Re: Power in Foraging Societies (was Re: Swyers' questions on

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Sat, 16 Mar 1996 17:14:12 -0500

I stand corrected.

In an earlier post, I commented that

> On Thu, 14 Mar 1996, Ruby Rohrlich wrote:
> > Holly, if you read the ethnographies of Colin Turnbull, Richard Lee and
> > others who have worked with gathering-hunting societies, you discov er
> > how these folks prevent anyone from having power over others. These
> > anthropologists term such societies "gentle people."
> The books Dr. Rohrlich is refering to are Colin Turnbull's "The Forest
> People" about the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest, and Elizabeth Thomas' "The
> Harmless People" about the !Kung San of the Kalihari. [I don't know about
> anyone else, but to me the phrase "the gentle people" has always refered
> to the Old Order Amish.]

My thinking was, as I noted, since I only knew the phrase "gentle people"
in relation to the Old Order Amish (a search of the library catalog turned
up five books with that name about the Amish, none about the !Kung), Dr.
Rohrlich *must have been* (a clear confusion, misapprehension, and error
on my part) refering to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' book, the "Harmless

Dr. Rohrlich has replied that when she wrote Richard Lee, she meant
Richard Lee, specifically his 1979 book, "The !Kung San: Men, Women, and
Work in a Foraging Society." I stand corrected.

However, I remain confused (so what's new?). My quick rereading of "The
!Kung San" this morning turned up no use of the phrase "gentle people" in
reference to the !Kung, and particularly to their handling of power and
authority. There is a reference to Thomas' book title, and to similar
conclusions by Lorna Marshall. However, those references are in the
introduction to chapter 12 on "conflict and violence" whose purpose is to
analyze the many reported incidents, including killing.

Indeed, it seems hard to describe the !Kung as "gentle people." In a later
chapter (15: Lessons of the !Kung), Lee devotes much attention to
"leveling devices" -- which might be (I don't want to jump to conclusions)
what Dr. Rohrlich had in mind when she spoke of "how these folks prevent
anyone from having power over others." -- These devices include

"minimizing the size of other's kills, downplaying the value of
others' gifts, ... In fact the one area in which the !Kung are openly
competitive is in recounting suffering... To outsiders, these cultural
preoccupations are disconcerting. We admire the !Kung from afar,
but when we are brought into closer contact with their daily
concerns, we are alternately moved to pity by their tales of
hardship and repelled by their nagging demands for gifts, demands
that grow more insistent the more we give." (p458)

That is, while "the essence of this life is sharing ... it has
to be learned and reinforced..." by verbal abuse (the latter phrase my

If I am again mistaken about my reading of Lee, I look forward to correction.