1 Reprinted with permission from Man the Hunter, edited by Richard B. Lee and IrvenDeVore. Copyright © 1968 Aldine Publishing.


Article 5The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari1

Richard B. Lee

In this classic article Lee corrects the traditional view that hunting andgathering people live on the edge of survival. His careful study of the!Kung Bushmen (San) of the South African Kalahari Desert shows thatthese people, though existing in a harsh environment, do not live shortand brutish lives. In fact, in the range of resources available to them, intheir diet and caloric intake, in their age distribution, in their amount ofleisure versus work time and in their overall security the !Kung comparefavorably with other, supposedly more advanced peoples.

[Until recently the] anthropological view of hunter-gatherer subsistence rest[ed] on twoquestionable assumptions. First is the notion that these people are primarily dependent on thehunting of game animals, and second is the assumption that their way of life is generally aprecarious and arduous struggle for existence….

Data on living hunter-gatherers show a radically different picture. We have learned that inmany societies, plant and marine resources are far more important than are game animals in thediet. More important, it is becoming clear that, with a few conspicuous exceptions, thehunter-gatherer subsistence base is at least routine and reliable and at best surprisingly abundant.Anthropologists have consistently tended to underestimate the viability of even those “marginalisolates” of hunting peoples that have been available to ethnographers.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the food getting activities of one such “marginal”people, the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Three related questions are posed: How do theBushmen make a living? How easy or difficult is it for them to do this? What kinds of evidence arenecessary to measure and evaluate the precariousness or security of a way of life? And after therelevant data are presented, two further questions are asked: What makes this security of lifepossible? To what extent are the Bushmen typical of hunter-gatherers in general?

Bushman Subsistence

The !Kung Bushmen of Botswana are an apt case for analysis. They inhabit the semi-aridnorthwest region of the Kalahari Desert. With only six to nine inches of rainfall per year, this is, byany account, a marginal environment for human habitation. In fact, it is precisely theunattractiveness of their homeland that has kept the !Kung isolated from extensive contact withtheir agricultural and pastoral neighbors.

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 31

Field work was carried out in the Dobe area, a line of eight permanent waterholes near theSouth-West Africa border and 125 miles south of the Okavango River. The population of the Dobearea consists of 466 Bushmen, including 379 permanent residents living in independent camps orassociated with Bantu cattle posts, as well as 87 seasonal visitors. The Bushmen share the area withsome 340 Bantu pastoralists largely of the Herero and Tswana tribes. The ethnographic presentrefers to the period of field work: October, 1963 – January, 1965.

The Bushmen living in independent camps lack firearms, livestock, and agriculture. Apartfrom occasional visits to the Herero for milk, these !Kung are entirely dependent upon hunting andgathering for their subsistence. Politically they are under the nominal authority of the Tswanaheadman, although they pay no taxes and receive very few government services. Europeanpresence amounts to one overnight government patrol every six to eight weeks. AlthoughDobe-area !Kung have had some contact with outsiders since the 1880s, the majority of themcontinue to hunt and gather because there is no viable alternative locally available to them.

Each of the fourteen independent camps is associated with one of the permanent waterholes.During the dry season (May-October) the entire population is clustered around these wells…. Twowells had no camp resident and one large well supported five camps. The number of camps at eachwell and the size of each camp changed frequently during the course of the year. The “camp” isan open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day.Therefore, I have avoided the term “band” in describing the !Kung Bushman living groups.

Each waterhole has a hinterland lying within a six-mile radius which is regularly exploited forvegetable and animal foods. These areas are not territories in the zoological sense, since they arenot defended against outsiders. Rather they constitute the resources that lie within a convenientwalking distance of a waterhole. The camp is a self-sufficient subsistence unit. The members moveout each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such away that every person present receives an equitable share. Trade in foodstuffs between camps isminimal; personnel do move freely from camp to camp, however. The net effect is of a populationconstantly in motion. On the average, an individual spends a third of his time living only withclose relatives, a third visiting other camps, and a third entertaining visitors from other camps.

Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and the frequency of movement, surplusaccumulation of storable plant foods and dried meat is kept to a minimum. There is rarely morethan two or three days’ supply of food on hand in a camp at any time. The result of this lack ofsurplus is that a constant subsistence effort must be maintained throughout the year. Unlikeagriculturalists who work hard during the planting and harvesting seasons and undergo “seasonalunemployment” for several months, the Bushmen hunter-gatherers collect food every third orfourth day throughout the year….

Vegetable foods comprise from 60-80 per cent of the total diet by weight, and collectinginvolves two or three days of work per woman per week. The men also collect plants and smallanimals but their major contribution to the diet is the hunting of medium and large game. The menare conscientious but not particularly successful hunters; although men’s and women’s work inputis roughly equivalent in terms of man-day of effort, the women provide two to three times as muchfood by weight as the men….

For the greater part of the year, food is locally abundant and easily collected. It is only duringthe end of the dry season in September and October, when desirable foods have been eaten out in

32 Richard B. Lee

the immediate vicinity of the waterholes that the people have to plan longer hikes of 10-15 milesand carry their own water to those areas where the mongongo nut is still available. The importantpoint is that food is a constant, but distance required to reach food is a variable; it is short in thesummer, fall, and early winter, and reaches its maximum in the spring.

This analysis attempts to provide quantitative measures of subsistence status including dataon the following topics: abundance and variety of resources, diet selectivity, range size andpopulation density, the composition of the work force, the ratio of work to leisure time, and thecaloric and protein levels in the diet. The value of quantitative data is that they can be usedcomparatively and also may be useful in archeological reconstruction. In addition, one can avoidthe pitfalls of subjective and qualitative impressions; for example, statements about food “anxiety”have proven to be difficult to generalize across cultures.

Abundance and variety of resources. It is impossible to define “abundance” of resourcesabsolutely. However, one index of relative abundance is whether or not a population exhausts allthe food available from a given area. By this criterion, the habitat of the Dobe-area Bushmen isabundant in naturally occurring foods. By far the most important food is the mongongo (mangetti)nut (Ricinodendron rautanenii Schinz). Although tens of thousands of pounds of these nuts areharvested and eaten each year, thousands more rot on the ground each year for want of picking.

The mongongo nut, because of its abundance and reliability, alone accounts for 50 per cent ofthe vegetable diet by weight. In this respect it resembles a cultivated staple crop such as maize orrice. Nutritionally it is even more remarkable, for it contains five times the calories and ten timesthe proteins per cooked unit of the cereal crops. The average daily per-capita consumption of 300nuts yields about 1,260 calories and 56 grams of protein. This modest portion, weighing only about7.5 ounces, contains the caloric equivalent of 2.5 pounds of cooked rice and the protein equivalentof 14 ounces of lean beef.

Furthermore the mongongo nut is drought resistant and it will still be abundant in the dryyears when cultivated crops may fail. The extremely hard outer shell protects the inner kernel fromrot and allows the nuts to be harvested for up to twelve months after they have fallen to theground. A diet based on mongongo nuts is in fact more reliable than one based on cultivated foods,and it is not surprising, therefore, that when a Bushman was asked why he hadn’t taken toagriculture he replied: “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in theworld?”

Apart from the mongongo, the Bushmen have available 84 other species of edible food plants,including 29 species of fruits, berries, and melons and 30 species of roots and bulbs. The existenceof this variety allows for a wide range of alternatives in subsistence strategy. During the summermonths the Bushmen have no problem other than to choose among the tastiest and most easilycollected foods. Many species, which are quite edible but less attractive, are bypassed, so thatgathering never exhausts all the available plant foods of an area. During the dry season the dietbecomes much more eclectic and the many species of roots, bulbs, and edible resins make animportant contribution. It is this broad base that provides an essential margin of safety during theend of the dry season when the mongongo nut forests are difficult to reach. In addition, it is likelythat these rarely utilized species provide important nutritional and mineral trace elements that maybe lacking in the more popular foods.

