If you visit the Ju/’hoansi people of northeastern Namibia and northwestern Botswana, you will see families who live from a mixture of foraging for food, government assistance, selling handicrafts and other companies. Most people have cash income that is used to purchase food, clothing, and other goods. Some of the few with salaried government jobs may have cars and furniture. Mud huts sit side by side with stone houses. Wealth is unevenly distributed and behind some of that wealth is debt.
It wasn’t always like this. Money is new to Ju/’hoansi society. Two generations ago, their economy was largely based on the search for wild plant and animal resources. Since the late 1970s, the Ju/’hoansi have settled in semi-permanent villages and engaged in a mixed economy that includes cash income. With money, however, come new choices.
In a new study, Polly Wiessner, a research professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Utah and Arizona State University, and Cindy Hsin-yee Huang of Arizona State, explore how money has changed society Ju /’hoansi. Some things from the days of foragers, like sharing meals and gifts with close family, haven’t changed. Other things, like extensive kinship networks and need-based community giving, certainly did.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” says Wiessner. “I’ve seen a shift in the norms or conventions from having to share most of what you have to being allowed to keep your cash income and meet your own needs and then share that who stays.”
The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
History of the Ju/’hoansi the bushmen
How does a moneyless society work? Before money, the Ju/’hoansi economy was based on sharing and giving.
“Suppose someone kills a large animal,” says Wiessner, “and there is a lot of meat. Well, he can give himself that meat very cheaply because it’s going to rot anyhow. But the receiver who might be quite hungry and needy will consider this meat a great boon.
The nomadic hunter-gatherer society also distributed goods in their communities by offering things to each other. Gifts served to convey information about the state of the underlying relationship, to share necessities, and to strengthen social ties, as each gift carried within it a bond between giver and receiver.
These traditions of giving and sharing have come together in a system called hxaro, which defined the kinship that each Ju/’hoansi was responsible for looking after. In difficult times, the Ju/’hoansi could rely on, or even live with, their hxaro partners in other villages up to 125 miles (200 km) away for months at a time. In 1974, 69% of Ju/’hoansi property had been received as hxaro gifts.
But then the money entered their society, triggering gradual cultural changes. During the 1970s, amid the loss of traditional Ju/’hoansi lands, the government of Namibia established a homeland for the bushmen called Nyae Nyae. Over the next few decades, the Ju/’hoansi began herding animals and farming on a small scale and began to receive government assistance for children and pensions for the elderly, as well as jobs in the capital of the Tsumkwe district. This government assistance is vital, as families have struggled to meet basic needs following the loss of their forage land.
In addition to this government assistance, the people of Nyae Nyae also harvest the devil’s claw plant, which grows in the bush and can be sold to pharmaceutical companies as a painkiller, providing another source of income.
So, before we continue, let’s pause and think about the concept of money. Going back to the concept of sharing the meat of a large prey, it is a transaction that costs the giver little, because he has too much to use, and benefits the receiver greatly, because he needs it. But if you introduce money into the equation, now sharing the money costs the giver as much as it benefits the receiver, since the value of money is fixed. Sharing is now more expensive.
It also detaches the meaning of objects acquired through social connections, much like how a gift certificate at a bookstore doesn’t mean the same thing as a book someone picked up from that store as a gift for you. For the Ju/’hoansi, almost all of their possessions previously came from a gift made within the framework of a social bond.
“So the object, the gift, is never detached from the relationship,” says Wiessner. “All of your material possessions have a built-in relationship, whereas with money you just go to the store and you have it, and there is no social relationship.”
How money changed sharing and giving
Between 1996 and 2018, Wiessner investigated the Ju/’hoansi in Nyae Nyae, learning about their way of life and their social networks. She compared this data, including surveys of the origin of people’s possessions, with data she had collected in the mid-1970s when she first visited Botswana. With the help of his longtime Ju/’hoansi research assistants, Wiessner continued to collect and analyze data on how villagers spent their money between 2020 and 2022.
She found, in particular, that the hxaro exchange system in an extended kinship network had essentially collapsed. In 1997, the number of hxaro partnerships had halved. In 2018, the system was essentially just a story told by elders.
Why did it decline so quickly? Previously, in difficult times, a band of Ju/’hoansi would disperse and live with hxaro parents, contributing their hunting abilities and gaining resources from their hosts. Now, with permanent settlements and silver food options, sharing with visitors has become more expensive than before.
And with cash, the social economy changes. The Ju/’hoansi respect each person’s autonomy to do what they want with their money and take care of their own family first. “When I get paid, I get a lot of requests,” said one villager. “I tell my family and friends that I will first pay off my store debts and buy food, school uniforms and other goods for the family and for myself. more money, I tell them maybe next time I can give them something. That’s how I manage to have enough for myself while keeping my friends.
Sharing and giving have not completely disappeared, but have shifted to reflect the new economy. Instead of sharing meat from large catches (which still happens, but such catches are rare), communities share “tea and sugar parties” and extended family meals. Gifts are still given, but are now bought instead of made. And donations to distant relatives, which accounted for 23% of donations in 1974, fell to 1% of donations in 2018.
How money changed the social order
Unsurprisingly, the introduction of currency has created wealth disparities. The few salaried government employees received far more money than other villagers and spent it on cars, houses, furniture and other goods that are out of reach for many Ju/’hoansi.
But, perhaps surprisingly to Americans, money has not created other forms of social inequality. Even though 90% of the highest-paying government jobs went to men, for example, women sought to earn a living in other ways, such as harvesting devil’s claw. There was no significant difference in the number of goods purchased by women and men in a given year or residence, suggesting low gender inequality.
“There’s always been gender equality,” says Wiessner, “and sometimes people think that because men have more jobs it’s going to decrease, but it doesn’t.”
The Ju/’hoansi value egalitarianism, she says, which means that everyone respects the autonomy of the other in pursuing economic activities. This avoids social inequalities between different income brackets. Expensive stone houses, she says, are built next to mud huts.
“No bushman hires another bushman to do his dirty work,” says Wiessner. “If people try to gain political power, they are overthrown. I don’t know how long this will last, we really can’t say, but for now, very strong egalitarian principles hold, even if the material differences are great.
wants and needs
Yes, money has changed Ju/’hoansi society. That doesn’t mean the previous foraging lifestyle was ideal — it was marked by periodic poverty, anxiety and food insecurity, Wiessner says. There are benefits to being able to purchase food, clothing, and other necessities. But what happens when the needs have been met and more and more things that were wants become needs?
“As more becomes available — computers, fancy phones, all those things — these shift from wants to needs in our perception,” she says. “And that’s what happens to the Ju/’hoansi as well. A certain amount of material goods to make them comfortable – clothes, shoes, etc. – become needs rather than mere wants. And that’s what money really does. This changes society because it has increasingly entered the category of needs.
This is something Wiessner says she sees endemic in Western society, but learning from Ju/’hoansi she could see it emerging from the very beginning of money entering a society.
“What I don’t see is the use of money to create social inequalities, it’s not happening yet,” she says. But society will likely continue to change. Currently, there are no social institutions that allow one Ju/’hoansi to employ another or enforce payment for services rendered, nor institutions to enforce payment for interpersonal loans (although stores were willing to extend lines of credit, thus introducing debt).
“So what I’ll have to see,” says Wiessner, continuing his nearly 50-year study of Ju/’hoansi society, “is whether new institutions develop to manage money in the current situation.”
See the full study here.