Ju/’hoansi camps are characterized by a sense of isolation, intimacy, and closeness, according to a 1976 article by Patricia Draper added this week to the Archive of this website. Camps are laid out with the small, inconspicuous huts backed up to the bush and the central area cleared for eating, sleeping, and living space. The huts are mostly used for storing food or objects and as markers for each family’s space.
The Ju/’hoansi, in this article referred to as !Kung, have no privacy between family groups—they can see and hear most of what goes on in the camp. Adults can converse with adjacent family groups at a normal conversational level. The space within the village is not differentiated, and people go anywhere except into other family huts.
Children play anywhere within the cleared space of the village, but until they are older than ten, they rarely play outside in the bush. There are few children in a Ju/’hoansi band—perhaps 14 of both sexes ranging in age from infants to fourteen-year olds. Consequently, competitive games would be difficult to organize since it would be hard to find age-mates to compete with, much less form viable team sports. Besides, the Ju/’hoansi have a strong cultural opposition to competitiveness.
A favorite children’s game is zeni, in which children use a stick to throw and catch weights attached by thongs to feathers. While the children exhibit widely differing abilities in the game, they don’t compete: all play for the sheer pleasure of it. They might play in the village clearing, with the attendant risk of stumbling into a fire hearth, or on the periphery of the village, with the risks of ant hills, thorn bushes, etc.
Children are not excluded from any Ju/’hoansi activities, nor are they protected from anything except the spears and poisoned arrows, which are hung up out of reach. When men make arrow points, if small children interfere the adults patiently wait for the children or try to work with them present. Even if both parents are gone, adults are ubiquitous in the village, though they don’t direct children’s activities. Adults do, however, remain alert to the locations and emotions of children, and they quickly prevent children from getting aggressive, particularly towards others who are not the same age.
Children rarely accompany their mothers on their day-long gathering forays into the bush, and sometimes their mothers actively discourage them from coming. The participation of the children is not needed—the women find enough food for a couple days during a foraging trip, and carrying along the added water for the child would be a hindrance. The exception is made for children under three who have not yet been weaned.
In the village setting children do not help adults with chores such as preparing animal skins for use. Furthermore, not only do children engage in very little work, they help out very little with the care of smaller children. The reason is that adults are always present in the village to watch the younger children. The one exception to this pattern is that when they accompany adults on the daily hike to the waterhole, children are expected to carry back to camp a full container of water.
This fine article by Prof. Draper includes two wonderful photos (the scanned copies don’t do them justice), and there are about 30 more scattered through the rest of the book, Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors, edited by Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore. The volume is normally available through second-hand sources such as Amazon.com, Bookfinder.com, or other used book sources.