San-Speaking Peoples - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although famed as foragers, fewer than 5 percent of San-speaking peoples have relied on foraging for the bulk of their subsistence during the twentieth century; even these few have depended on herding-farming relatives and on neighbors for dietary supplements of meat, milk, and grains, as well as for supplies of such desired goods as iron for arrow points and spears, metal containers, glass beads, tobacco, and, when obtainable, sugar, coffee, and tea. Herding-farming San speakers also forage, as do rural Bantu speakers (the poorer of whom obtain 25 percent of their livelihood from foraging). It has been reported that during the 1970s hunting provided 11 percent of the diet of the Zhu I õasi, whereas gathered plants contributed 85 percent of the calories that were consumed by those who owned no livestock and 10 percent to 68 percent of the caloric intake of stock owners. Large antelope—eland, kudu, gemsboks—and giraffes still provide the bulk of the dietary meat, but small antelope, birds, and reptiles are also important. Seasonal and annual variation is great; the proportion of the diet that is obtained by hunting may rise to 30 percent during the dry winter months (May to August) but falls to less than 1 percent during the wet summer (December to February). Those Khoe speakers who live along rivers and in the delta rely heavily upon fish, the abundance of which is also highly seasonal. The contribution of gathered plants, about 100 species, is subject to similar fluctuation. For example, in September and October mongongo nuts may supply as much as 90 percent of the calories of Zhu I õasi who own no livestock, but these nuts are seldom available from November to March. Mongongo groves are restricted to narrow ecological zones; most San-speaking groups rely on more widely distributed wild nuts and legumes (mainly morula nuts and species of Bauhinia beans). Goats are kept by individuals in all San-speaking groups, but fewer than one-third of households own any of these animals; cattle ownership is even more restricted, but the Deti are wealthy in these animals, as are small proportions of families in several other groups. Goats are readily slaughtered for home consumption and are sold locally for slaughter by others. Cattle are milked and are eaten when they die; when available, surplus oxen and old bulls are slaughtered for important ritual occasions and may also be sold. The few owners of large herds fatten oxen for commercial sale. Crops are grown by most homesteads and, where conditions are favorable (i.e., in Angola and eastern-southern Botswana), contribute substantially to subsistence. Mixed fields are usual; these are planted with some combination of sorghum, millet, maize, sweet-reed (a type of sugarcane), cowpeas, and melons. Women sell home-brewed beer. The cash purchase of maize meal, sugar, coffee and tea, soap, cosmetics, clothing, and utilitarian household items has increased since the late 1970s.

Industrial Arts. Leatherworking was important in the past, as was blacksmithing, but no longer. A few women in the riverine-delta area still weave baskets for local use and for sale.

Trade. The majority of San speakers live in or near villages, in which one or more small shops are located. Those who live in the central Kalahari, in western Ngamiland, and on many cattle posts rely primarily on itinerant traders and on informal arrangements with periodic visitors. Fairly often they travel on foot, donkey, or horseback to the nearest shop, which may be 100 kilometers away.

Division of Labor. Women bear the major responsibility for child care, but men play important supporting roles. Adolescents learn their adult roles mainly from older members of their respective sexes. Men hunt the larger animals, but women collect smaller species, such as tortoises, and may assist in the monitoring of snare lines. Women gather the greater quantity of plant foods, but men bring in smaller amounts as well, especially after successful hunts. Men of all groups do the heavier work of cattle management (well digging, corral building, branding, slaughtering). In some groups, women may participate in herding and be responsible for milking (as among the Zhu I õasi). Elsewhere, these may be considered inappropriate activities for women (as among most Khoe speakers). Among the Zhu I õasi, relative age modifies the division of labor, in that older cohorts and siblings have some directional control over their juniors. Leadership positions—which may be held by either men or women in a related set of families—do not relieve the leaders from obligations of work, but they do provide avenues for disproportionate long-term gains; the terms for "leader" in the Zhu I õasi and Khoe languages are derived from words that designate "wealth." Diviners and curers, who also may be women as well as men, are generally held in high esteem.

Land Tenure. Land tenure is vested in a set of related families whose claim to generationally inherited rights to a particular area is considered legitimate. Generally, individuals acquire two such rights bilaterally through their parents. Residence in one of these tenure areas and regular participation with relatives in the other are essential if a person wishes to retain these rights. Seasonal movement within tenures is common, as is vesting among relatives in different tenures. The current leader of a landholding group is in most cases also the nominal "owner" of the land. Nonresidents must obtain permission from this person to use the land; such permission is rarely refused to kin and rarely given to others.


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