Ju/’hoansi Marriage Patterns

Marriage institutions among Ju/’hoansi foragers can initially be understood in relation to their basic subsistence adaptation and the flexible organization of band level society. Extensive exogamy dominates the system to foster a multiplicity of affinal ties among numerous groups. These arrangements allow local camps to share resources with many other linked groups and to reconstitute their membership to match fluctuations in food supplies and other resources. People who have numerous and diversely located in-laws have more opportunities to receive support and change locations and camp membership in an uncertain environment. Accordingly, the first notable set of Ju/’hoansi marriage rules marks out a very broad range of incest and marriage prohibitions that can exclude up to 75% of the population. A person cannot marry within a bilateral circle of relatives that extends to his second cousins. He/she is also excluded from marrying anyone with the same name as his/her parent or sibling and anyone who is categorized as avoidance kin.

A second feature of the marriage system is that first marriages choices are generally determined by the couple’s parents. Future husbands and wives are betrothed in childhood after negotiations and gift exchanges between their mothers. Usually the bride’s mother is in the controlling position and attempts to create or continue a relationship with a family that is hospitable, likeable, and well established in the gift exchange network. The husband’s qualities as a hunter and provider are also considered. Parental discretion is often modified by a son’s or daughter’s opinions on the match, and, if a girl makes a substantial enough fuss, her mother will attempt to find a more acceptable husband.

Marriage will take place several years after the initial betrothal and will also involve gift exchange. However, no specific bride price or dowry is paid. Exchange items take the form of consumable goods rather than special valuables or real property and the reciprocities between the wife’s and husband’s parties are expected to balance each other out. After marriage, the groom is required to perform several years of bride-service, during which he lives with his in-laws and hunts for them.

Ju/’hoansi accept polygyny in principle. However, over 95% of all marriages are monogamous and those that are not almost always involve men with only two wives. Such husbands attain some degree of prestige, and tend to be elder men who are renown as healers. However, there is no regular gradation or stratification on the basis of the number of wives a person acquires. Husbands and wives cohabit with a moderate degree of informality and cooperation. However, the man is usually substantially older than the woman and, thereby, exercises greater domestic authority. Tasks are subdivided. Men are responsible for hunting and for craft manufacture. Women specialize in gathering, child care, and domestic chores. Divorce is easily obtained and is common, as are second marriages. When a separation does occur, the children remain with their mother.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: September 2003