Ju/’hoansi Descent
Bilateral Kindreds

Consistent with the social patterns of nomadic foraging societies, the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari have developed a bilateral kinship system that allows for optimal flexibility in population distribution. Small nuclear and extended family units combine and recombine into flexible camps whose composition changes on a seasonal and annual basis according to the vagaries of resource distribution.

The basic Ju/'hoansi social unit is the "camp", a group of related people who live together during a single season (Lee 2002: 60-64). The camp oftenremains intact through at least several movements in the nomadic cycle. Its members cluster together in adjacent huts that are arranged around a central plaza, an open area where people organize and perform the most of their daily activities. Membership varies from just a few people to over 30, with an average of approximately 20. Members of the camp have open access to a stretch of land that the group exploits and over which it assumes nominal ownership rights. They hunt and gather the wild resources that this territory provides and are bound to share what they have obtained with everyone in the local group. They also provide regular mutual support and aid generally expected among kin and close friends. Neighbouring camps are usually interconnected by kinship and marriage. They frequently use each other's resources but only if permission is requested. They will also exchange visits, which may last for a week or two. During the dry season, several related groups will often form a join encampment that can contain over 100 people.

Membership in the camp is determined according to bilateral kinship ties that build upon individual egocentric links and networks. The group thereby forms a kindred rather than a stock or other ancestrally focused group. Richard Lee, a major ethnographer of Kalahari peoples, gives an example of a typical group as indicated in the following diagram:

Ju/'hoansi Camp
Juhoansi camp

Camp formation centers on a core group, usually composed of siblings, in this case a brother and sister (1 and 2), who have established a presence in a particular territory through a long period of stable residence. They are joined by their spouses (3,4, and 5) who form a second ring of members. This group in turn may bring in relatives in a third ring, who may in turn bring in their relatives, and so on.

Kinship structure of a San camp

The membership rules involved are quite numerous and flexible. Children inherit rights in both their mothers’ and fathers’ camps and may change from one to the other in the course of their lifetimes. A married couple may live with either spouse’s relatives, although a preference for the wife’s group is created by the practice of bride service. (In the example above, eight of ten married couples are living with the husband’s relatives, i.e. virilocally, but this prominence is atypical.) In general, members of the inner circles tend to remain in the group on a fairly permanent basis, but the more peripheral residents often leave and join other camps if local resources become scarce. As such the group’s size fluctuates according to the availability of food, water, and other basic necessities.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created August 2003