From Anarchy In Action

The San are a cluster of indigenous peoples who live in southern Africa, speak a click language, and have a hunter-gatherer tradition rooted in statelessness and gender and age egalitarianism. Most San are no longer hunter-gatherers and have seen their cultures largely eroded by state discrimination and "modernization" programs. Still, San peoples, such as the Ju/'hoansi or !Kung in Botswana, continue to struggle for cultural survival.


The !Kung traditionally lived in kinship-based camps of ten to twenty people.[1]

Anthropologists have observed gender equality in terms of status and labor. According to Richard E. Lee, an anthropologist who did field research among the !Kung and regularly visited them from the 1960s into the twenty-first century, there is "relative equality between the sexes, with no one having the upper hand."[2] By Lee's estimate, men and women did roughly the same amount of work.[3] The anthropologist Patricia Draper notes that despite a gendered division of labor, "In practice, adults of both sexes seem surprisingly willing to do the work of the opposite sex. It often appeared to me that men, more than women, were willing to cross sex lines."[4] Women, as providers of roughly 60 to 80 percent of daily food intake, derived enormous self-esteem from their contribution, according to Draper, who observes that in general, "!Kung women are vivacious and self-confident."[5]

Although Lee reported that homosexuality and lesbianism were uncommon, he also noted that practitioners were not met with any hostility. He described no restrictions on consensual sexuality, and most !Kung had some experience with intercourse by the age of fifteen.[6] Parents arranged each child's first marriage, although they would invariably call the marriage off if the child protested enough. Married couples could freely divorce, and divorces were "characterized by a high degree of cordiality, at least compared with Western norms."[7]

Children are not trained to respect authority, and the closest that a parent will come to punishing them is "to interrupt the misbehavior, carry the child away, and try to interest him or her in some inoffensive activity," according to Draper.[8] Harold Barclay summarizes traditional San approaches to childraising: "Children are treated permissively by parents. Marshall affirms the latter are especially fond of younger children and gentle in their treatment of them."[9] Children regularly play with others of the opposite sex and of very different ages.[10]

The United States astronomer Carl Sagan describes traditional !Kung hunters' tracking techniques as "science in action." Looking at an animal's footprint, the hunters would deduce how long ago the animal was there. for example, when they saw tracks near trees they would estimate how long ago the shadow of the trees would have provided shade where the tracks lay. Sagan notes, "This calculation will be different in different seasons of the year. So the hunters must carry in their heads a kind of astronomical calendar predicting the apparent solar motion."[11]


The San peoples had no chiefs or other headmen. K"au, a San man, told Lee, "We had no one set apart like a chief; we all lived on the land."[12] Put another way, /Twi!gum, another San man, told Lee, "Of course we have headmen! In fact, we are all headmen. Each one of us is headman over himself!"[13]

Some within the camp, including those considered the "owners" of each territory, did have a disproportionate influence, but they lacked the authority to command others. Lee wrote, "These leaders work in subtle ways; they are modest in demeanour and may never command, but only suggest, a course of action."[14]


The !Kung had a gift economy and practiced communal control of the land. The gift-giving system is called hxaro, and it was the major "means of maintaining and fostering amicable relations between groups."[15] Each camp's territory is called a n!ore, and it is collectively manged by the "owners" or k"ausi. People wishing to camp or use a territory had to ask permission from the "owners," but permission was rarely denied. Each member of a !Kung society had the ownership rights to the the territories of each of their parents. [16]

Food was traditionally obtained through gathering and hunting, and Lee measured in 1964 that it took the !Kung about twenty hours over two and a half days to get a week's worth of food. Lee remarked, "the !Kung in fact enjoyed a rather good diet [and] they didn't have to work very hard to get it."[17] Sahlins describes the !Kung as "affluent society" who had enough to eat and drink and more than enough materials to make everything else, from shelter to tools.[18]