Diet selectivity. If the Bushmen were living close to the “starvation” level, then one wouldexpect them to exploit every available source of nutrition. That their life is well above this level is

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 33

indicated by the data. [If] all the edible plant species are arranged in classes according to thefrequency with which they were observed to be eaten…there are some 85 species available, about90 percent of the vegetable diet by weight is drawn from only 23 species. In other words, 75 percentof the listed species provide only 10 percent of the food value.

In their meat-eating habits, the Bushmen show a similar selectivity. Of the 223 local species ofanimals known and named by the Bushmen, 54 species are classified as edible, and of these only17 species were hunted on a regular basis. Only a handful of the dozens of edible species of smallmammals, bird, reptiles, and insects that occur locally are regarded as food. Such animals asrodents, snakes, lizards, termites, and grasshoppers, which in the literature are included in theBushman dietary, are despised by the Bushmen of the Dobe area.

Range size and population density. The necessity to travel long distances, the high frequency ofmoves, and the maintenance of populations at low densities are also features commonly associatedwith the hunting and gathering way of life. Density estimates for hunters in western NorthAmerica and Australia have ranged from 3 persons/square mile to as low as 1 person/100 squaremiles. In 1963-65, the resident and visiting Bushmen were observed to utilize an area of about 1,000square miles during the course of the annual round for an effective population density of 41persons/100 square miles. Within this area, however, the amount of ground covered by membersof an individual camp was surprisingly small. A day’s round-trip of twelve miles serves to definea “core” area six miles in radius surrounding each water point. By fanning out in all directionsfrom their well, the members of a camp can gain access to the food resources of well over 100square miles of territory within a two-hour hike. Except for a few weeks each year, areas lyingbeyond this six-mile radius are rarely utilized, even though they are no less rich in plants and gamethan are the core areas.

Although the Bushmen move their camps frequently (five or six times a year) they do not movethem very far. A rainy season camp in the nut forests is rarely more than ten or twelve miles fromthe home waterhole, and often new campsites are occupied only a few hundred yards away fromthe previous one. By these criteria, the Bushmen do not lead a free-ranging nomadic way of life.For example, they do not undertake long marches of 30 to 100 miles to get food, since this task canbe readily fulfilled within a day’s walk of home base. When such long marches do occur they areinvariably for visiting, trading, and marriage arrangements, and should not be confused with thenormal routine of subsistence.

Demographic factors. Another indicator of the harshness of a way of life is the age at whichpeople die. Ever since Hobbes characterized life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short,”the assumption has been that hunting and gathering is so rigorous that members of such societiesare rapidly worn out and meet an early death. Silberbauer, for example, says of the Gwi Bushmenof the central Kalahari that “life expectancy…is difficult to calculate, but I do not believe that manylive beyond 45.” And Coon has said of hunters in general:

The practice of abandoning the hopelessly ill and aged has been observed in many partsof the world. It is always done by people living in poor environments where it is necessaryto move about frequently to obtain food, where food is scarce, and transportationdifficult…. Among peoples who are forced to live in this way the oldest generation, thegeneration of individuals who have passed their physical peak is reduced in numbers and

34 Richard B. Lee

influence. There is no body of elders to hand on tradition and control the affairs of youngermen and women, and no formal system of age grading.

The !Kung Bushmen of the Dobe area flatly contradict this view. In a total population of 466,no fewer than 46 individuals (17 men and 29 women) were determined to be over 60 years of age,a proportion that compares favorably to the percentage of elderly in industrialized populations.

The aged hold a respected position in Bushman society and are the effective leaders of thecamps. Senilicide is extremely rare. Long after their productive years have passed, the old peopleare fed and cared for by their children and grandchildren. The blind, the senile, and the crippledare respected for the special ritual and technical skills they possess….

Another significant feature of the composition of the work force is the late assumption of adultresponsibility by the adolescents. Young people are not expected to provide food regularly untilthey are married. Girls typically marry between the ages of 15 and 20, and boys about five yearslater, so that it is not unusual to find healthy, active teenagers visiting from camp to camp whiletheir older relatives provide food for them.

