The Ju/’hoansi are well-known in the ethnographic and popular literature for their gender equality, but their practice of naming children after the father’s parents undeniably reflects a male bias. Patricia Draper and Christine Haney, in a Summer 2005 article just published in the journal Ethnology, examine genealogical records gathered by the Harvard Kalahari Research Project (HKRP) in order to evaluate an observation made by Marshall (1976) about the naming practices of the Ju/’hoansi.
Marshall had indicated that a Ju/’hoansi man would “invariably” name the first born son after his father and the first born daughter after his mother. Draper and Haney decided to see if the HKRP records starting about 40 years ago, which were gathered by Draper and several other anthropologists, would support Marshall’s statement.
The Ju/’hoansi preferred to name children after grandparents, a practice they continue to follow. Second sons and daughters could, if the parents’ wished, be named after the mother’s parents, and later children after other older relatives. The child would be known as !uma, “the small name,” and the older person after whom the name was chosen became the !un!a, “the big name” or “the old name.”
The authors sifted through more than 800 individual records from the HKRP and studied the detailed data on 72 men and 103 women that gave them enough information for their naming investigation. They found that 58 out of 72—81 percent of the men—named at least one son for the paternal grandfather, and 51 out of 68 men—75 percent of those who had at least one girl—named a daughter after the father’s mother. About one-third of the children were named after their maternal grandparents. Marshall’s use of the word “invariably” was apparently ill-advised.
These names created special ties between the two people, but the relationship was broader than that in their society. The naming tended to follow alternating generations and built special inter-generational ties. `The “small name” was treated, for certain social purposes, as if he or she actually was the “big name.” The children—the small names—had instant social networks simply due to their names, just as if they were the big names, and those networks would help them later in life. Anyone addressing a child with its small name, even if the big name were already deceased, would invoke the memory of the older person.
The authors indicate that the Ju/’hoansi thought of this fictive relationship as more than just a symbolic one. The relationship was quite concrete—it became a social passport for the small name individuals. And for everyone, when people traveled to areas outside their normal range of kin relations, they could still rely on the fictive relationships to help them. If a woman entered a community where she did not know anyone, she would still be considered a relation if there were someone else in the village with the same name. The sisters of the person with the same name would adopt her as their sister.
Regarding the issue of equality, Draper and Haney point out that traditional Ju/’hoansi society was built on decisions made by consensus, that people did not coerce one another, and that there were no distinctions between the mothers and fathers in terms of ritual precedence or inheritances. Couples could live with either the man’s or the woman’s family, another sign of their gender equality.
Decades ago, while the Ju/’hoansi still subsisted on traditional foraging, their hunting and gathering economy also fostered their gender equality. The women were not isolated from their kin, as happens in many societies where young couples live with the husband’s family. The fact that the fathers had the exclusive right to choose the names for their children was clearly an exception to the normal Ju/’hoansi practice of gender equality. However, the authors acknowledge that the situation has changed a lot in the intervening decades since the Harvard Kalahari Research Project gathered its data.
Draper, Patricia and Christine Haney. 2005. “Patrilateral Bias Among a Traditionally Egalitarian People: Ju/’hoansi Naming Practice.” Ethnology 44(3): 243-259