1990; Early and Peters, 2000), and many more. When research methods and theoretical models that were developed in those studies are applied to the !Kung, as I do in the following pages, I am impressed by how much we gain in explanatory power. But let me warn the reader that I do not attempt here to review these findings in any systematic way, or make systematic comparisons between these populations and the Dobe !Kung. That would be a good thing to do, but I am not the person to do it. My ambition is smaller: I use the stimulating work of colleagues on other small-scale populations to help me understand the only case study that I have any confidence that I can understand, that of the Dobe !Kung. My goal is to better understand the !Kung, and to leave it to others to generalize about hunters and gatherers or small-scale societies.

The Life History Model

Life history theory is another holistic attempt to integrate a wide range of observations of life in human societies (Alexander, 1987). To paraphrase Roth (2004), all life history theory rests on the principle of allocation, which states that energy used for one purpose cannot be used for another. Energy allocations between the essential life processes of (1) maintenance, (2) growth, and (3) reproduction are viewed as a series of trade-offs made over an individual's life course. Individuals are distinguished by stages of life that correspond to these energy allocations, and these stages are related to the age and sex categories that we have used before. We consider the ways that evolution has worked upon these life stages to produce the adaptations of the hunting-gathering way of life, both those features that are true of all hunter-gatherer groups and those that are peculiar to the !Kung. The task of the present work is to specify the questions that arise from life history theory, consider the ethnographic knowledge that may pertain to the answers to these questions, and then to operationalize the numerical data available to produce the best approximation of an empirical answer to the question posed that I can manage. Readers will note that I rarely present any statistical tests on the answers to the questions in the chapters that follow. And there are many more figures than tables that show the numerical data. I like to look at the patterns of data more than focus on the "bottom line." The process is more exploratory than confirmatory, more suggestive than definitive.

Incorporating the studies of mortality and fertility established in the earlier work, I focus in this study on the food calories that people produce and consume, and that they use to fuel the activities of their daily life that determine their life stages. Note that I account for the same daily calories of the population in three ways: (1) how the calories are acquired from the environment, (2) how they are distributed and redistributed by individuals within the population, and (3) the amounts in which they are consumed by various individuals.

Production of calories was a major focus of others in the "Harvard Kalahari expedition" during the 1967–1969 studies, especially Lee (1979) but also Konner and Worthman (1980), Draper (1975), and Wilmsen (1982). The means of production consisted of hunting and gathering, but also lactation, and some wage work and agricultural work that is outside of the traditional way of life of the !Kung (which we acknowledge as a complication, although it isn't our primary interest here).


Excerpted from Life Histories of the Dobe !Kung by Nancy Howell. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Another Look at the !Kung: A Life History Approach 1

Research with the Dobe !Kung 1

Research Results: Demography of the Dobe !Kung 3

Reconsidering the !Kung 5

Poverty and Social Change in the Dobe Area 12

2 Life History Stages 19

Definitions of Life Stages 20

Prenatal Life and Birth 22

Infancy 24

Childhood 28

Adolescence 32

The Stage of Childbearing 37

Post-Reproductive Life 40

Retirement: Frailty and Dependence 41

Life Stages for Individuals and for the Population 43

Conclusion: Ages and Stages of Life, for !Kung Women and Men 488

3 Body Size and Growth 49

Why Are the !Kung So Small? 49

Comparison to International Standards of Height and Weight 53

Body Size in Infancy and Early Childhood 60

Childhood Measures Continued: Body Size for Older Children and Adolescents 64

Body Size during the Reproductive Ages 75

Body Size of Post-Reproductive Adults (45+) 77

Summarizing Body Size: The Body Mass Index Difference Measure 79

4 Calories Required 83

Caloric Requirements for Basal Metabolism 85

Time Budgets of Mean Daily Activities 89

Physical Activity Levels 97

Caloric Requirements for Reproduction 9

Adjustment for Temperature 101

Combining the Components of the Necessary Caloric Costs to the Population 101

Are the !Kung Hard-Working People? 103

5 Caloric Productivity and Caloric Balance 107

Production of Food 107

Caloric Balance 120

6 Caloric Balance and Residential Units: Waterholes, Living Groups, Households 127

Waterholes and N!oris 130

Living Groups, Also Known as Bands, Camps, or Villages 139

Households and Their Effects on Well-Being 143

Makhusian, Darwinian, and Common-sense Models of Population Control in the Kalahari 154

7 Kinship Relations as a Support System for Children 157

Relatives in the Household 158

Effects on Children of Having Grandparents in the Living Group 165

Coresidence of Ancestors in the Weil-Being of Children 168

The Grandmother Role from the Point of View of Older Women 172

Kinship as a Resource for All !Kung 174

8 Motives for Sharing Food and Other Prosocial Behavior 183

Models of the Motives for Sharing 184

What Do We Mean by a “Surplus”? 194

Sharing Driven by Scarcity 196

Evolutionary Speculation: The Prosocial Brain as a Product of Decisions About Food Sharing, Perceptions of Need, and Nurturance 197

References 211

Index 221

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