As a result, the people in the age group 20-60 support a surprisingly large percentage ofnon-productive young and old people. About 40 per cent of the population in camps contributelittle to the food supplies. This allocation of work to young and middle-aged adults allows for arelatively carefree childhood and adolescence and a relatively unstrenuous old age.

Leisure and work. Another important index of ease or difficulty of subsistence is the amount oftime devoted to the food quest. Hunting has usually been regarded by social scientists as a way oflife in which merely keeping alive is so formidable a task that members of such societies lack theleisure time necessary to “build culture.” The !Kung Bushmen would appear to conform to the rule,for as Lorna Marshall says:

It is vividly apparent that among the !Kung Bushmen, ethos, or “the spirit which actuatesmanners and customs,” is survival. Their time and energies are almost wholly given to thistask, for life in their environment requires that they spend their days mainly in procuringfood.

It is certainly true that getting food is the most important single activity in Bushman life.However, this statement would apply equally well to small-scale agricultural and pastoral societiestoo. How much time is actually devoted to the food quest is fortunately an empirical question. Andan analysis of the work effort of the Dobe Bushmen shows some unexpected results. From July 6to August 2, 1964, I recorded all the daily activities of the Bushmen living at the Dobe waterhole.Because of the coming and going of visitors, the camp population fluctuated in size day by day,from a low of 23 to a high of 40, with a mean of 31.8 persons. Each day some of the adult membersof the camp went out to hunt and/or gather while others stayed home or went visiting. The dailyrecording of all personnel on hand made it possible to calculate the number of man-days of workas a percentage of total number of man-days of consumption.

Although the Bushmen do not organize their activities on the basis of a seven-day week, I havedivided the data this way to make them more intelligible. The work-week was calculated to showhow many days out of seven each adult spent in subsistence activities. Week II has been eliminatedfrom the totals since the investigator contributed food. In week I, the people spent an average of

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 35

2.3 days in subsistence activities, in week III, 1.9 days, and in week IV, 3.2 days. In all, the adultsof the Dobe camp worked about two and a half days a week. Since the average working day wasabout six hours long, the fact emerges that !Kung Bushmen of Dobe, despite their harshenvironment, devote from twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardestworking individual in the camp, a man named …oma who went out hunting on sixteen of the 28days, spent a maximum of 32 hours a week in the food quest.

Because the Bushmen do not amass a surplus of foods, there are no seasons of exceptionallyintensive activities such as planting and harvesting, and no seasons of unemployment. The levelof work observed is an accurate reflection of the effort required to meet the immediate caloricneeds of the group. This work diary covers the midwinter dry season, a period when food isneither at its most plentiful nor at its scarcest levels, and the diary documents the transition frombetter to worse conditions. During the fourth week the gatherers were making overnight trips tocamps in the mongongo nut forests seven to ten miles distant from the waterhole. These longertrips account for the rise in the level of work, from twelve or thirteen to nineteen hours per week.

If food getting occupies such a small proportion of a Bushman’s waking hours, then how dopeople allocate their time? A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for threedays, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, orentertaining visitors from other camps. For each day at home, kitchen routines, such as cooking,nut cracking, collecting firewood, and fetching water, occupy one to three hours of her time. Thisrhythm of steady work and steady leisure is maintained throughout the year.

The hunters tend to work more frequently than the women, but their schedule is uneven. It isnot unusual for a man to hunt avidly for a week and then do nothing at all for two or three weeks.Since hunting is an unpredictable business and subject to magical control, hunters sometimesexperience a run of bad luck and stop hunting for a month or longer. During these periods, visiting,entertaining, and especially dancing are the primary activities of men. (Unlike the Hadza, gamblingis only a minor leisure activity.)

