!Kung gift giving

Pauline Wiessner explains in this article that the !Kung people of Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, survive hard times by maintaining intricate social networks through storytelling and gift exchange.  These social technologies have helped the !Kung navigate change  in the modern world.  Wiessner makes this point with the following story:

About five years ago, my phone in Salt Lake City rang in the middle of the night. Some of my friends managed to gain access to a satellite telephone left untended by a safari tour operator. They’d even found someone who knew how to work the thing. They said they’d just rung up a well-known American who’d been to the Kalahari a few years earlier making a documentary. He had, according to the !Kung, promised to send their soccer team some athletic shoes. Would I, they asked, purchase them in Utah and then send him the bill? He’d agreed to this, they claimed. I could bring the shoes next time I traveled to Namibia.

…Just that day I had worked with data showing that in the 30 years since they’d moved to permanent settlements, their caloric intake had declined from what it had been when they were hunting and gathering.  This call showed that the !Kung could combine new technologies with age-old strategies to get things they needed.  These Bushmen had survived for millennia by maintaining ties of mutual support with people outside their immediate group. By accessing this satellite phone and devising this complex strategy to get the shoes, they’d extended the range of their support network from 200 to 15,000 kilometers.


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