Richard Lee's ethnography The Dobe Ju/'hoansi is a detailed account of the culture and history of the Ju/'hoan people living in the Dobe area of southern central Africa. The book illustrates both the rich history of the Ju and how the traditions of the past are central in the present, but also the problems facing the Ju/'hoansi as they move toward the future.
The first half of Lee's ethnography focuses mainly on the past and the "present", circa the 1960s, when Lee himself spent time living with the Ju/'hoansi, a practice known as participant observation. The first major element Lee expounds upon is the harsh environment in which the Ju live. The climate consists of very warm, rainy summers (86-104 degrees Fahrenheit) contrasted against moderate, cool winters with no rainfall at all. Because the amount of precipitation can vary as much as 500 percent (Lee 29), droughts are frequent. The severe weather patterns combined with the unforgiving Kalahari Desert influence all other parts of the Ju/'hoansi way of life.
The Ju people are classified by archeologists as hunters and gatherers, moving around multiple times per year instead of living in permanent settlements. Skilled adults can identify as many as 100 species of edible plants (Lee 43) and can "deduce many kinds of information about the animal he is tracking: its species and sex, its age, how fast it is traveling, etc" (Lee 50). The author discovered that the Ju only have to work about 20 hours per week to hunt or gather enough food to sustain the population (Lee 54). I was amazed at this statistic, having previously thought that hunting and gathering took up many more hours per week to feed an entire band.
Lee moves on in the ethnography to discuss the intricate kinship connections the Ju share. Even though groups or camps only consist of about 30 members at a time (Lee 61), they are constantly changing so that the relationships are complex and spread throughout the entire Dobe area. Individual camps are usually made up of core siblings, their spouses, any siblings of their spouses, and finally the spouses of these siblings. The overarching principle of sharing is visible through the social organization of the Ju. Name relationships and kin relationships seem to tie everyone to everyone else in this egalitarian society.
The customs surrounding marriage and sexuality are next in the book, followed by an explanation of the "complaint discourse". Both chapters are very interesting in that they reinforce the classless and equal nature of the Ju/'hoansi society. The second half of the book shifts in focus from the way things have been to how times are changing in the lives of the Ju as more organized institutes, like the states of Namibia and Botswana, encroach upon the ancient tribes.
The most significant change of the Ju culture has been from hunting and gathering to settled farming and the raising of livestock. By planting crops in one area, the mobility of the population is restricted. "It is not as easy for family members to go on an extended foraging trip or to pay visits to relatives at distant camps" (Lee 158). Other Ju/'hoan people have found new ways to make a living in mining, craft making, or well digging. These factors, as well as many other issues have had many repercussions, but the most important effect is the breakdown of sharing among the Ju, a practice and ideal that sustained the culture for hundreds of years. This shift in beliefs and social principles will definitely cause problems for the future survival of the Ju/'hoansi.