wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Melvin Konner

The Tangled Wing

The twenty-first-century actresses and models we idolize would be a poor bet to bring a healthy infant to term, much less to lactate. But the women whose images grace our great museums had just the ripeness needed. Among our ancestors, the woman who matched this ideal would have enough energy in the bank to make childbearing safe and healthy without slowing down a very active life. The men attracted to her were no fools. What appealed to them—unconsciously, since they didn't do the calculation—was reproductive readiness. Why moderns like women who look like girls remains a mystery and a tribute to the role of culture and learning in setting sexual responses. Women now signal high status by looking as close to the edge of starvation as they can—pubescent girls for the first half of their lives, social X-rays for the second—they are that sure of their future wealth and comfort.

Most of our ancestors, unfortunately, could not keep enough weight on to attain the Titian ideal. Even the !Kung are no exception to the rule about shortages. In the 1960s and 1970s economic anthropologist Marshall Sahlins made a habit of referring to them as 'the original affluent society'—a strange way to describe a group of people with a 50 percent childhood mortality rate, resulting in a life expectancy at birth of thirty years. To be fair, Sahlins was referring to their apparent dietary sufficiency, their seemingly adequate leisure time, and above all their sense of satisfaction with their lives. But all three claims are controversial.

Excellent studies by Richard Lee showed that the !Kung spent just a few hours a day, a few days a week, in the food quest; that they had many leisure activities; that their diet was well balanced; that they did not exhaust their environment's food supply; that their caloric intake was just above the minimum needed for their size and weight; and that they did not aspire to the more well-to-do herding and agricultural life of their Bantu neighbors. Subsequent work, however, called some of these findings into question. Spending just a few hours a day and a few days a week in the food quest is impressive, but many more hours are spent making tools and weapons, curing skins, preparing and cooking food, making clothing, and planning future hunting-and-gathering expeditions—none of which was included in the initial research on !Kung work. If what lawyers and judges do is work, then when the !Kung sit up all night at a meeting debating a hotly contested divorce, they are also working. If what psychotherapists and ministers do is work, then a !Kung man or woman who spends hours in an enervating trance trying to cure people is working as well. Furthermore, the !Kung are often ill, with physical complaints apparent to anyone who visits them. They suffer endemic diseases including malaria, gut infections, parasites, and tuberculosis, among others. Most women spend the years from nineteen to forty-five either pregnant or nursing, a further major drain. Considering these facts about physical condition, we must also ask whether some of what looked like leisure to earlier investigators was perhaps just not feeling well. When people are feeling poorly they may not work, but that doesn't qualify as leisure.

As for available food left unused, that claim also requires scrutiny. Palatability and ease of access enhance eating, especially in the obese but also in normal people. Mongougo nuts are tasty and nutritious—they are the !Kung staff of life—but even a !Kung can eat only so many of them. If a woman who has eaten little else for a week straight declines an opportunity to take yet another ten-mile trek to the farther mongongo groves in the heat, carrying a child, and even chooses to skip a meal that day instead, this is not necessarily evidence that she is affluent. Perhaps she has merely made a cost-benefit analysis that allows the nuts to rot on the ground. Shortages of food were probably seasonal, and Edwin Wilinsen, who studied !Kung diet in the 1970s and 1980s, concluded that annual shortages result in significant weight loss (five to ten pounds) just as in Gambian farmers. In the end, both Lee and Wilmsen have a piece of the truth: Lee helped correct the widespread impression that hunting-and-gathering life was an unremitting, desperate search for food, but Wilinsen showed that it is not ideal.

Nancy Howell, a demographer at the University of Toronto, analyzed the !Kung population and found that food shortages help to explain its very slow growth. Her model of infertility draws on that of Rose Frisch. According to this widely accepted theory, fertile ovarian cycles are unlikely below a certain minimum level of body fat. Although the !Kung picture is not this simple, caloric insufficiency probably plays some role in lowering their fertility, by helping to lengthen birth spacing to four years. And then there are the mortality figures. How Sahlins could call such people affluent seems puzzling, but the argument goes something like this: the !Kung have lived in these same circumstances for thousands of years. Their continued existence in their present ecological situation would be impossible without high mortality, and they are used to it.

I do not buy this argument, and neither do the !Kung. Marjorie Shostak's book Nisa documented the life of a !Kung woman from her own narrative at age fifty-five, supplemented by Shostak's annotations. It was perhaps the most intimate life narrative ever collected from a 'primitive' person. Together with the follow-up study, Return to Nisa, which adds another fifteen years to the story, the account achieves unprecedented insight into the !Kung view of their own lives. Clearly they were not satisfied with their lot. They are neither at peace with nor inured to the many losses those bleak mortality curves deliver, and they are quite envious of people who are better off. Still, they are tough, good-humored, resilient, self-possessed, and generous. They are not self-pitying and they do not allow their poverty or the conditions of stress they endure to destroy their joy in life. The !Kung, with far greater challenges, generally whine much less than the average upper-middle-class American does in a mild recession or even during a gasoline price bump. To provide some idea of the absolute differences in these circumstances, there is little doubt that perhaps not the poorest 5 percent of Americans but the next poorest 5 percent would seem to the !Kung to possess fabulous wealth, comfort, and safety. Imagine sleeping in a bed! Imagine eating fruit that has more flesh than pit! Imagine a 95 percent chance that your child will live!

For the first few months after returning from my two years with the !Kung, I used to hear a phrase in my mind, in the !Kung language, one that would often have been on the lips of a !Kung, if one had been with me: 'Rich people, everywhere rich people.' I remember being in Harvard Square—one of the busiest corners in the world—on an ordinary autumn day, watching someone get out of an ordinary car in ordinary clothing. I stared and said it aloud: 'Rich people, everywhere rich people.' For years every time I scraped a plate into the sink—from the most modest of meals, and meals that by American standards were quite thoroughly eaten—I would hear one of my !Kung friends asking me, 'Are you a person who destroys food?' It was hard to throw out orange peels; !Kung women saved them to make perfume.