demographer Nancy Howell. Infanticide is not the same as murder, in the !Kung's view, because life begins not with birth but when the baby is taken back to camp, given a name and accepted as a Real Person. "Before that time, infanticide is part of the mother's prerogatives and responsibilities, culturally prescribed for birth defects and for one of each set of twins born," Howell says. Women give birth outside the camp and men are excluded by taboo from the birth site; the reason for the taboo is doubtless that the father's absence makes easier the mother's decision as to whether to keep the newborn. Land is owned collectively. Almost everything is shared, starting with the meat a hunter kills. Two character traits strongly discouraged by the !Kung are boasting and stinginess. Hunters are expected not just to distribute their kill but also to be extremely diffident about their success. This is central to the egalitarian ethos of !Kung society. Men in fact vary widely in their hunting skills, Lee found, but because they do not get to keep the extra meat or put on airs, not even the mightiest hunter can raise his social standing above others. In the nineteenth century the !Kung used to live in groups with names like The Giraffes, The Big Talkers, The Scorpions, and even The Lice. One could only marry outside one's group. By the time of Lee's study, in the 1960s, the !Kung lived in more informal groups based around families and their near kin and in-laws. But the groups were small, around 30 or so people, and their size seems to have been limited by the nature of their sociality.
During the winter dry season, many groups would come together, to share goods, arrange marriages, hold feasts and do trance dancing. "But this intense social life also had its disadvantages," Lee writes. "The large size of the group required people to work harder to bring in food and fights were much more likely to break out in large camps than in small camps."
Because !Kung groups are strictly egalitarian, there is no authority to resolve conflicts and keep order. !Kung groups do have leaders, but they are informal, with no authority other than personal persuasion. The usual method of expressing disagreement is to vote with one's feet and leave camp along with one's family and followers. Lee noticed that large groups of !Kung stayed together for long periods only at the cattle camps of their Herero neighbors. The reason was in part "the legal umbrella provided by the Herero to maintain order among such a large number of feisty !Kung"—in other words, the Herero maintained a social order that the !Kung apparently had difficulty providing for themselves.
Attractive as an egalitarian foraging society may seem, it has certain drawbacks. Both private property and privacy are kept to a minimum. Without authority or a headman, individuals must resolve, by themselves or with the aid of kin, any disputes they cannot walk away from. And without specialized roles and some kind of hierarchy, a human society cannot grow beyond a certain level of size or complexity.
An early study of the !Kung, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, was titled
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