The trance-dance is the focus of Bushman ritual life; over 50 per cent of the men have trainedas trance-performers and regularly enter trance during the course of the all-night dances. At somecamps, trance-dances occur as frequently as two or three times a week and those who have enteredtrances the night before rarely go out hunting the following day…. In a camp with five or morehunters, there are usually two or three who are actively hunting and several others who areinactive. The net effect is to phase the hunting and non-hunting so that a fairly steady supply ofmeat is brought into camp.

Caloric returns. Is the modest work effort of the Bushmen sufficient to provide the caloriesnecessary to maintain the health of the population? Or have the !Kung, in common with someagricultural peoples, adjusted to a permanently substandard nutritional level?

During my field work I did not encounter any cases of kwashiorkor, the most commonnutritional disease in the children of African agricultural societies. However, without medicalexaminations, it is impossible to exclude the possibility that subclinical signs of malnutritionexisted.

Another measure of nutritional adequacy is the average consumption of calories and proteinsper person per day. The estimate for the Bushmen is based on observations of the weights of foodsof known composition that were brought into Dobe camp on each day of the study period. Theper-capita figure is obtained by dividing the total weight of foodstuffs by the total number of

36 Richard B. Lee

persons in the camp. These results are set out in detail elsewhere and can only be summarizedhere. During the study period 410 pounds of meat were brought in by the hunters of the Dobecamp, for a daily share of nine ounces of meat per person. About 700 pounds of vegetables weregathered and consumed during the same period. Table 1 sets out the calories and proteins availableper capita in the !Kung Bushman dietary from meat, mongongo nuts, and other vegetable sources.

This output of 2,140 calories and 93.1 grams of protein per person per day may be comparedwith the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for persons of the small size and stature butvigorous activity regime of the !Kung Bushmen. The RDA for Bushmen can be estimated at 1,975calories and 60 grams of protein per person per day. Thus it is apparent that food output exceedsenergy requirements by 165 calories and 33 grams of protein. One can tentatively conclude thateven a modest subsistence effort of two or three days work per week is enough to provide anadequate diet for the !Kung Bushmen.

The Security of Bushman Life

I have attempted to evaluate the subsistence base of one contemporary hunter-gatherer societyliving in a marginal environment. The !Kung Bushmen have available to them some relativelyabundant high-quality foods, and they do not have to walk very far or work very hard to get them.Furthermore this modest work effort provides sufficient calories to support not only active adults,but also a large number of middle-aged and elderly people. The Bushmen do not have to presstheir youngsters into the service of the food quest, nor do they have to dispose of the oldsters afterthey have ceased to be productive.

Table 1. Caloric and protein levels in the !Kung Bushman dietary, July August, 1964

Class of FoodPercentage

Contributionto Diet by


Per CapitaConsumption

Caloriesper person

per day


Contributionof Meat and


in GramsProtein

in Grams

Meat 37 230 34.5 690 33

Mongongo nuts 33 210 56.7 1,260

67Other vegetablefoods

30 190 1.9 190

Total all sources 100 630 93.1 2,140 100

The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari 37

The evidence presented assumes an added significance because this security of life wasobserved during the third year of one of the most severe droughts in South Africa’s history. Mostof the 576,000 people of Botswana are pastoralists and agriculturalists. After the crops had failedthree years in succession and over 100,000 head of cattle had died on the range for lack of water,the World Food Program of the United Nations instituted a famine relief program which hasgrown to include 180,000 people, over 30 per cent of the population. This program did not touchthe Dobe area in the isolated northwest corner of the country and the Herero and Tswana womenthere were able to feed their families only by joining the Bushman women to forage for wild foods.Thus the natural plant resources of the Dobe area were carrying a higher proportion of populationthan would be the case in years when the Bantu harvested crops. Yet this added pressure on theland did not seem to adversely affect the Bushmen.

In one sense it was unfortunate that the period of my field work happened to coincide with thedrought, since I was unable to witness a “typical” annual subsistence cycle. However, in anothersense, the coincidence was a lucky one, for the drought put the Bushmen and their subsistencesystem to the acid test and, in terms of adaptation to scarce resources, they passed with flyingcolors. One can postulate that their subsistence base would be even more substantial during yearsof higher rainfall.