Including hunting, gathering, tool-making, and housework, Lee measured that each !Kung man worked an average of 44.5 hours a week and each !Kung woman worked an average of 40.1 hours. By comparison, Lee wrote, "Studies have shown that North American wage-earners, those with many children especially, will spend up to 40 hours per week over and above their wage-paid job doing housework, shopping, washing, etc."[19]

When a hunter brought meat back to the band, the meat would go to the owner of the arrow that pierced the animal. This person, not the hunter, had responsibility for distributing the meat. Often, the owner of the arrow was a woman. This way, the !Kung kept a roughly egalitarian distribution of food even when some men were better hunters than others.[20] Moreover, the people eating the game would go out of their way to "insult the meat" in order to keep the hunters' ego in check.[21]

Each !Kung family fed and cared for its elders. The elders, in turn, considered such care a right and never apologized for being a burden. Lee found that frail elders each had four to eight caretakers.[22]


When two !Kung men fought each other, often over a woman, others moved to physically separate the fighters. Humor often diffused tension, Lee observed: "Serious as they appear at the time, anger quickly turns to laughter in [!Kung] fights. We have seen partisans joking with each other when only a few minutes before they were grappling."[23] Some fights involved no weapons, and others involved the deadly use of poisoned darts.

As a last-resort measure to stop a series of homicide, the !Kung occasionally would execute a responsible party. Lee quotes a !Kung man's account of one execution: "One evening Debe walked right into Gau's camp and without saying a word shot three arrows into Gau...Gau's people made no move to protect him."[24]

Lee reported that rape among the !Kung was "extremely uncommon."[25]


The San lived sustainably for many thousands of years without destroying their landbase, as evident in the way Richard Lee describes the Kalahari Desert: "Wildlife was abundant. Antelope and warthog tracks were everywhere, as well as leopard and hyena. At night, lions could be heard grunting to each other as they fed on their kills."[26]

Neighboring Society

Excerpt from Harold Barclay's People Without Government

From Harold Barclay, People_Without_Government:_An_Anthropology_of_Anarchy:


In the arid zones of southern Africa there are peoples collectively referred to as Bushmen or by their close relatives, the Hottentots, as San. Most of them have long since abandoned a hunting-gathering way of life to become employed as servants by neighboring Negroid groups or European farmers. A small handful, numbering in the hundreds, have at least up until a scant few years ago persisted in the old traditions in the refuge of to desert areas of Botswana and Namibia.

The San are organized into bands or camps which are loosely structured groups composed primarily of related individuals (often patrilineally related to a common male ancestor) and dwelling in a territory identified with the band.

San have no formal leaders, neither headmen nor chiefs, but bands do have leaders or persons of influence. These are invariably "owners" of the lands which surround a water hole and represent the band territory or the area which provides its general needs. "Owners" comprise the core of related persons, usually siblings or cousins, in the band who have lived around its water hole longer than anyone else and are therefore recognized as collective owners, as "hosts" of the territory to whom anyone from outside the group is expected to request permission on visiting the area. This kind of ownership passes from one generation to the next as long as any descendents remain within it.

One who is not an "owner" may seek to achieve leadership status by marrying a woman in another band who is an owner. Yet ownership alone is insufficient to place one in the forefront. Other attributes of leadership include being the older within a large family with many children and grandchildren. Moreover one should possess several personal qualities. Thus, one who is a powerful speaker is respected. It helps also to be recognized as a mood mediator. Under no circumstances should a leader be "arrogant, overbearing, boastful, or aloof." (Lee, 345). Lee notes that these characteristics of the leader are also stressed among Australian aboriginals.

Camp leaders are preeminent in decision making, mediation and food distribution. Yet one !Kung San in response to a question as to whether his group had headmen replied: "Of course we have headmen! In fact we are all headmen . . . each one of us is headman over himself" (Lee, 348).

Another more recent kind of leader has arisen among "Bushmen as a consequence of contact with neighboring Blacks, peoples who have a more hierarchical social system. Such leaders are brokers or liaison agents with the outside non-San peoples and have their position because of their ability to deal with foreigners and carry on entrepreneurial affairs. Such individuals are rarely camp or community leaders.

