Timing and Management of Birth among the !Kung: Biocultural Interaction in Reproductive Adaptation

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Essay Excerpt

The purpose of this article is to consider the timing and management of birth among the !Kung as biocultural adaptation [...] the ideal of solitary birth can be viewed in the general framework of childbirth as an ideal of physical courage. The !Kung believe that fear and the resulting tension are physically dangerous to the laboring woman and her baby. Therefore they elevate courage to the extreme of encouraging solitary birth, after an appropriate set of experiences with supportive attendants. This has the effect of minimizing fear through a combination of psychological preparedness and denial. The result appears to be a relatively successful and quite remarkable reproductive adaptation. (Konner & Shostak, 11)

About the Authors

Dr. Melvin Konner, is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology.  He studied at Brooklyn College, CUNY (1966), earned a Ph.D. in biological anthropology (Harvard, 1973), and did postdoctoral work at the Laboratory of Neuroendocrine Regulation, MIT.  He spent a total of two years doing fieldwork among the Kalahari San or Bushmen, studying infant development and the hormonal mechanism of lactational infertility.  After six years on the Harvard faculty, he attended Harvard Medical School (M.D. 1985) and moved to Emory as department chair.  He has held NIMH and NSF research grants, and been a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry.  He has been involved in advocating single-payer health reform, and has testified twice at U.S. Senate hearings.

Dr. Marjorie Shostak, (May 11, 1945 - October 6, 1996) was an American anthropologist. Though she never received a formal degree in anthropology, she conducted extensive fieldwork among the !Kung San people of the Kalahari desert in south-western Africa and was widely known for her descriptions of the lives of women in this hunter-gatherer society. In 1969-1971, Shostak and Konner lived among the !Kung San in the Dobe region of southwest Africa, on the border between Botswana and South Africa. There they learned the !Kung language and conducted anthropological fieldwork. While her husband looked at medical issues like nutrition and fertility, Shostak examined the role of women in the !Kung San society, becoming close with one woman in particular, known by the pseudonym "Nisa". Shostak's book on the subject, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, was first published by Harvard University Press in 1981, and is now a standard work in anthropology. It weaves together the different voices of Shostak and Nisa, alternating between anthropological observation and the life story of a "primitive" woman told in her own words. In the book Shostak argues that !Kung San women had higher status and autonomy than women in Western cultures because of their food contributions. In 1991 Shostak returned to the Kalahari to interview Nisa again. She died in 1996, aged 51, while her second book, Return to Nisa, was in preparation. It was released posthumously in 2000. In it, Shostak describes a traditional ceremony in Botswana in which Nisa attempted to heal Shostak's cancer. She was survived by her husband, children, parents, and sister.

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