What are the crucial factors that make this way of life possible? I suggest that the primaryfactor is the Bushmen’s strong emphasis on vegetable food sources. Although hunting involves agreat deal of effort and prestige, plant foods provide from 60-80 per cent of the annual diet byweight. Meat has come to be regarded as a special treat; when available, it is welcomed as a breakfrom the routine of vegetable foods, but it is never depended upon as a staple. No one ever goeshungry when hunting fails.

The reason for this emphasis is not hard to find. Vegetable foods are abundant, sedentary, andpredictable. They grow in the same place year after year, and the gatherer is guaranteed a day’sreturn of food for a day’s expenditure of energy. Game animals, by contrast, are scarce, mobile,unpredictable, and difficult to catch. A hunter has no guarantee of success and may in fact go fordays or weeks without killing a large mammal. During the study period, there were eleven menin the Dobe camp, of whom four did no hunting at all. The seven active men spent a total of 78man-days hunting, and this work input yielded eighteen animals killed, or one kill for every fourman-days of hunting. The probability of any one hunter making a kill on a given day was 0.23. Bycontrast, the probability of a woman finding plant food on a given day was 1.00. In other words,hunting and gathering are not equally felicitous subsistence alternatives.

Consider the productivity per man-hour of the two kinds of subsistence activities. Oneman-hour of hunting produces about 100 edible calories, and of gathering, 240 calories. Gatheringis thus seen to be 2.4 times more productive than hunting. In short, hunting is a high-risk, low-returnsubsistence activity, while gathering is a low-risk, high-return subsistence activity.

It is not at all contradictory that the hunting complex holds a central place in the Bushmenethos and that meat is valued more highly than vegetable foods. Analogously, steak is valued morehighly than potatoes in the food preferences of our own society. In both situations the meat is more“costly” than the vegetable food. In the Bushman case, the cost of food can be measured in termsof time and energy expended. By this standard, 1,000 calories of meat “costs” ten man-hours, whilethe “cost” of 1,000 calories of vegetable foods is only four man-hours. Further, it is to be expected

38 Richard B. Lee

that the less predictable, more expensive food source would have a greater accretion of myth andritual built up around it than would the routine staples of life, which rarely if ever fail.


Three points ought to be stressed. First, life in the state of nature is not necessarily nasty,brutish, and short. The Dobe-area Bushmen live well today on wild plants and meat, in spite of thefact that they are confined to the least productive portion of the range in which Bushman peopleswere formerly found. It is likely that an even more substantial subsistence would have beencharacteristic of these hunters and gatherers in the past, when they had the pick of African-habitatsto choose from.

Second, the basis of Bushman diet is derived from sources other than meat. This emphasismakes good ecological sense to the !Kung Bushmen and appears to be a common feature amonghunters and gatherers in general. Since a 30 to 40 per cent input of meat is such a consistent targetfor modern hunters in a variety of habitats, is it not reasonable to postulate a similar percentagefor prehistoric hunters? Certainly the absence of plant remains on archeological sites is by itself notsufficient evidence for the absence of gathering. Recently abandoned Bushman campsites show asimilar absence of vegetable remains, although this paper has clearly shown that plant foods com-prise over 60 per cent of the actual diet.

Finally, one gets the impression that hunting societies have been chosen by ethnologists toillustrate a dominant theme, such as the extreme importance of environment in the molding ofcertain cultures. Such a theme can best be exemplified by cases in which the technology is simpleand/or the environment is harsh. This emphasis on the dramatic may have been pedagogicallyuseful, but unfortunately it has led to the assumption that a precarious hunting subsistence basewas characteristic of all cultures in the Pleistocene. This view of both modern and ancient huntersought to be reconsidered. Specifically I am suggesting a shift in focus away from the dramatic andunusual cases, and toward a consideration of hunting and gathering as a persistent andwell-adapted way of life.