Cultures, Primitive Societies

Choose Understanding over Judgment: A Recipe for Extraordinary Anthropology

family life with the !Kung

“Equality between the sexes is probably greater among gatherers and hunters, including the !Kung, than in most other societies around the world.”

–Marjorie Shostak

Originally published in 1981, Marjorie Shostak’s popular book titled “Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman” was reprinted in paperback in 2000. It continues to earn rave reviews from readers as well as the respect of anthropologists and academics the world over.

Preparation for Family Life with the !Kung

One of the many things that makes this such a remarkable book is the degree of dedication shown by the author in making it possible. That dedication took the form of painstakingly learning the language of the !Kung people during the three years from 1968 to 1971 that she experienced family life with the Kung. Her willingness to learn to communicate with them in their own language was an important factor in inspiring the level of trust necessary for Nisa to confide the many personal details which enabled Shostak to understand the true meaning of family life with the Kung.

All languages contain slang as well as nonverbal cues that affect meaning. To achieve even a rudimentary vocabulary took six months even with complete immersion and the aid of a tutor. It took ten months to acquire the linguistic skill to communicate on the level necessary to conduct a meaningful interview. After the first fifteen initial interviews, she returned in 1975 to complete six more before publishing the book and was surprised to learn how much family life with the Kung had changed in such a short time.

For good reason, the book both redefined the ethnographic interview and demonstrated its power as a tool for anthropological research. In addition to the twenty-one initial interviews, Ms. Shostak was also able to observe Nisa’s social interactions and corroborate much of what she had been told. Ironically, in many societies, women are culturally more free to speak with other women than with men, especially outsiders. Until the 20th century, the majority of anthropological field work was conducted by men, for whom it was difficult to impossible to gain the experience and perspective of the women of the culture they were studying.

Milestones in Family Life with the !Kung

An analysis of the book suggests that may be one reason that so little information about women’s lives is available. It also points out that Shostak considered Nisa her instructor, a cultural expert regarding the rites of womanhood and family life with the !Kung, and paid for her services during the educational process. The stories in the book represent only eight percent of all the interviews. Information from the interviews was arranged in chronological order from birth through all the milestones of her life as a woman.

Those milestones included discovering sexuality, marriage, childbirth, and maturation through old age. Respect for the culture as well as for linguistic precision were factors in Shostak’s choice to remain as true to the Kung form of expression as possible. According to an overview of the book, each of its fifteen chapters’ focuses on a different aspect of family life with the Kung. Through her experiences, the universal nature of the social intricacies of love, loss, joy and sorrow that accompany all women throughout their respective life journeys is affirmed.

Ms. Shostak, battling cancer, returned for the last time in 1993, and after searching the desert for weeks, found Nisa once more. Their communications during that visit served as the inspiration for a second book titled “Nisa Revisited“, which she was able to nearly complete before her death. Upon her death in 1998 at the age of 51, her work was described by the New York Times as having

“injected new life into techniques of anthropology”.

Her contribution was all the more remarkable since although her degree was not in anthropology, she later became an associate of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

Her book continues to be taught in universities and the field of anthropology continues to benefit from Shostak’s dedication and respect for other cultures. However, perhaps it is women who benefit most from learning that some cultural differences can be beneficial ones.

family life with the !Kung
Woman Digging With Infants, taken by Marjorie Shostak
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