The !Kung San are African bushmen that live in isolated areas of Botswana, Angola and Namibia. They have lived in isolation on the plains of the Kalahari Desert for thousands of years and are some of the last remaining hunters and gatherers on earth. Over the past forty years, however, the !Kung have allowed scientists to observe their lives, including how they care for babies.
“I studied the Kung San tribe of South Africa and discovered that their babies very rarely cry. Mothers soothe and calm their babies very quickly. They carry them all day long while walking miles a day. They also nurse their babies 50 to 100 times a day, and sleep with their baby on top of them.“
– Harvey Karp, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block
Whilst the men are responsible for hunting the meat, the women spend two to three days a week, sometimes traveling great distances, foraging for fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts etc and thereby provide the majority of the food for their families. The women are also responsible for child care, gathering wood for fires, carrying water, and cooking. Babies and children that still nurse are carried by the women, which obviously adds to their carrying load, whilst older children are left at home to be watched over by those remaining in the camp.
!Kung San women given birth on average every three to five years and they do so in the bush, alone, which is considered a sign of strength and achievement. The mother delivers the baby in a small leaf-lined hole dug into the warm sand and the umbilical cord is not cut as the placenta is laid next to the infant for protection. The mother-infant relationship is considered sacrosanct so the mothers keep their babies with them at all times.
Women wear a large multipurpose animal-skin garment called a kaross which is carried on the hip and functions as a cover-up and a carrier. Babies sit in a special sling within the kaross, a soft palate lined with grass. The baby has enough room to wriggle around and has good access to the breast. Babies eliminate in the grass in the kaross which the mother regularly replaces. The babies have no toys so they play with their mother’s jewelry. The !Kung San believe that babies should not be left in a horizontal position because they may never develop their good motor skills so the kaross is an ideal way for them to carry their babies vertically. Children spend their first few years in almost constant close contact with their mothers. Separation from the mother becomes more frequent during the second year as the child becomes more curious about its surroundings. However, the mother will continue to carry the child until the ages of three to five at which point the weaning process commences, usually within a year of the child being weaned off the breast. By the age of six or seven, children are no longer carried and are expected to walk on their own.
An interesting observation of !Kung San babies is that they very rarely cry because the mothers respond to their baby cries almost immediately. The mothers feed their babies when they cry and the babies feed many times a day, sometimes up to three or four times an hour. It is very easy for the !Kung San mothers to respond to their babies immediately when they cry, and sometimes when they are fussing and about to cry, because the mothers are always close to their babies.
!Kung San babies are fed the breast continuously. Whilst the babies are held in the kaross, they grab and hold onto the breast to suck whenever they wish. The babies are never denied the breast and the babies control when they feed and for how long.
!Kung San mothers gently wean their babies when they are around four years of age, usually when the mother is pregnant again. The weaning process may involve the mother coating her breasts with bitter herbs. The primary source of food for !Kung San children is breast milk until the age of three to five years, primarily because cereal grains are not available to feed them before they can eat adult food and there are no milk substitutes. Due to the length of time that children bread feed, the process of weaning them can be very difficult with tantrums and general distress experienced.
The last-born child of a mother does not usually endure abrupt weaning and can sometimes continue breastfeeding until the age of five or older but is usually ridiculed by other children.
!Kung San babies and children always sleep next to their mothers. Newborns always sleep adjacent to the mother in order to nurse easily and the other siblings sleep either side.
The !Kung San believe that sitting, standing and walking must be taught and encouraged so they invest a lot of time in ensuring their babies are physically adept early on. Babies are never left lying on their back. Once they reach about seven months they start to spend time off their mother’s back and are let to explore around their home camp with other children.
Bother mothers and fathers in the !Kung San society, are not viewed as figures of authority – their relationships with their children are intimate, nurturing and physically close. Parents are very tolerant and have the general view that “children have no sense” and “intelligence hasn’t come to them yet”. Parents believe that the children will learn to act with sense, with or without deliberate training, simply because they mature and have a desire to conform through social pressure. Efforts to discipline are minimal. Even though physical punishment is often threatened, it is almost never witnessed because !Kung San parents are highly indulgent of children of all ages.
The !Kung San way of life is very communal with many families living together so the babies are never alone and are surrounded by a socially rich environment. Village playgroups usually consist of only a few children, sometimes ranging in ages. The children play together often imitating everyday adult activities such as hunting, gathering, singing, playing house and parenthood. There is limited formal education so the children primarily learn from observing adults. Most childhood games involve little or no competition, the children merely practice to become more accomplished. !Kung San are essentially left to their own devices which gives them lots of room to be creative and imaginative.
As with all cultures and societies, the !Kung San traditional way of life has been affected by external factors and as such, the parenting style and practices are changing and evolving. Sadly, their nomadic hunter gatherer existence is moving more towards a settled, subsistence one and so the mothers are facing an increased need to work and leave their children. As a result, their traditional parenting style as detailed above, may diminish over time.
Fertility in women is low during drought conditions. However, if babies are born under severe drought conditions, it is acceptable behavior for the mother to quietly end the baby’s life to save the child from severe and certain suffering as well as to ensure that limited resources are not spent on a newborn that is unlikely to survive.
Unfortunately children have a 50/50 chance of surviving to adulthood. Many later born children risk loosing one or both parents before they reach maturity.
In 1980, Jamie Uys directed a film “The Gods must be Crazy”, a story about a San man, Xi whose life is disturbed by a bottle of Coke dropped from a plane.