There are also medicine men whose sole role is the curing of illness, receiving no special privilege because of this position. The San lack sorcerers and witches. Throughout the society men are dominant, a factor Marshall attributes partly to their superior physical strength, but also to their prestige role as hunters and thus as those who provide the meat for the community (despite the fact that plants collected by women supply the bulk of the food). Lee, however, has noted that some women become recognized camp leaders.

San fear fighting and desire to avoid all hostility. At the same time fights do arise and sometimes lead to killing. Most conflicts are in the nature of verbal abuse and argument relating to food and gift distribution or accusations of laziness and stinginess. When actual physical combat is provoked those around the combatants, most often close kin or supporters of one of the protagonists, immediately seek to separate the participants and to pacify them. Extended discussion may ensue but the antagonists remain silent. "The trance dance that sometimes follows a fight may serve as a peace-making mechanism when trance performers give ritual healing to persons on both sides of the argument" (Lee, 377). It is considered particularly important to intervene in a fight involving men between ages 20 and 50 since they have a monopoly on the poisoned arrows. Thus were they to lose all self control and physical combat among these people is likened to a state of temporary insanity - someone would surely die.

Although San do not engage in ritual murder or sacrifice they sometimes "Carry out revenge killings. Yet even these may be avoided. for fear of escalating the violence. On some occasions killers have been "executed" through the mutual agreement of a group of men. According to Lee a goodly number of those who are killed in fights are non-combatants, being usually persons who seek to intervene to stop a fight or occasionally a by-stander. Any severe conflict is usually resolved by the group splitting up.

According to Lee a camp persists as long as food is shared amongst its members, but once this is discontinued the group ceases to exist. There are specific rules concerning the distribution of wild gaμie. The bulk of any kill must be distributed initially by its 'owner', the man who owns the arrow which first entered the animal. So a hunter who shoots an arrow loaned to him by another is merely shooting for that person. Meat is first distributed amongst a small group, including the hunters and the owner of the arrow. This group in turn distributes portions to a wider circle of individuals and they to still a larger group. Consequently, members of the sharing group are involved in a reciprocity system which obligates those who receive to return gifts of meat in future distributions.

Because groups are small, nearly all social relations are actually guided in terms of kinship concepts. There is no organisation or integration of San beyond the band level. One retains band membership throughout life, along with the associated rights to its resources. Yet members do leave their home band and join others. They may still return at a future date.

Children are treated permissively by parents. Marshall affirms the latter are especially fond of younger children and gentle in their treatment of them. "!Kung children are never harshly punished. One father said that if he had a boy who was quarrelsome or who disobeyed the rules - for instance, the absolute rule of the !Kung against stealing food or possessions - what he would do about it would be to keep the boy right with him until he learned sense. The children on their part do not often do things that call for punishment. They usually fall in with group life and do what is expected of them without apparent uncertainty, frustration, or fear; and expressions of resistance or hostility towards their parents, the group, or each other are very much the exception" (Marshall, 264).

  1. Richard B. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, Third Edition (Thomson Learning/Wadsworth, 2003) 60.
  2. Lee, The Dobe, 90.
  3. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 56.
  4. Patricia Draper, "!Kung Women: Foraging and Sedentary Contexts" in Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 87.
  5. 82-83.
  6. Lee. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 88.
  7. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 81.
  8. Draper, "!Kung Women," 91.
  9. Harold Barclay, People_Without_Government:_An_Anthropology_of_Anarchy
  10. Draper, "!Kung Women," 89.
  11. Carl Sagan, A Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballentine Books, 1997), ch. 18.
  12. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 110.
  13. Lee, The Dobe, 111.
  14. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 111.
  15. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 118.
  16. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 109-110.
  17. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 39.
  18. Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, Inc, 1972), 9.
  19. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 56.
  20. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 53.
  21. John Lanchester, "The Case Against Civilization," New Yorker, 18 September 2017,
  22. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 103, 106.
  23. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 114.
  24. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 117.
  25. Lee. The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 88.
  26. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 23.