!Kung Hunter-gatherers: Gender roles, diet and…wait, what? Birth control?

by Sivanesan N. Dharmalingam 

There was a time when all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Not that I’m about to detail the complex evolution of Homo sapiens, but let’s just say that we all have origins that trace back to a time long before city life. In this time our ancestors would trek across the African plains to hunt animals for meat, which they would bring back to camp and feed their families, along with vegetables, fruit and nuts foraged from around the camp. Now when we hunt, it’s for the best deals on the best brands and foraging is confined to the (sometimes) not-so-fresh produce from local supermarkets, all conveniently accessible at the shopping-mall closest to us.

Figure 1: Nomadic men leaving camp to hunt an animal, staple in their diet of the !Kung for ~11 000 years – the nocturnal springhare (2).

One of the few hunter-gatherer societies that still exist today are the !Kung, of south-west Africa.
Yes, that is where the exclamation mark is supposed to go – it indicates that there is an alveolar-palatal-click at the beginning of the word. Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, behind your teeth and sharply draw it backwards… !Kung..!Kung. Awesome, lets continue:
For over 11 000 years most of the !Kung had hunter-gatherer lifestyles, hunting some of the same animals since the Pleistocene, until about 50 years ago. Now, less than 5% of ~30 000 !Kung people still practice this lifestyle in the 21stcentury. Most population groups have adopted an agrarian (practice cultivation of land for farming) lifestyle, having settled down near Bantu (pastoralists – cattle herders) villages. This rapid social change is accompanied by social, dietary and demographic changes. These changes are interesting, anthropologically, since they might possibly reflect some of the changes that occurred during the Neolithic revolution, which saw a wide-scale pattern of previously nomadic peoples establishing permanent settlements (transitioning from hunter-gatherers to agrarian lifestyles) and the development of social class and civilisation(~12 000 years ago).

Some of the most interesting differences between nomadic bands and the settled peoples are related to the changes in behavior, status and the role of !Kung women. In nomadic bands, men leave camp to hunt for meat, whilst women – responsible for foraging – are as mobile as the men and contribute ~50% of the food for the band from foraging. Their diet is widely acclaimed as being nutritional and well-balanced and is reported that very few nutritional and even old-age related deficiencies and disease (associated with complex societies) existed in these peoples. Both sexes equally contribute to sustenance of the group and as such, these women  are autonomous and they have higher egalitarian status, which give them the ability to directly influence group decisions. Some men and women stay behind everyday to care for children and maintain the camp.
YES!!! Finally, a society which treated both sexes equally!
However, with the transition to sedentary lifestyles, the !Kung women are losing their egalitarian status. The men of the sedentary !Kung leave their villages to work –  farming and herding cattle on Bantu farms. Women remain, preparing food (a shift to include cow’s milk and grain) and caring for the village and the children; not mobile, contributing less to the food supply and therefore are more reliant on the men. !Kung men learn the language(s) and practices of the Bantu when working on the farms. They echo the ideals of the male-dominated Bantu society into their own and the Bantu-people only deal with the !Kung men, creating increasingly subservient roles for the women.

Children are raised differently in settled !Kung villages. In nomadic bands, there aren’t groups based on age and sex. The children play together in a non-competitive environment, where distinct gender roles and aggression are discouraged and actively avoided.  In the settled villages there is an increase in population size (more children) and groups of same sex and similar ages for playing, which breeds competition. I must admit that last sentence quite accurately depicted my high-school experience. The boys are on their own, expected to herd cattle and learn farming.

Figure 2: group of nomadic !Kung children, depicting mixed ages (3).

The girls have no comparable experience and help women, in the village, with chores. The increase in population sizes are attributed to the increase in body size of the settled !Kung, which is due to the increase in food supply. The nomadic bands have a natural birth control – the menarche (first menstrual cycle) of girls occur later (~16 years old) and women have babies less frequently, with a woman’s first birth around 19-20 years old and an average birthing interval of 4 years. This is related to food supply – body fat percentage must exceed a minimum for onset, and maintenance after, menarche. Due to the lack of soft food, children are nursed for ~4 years and in those years the lactating woman may have too little body fat for ovulation to occur and she rarely falls pregnant in this time. Settled groups have 30% shorter birthing intervals and have more children, owing to the introduction of cow’s milk and grain meal into the infants’ diet.

There is no confirmation that the !Kung peoples transition from hunter-gatherers into agrarian societies are an accurate representation of the events of the Neolithic revolution. However, I personally find the social egalitarianism and equality of gender roles portrayed by the nomadic bands of the !Kung fascinating! The idea that a simple lifestyle revolving around basic needs had, and – in the few societies that remain – have equality of sexes brings to attention that social classes, and a gender biased society are not “a thing of the past”, but rather completely out of place in the progression of our species. In our society today, where women and men have equal potential, the opportunity to contribute to our advancement should be afforded to all.


  1. Kolata, G.B., 1974. ! Kung hunter-gatherers: feminism, diet, and birth control. Science185(4155), pp.932-934.
  2. Lee, R.B., Lee, R.B. and DeVore, I. eds., 1976. Kalahari hunter-gatherers: Studies of the! Kung San and their neighbors. Harvard University Press.
  3. Hawkes, K., O’Connell, J. and Blurton Jones, N., 2018. Hunter‐gatherer studies and human evolution: A very selective review. American journal of physical anthropology165(4), pp.777-800.

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