We in America frequently live so far from the edge of true need that we sometimes forget the fundamental importance of relationships and how social networks play to basic survival.
A recent article in the Science Times section of The New York Times dealt with the !Kung people (the ! refers to a sharp clicking sound without an English equivalent) of southern Africa’s Kalahari desert, a most unforgiving climate with frequent droughts, floods, and famine. Mutual support is fundamental to the group’s survival in such a harsh locale: they practice an “intricate system of banking their social relationships and calling on them when times get rough. The system is maintained through gift-giving, storytelling and visiting. It works like insurance does in our culture.”
Gift giving conveyed the message that “the relationship was alive and well, and to remind the exchange partner that they had a kind of contract to call on each other in times of need. Like Christmas cards and presents, these objects are information on the status of the relationship. We may not particularly want Aunt Sally’s holiday fruit cake, but we’d be troubled if it didn’t arrive every year…. People know their networks are crucial to how they get past the hard times, and they tend them with loving care.”
Even in our “advanced” society, limited social networks are a marker for increased risk of physical and emotional health issues, as well as the potential for snowballing financial setbacks. Social networks are our safety nets.
“If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.” — Samuel Johnson
“True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.” — George Washington
“It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us.” — Epicurus, Greek philosopher
A CONVERSATION WITH PAULINE WIESSNER
Where Gifts and Stories Are Crucial to Survival
The New York Times
By CLAUDIA DREIFUS
Published: May 25, 2009
Photo caption: Pauline Wiessner eating lizard in the Australian desert.
The anthropologist Pauline Wiessner, at the University of Utah, studies the value of social networks among hunter-gatherers like the !Kung of South Africa. I spoke with Dr. Wiessner, who is 61 and goes by the name Polly, during a break at last month’s “Origins” symposium at Arizona State University and later in an interview in New York City. An edited version of the conversations follows.
Q. ONE OF THE GROUPS YOU STUDY, THE !KUNG PEOPLE OF SOUTHERN AFRICA’S KALAHARI DESERT, ARE NATIVE TO ONE OF THE MOST UNFORGIVING CORNERS OF THE PLANET. HOW DO THEY SURVIVE IN A PLACE OF FREQUENT DROUGHTS, FLOODS AND FAMINE?
A. They have an intricate system of banking their social relationships and calling on them when times get rough. The system is maintained through gift-giving, storytelling and visiting. It works like insurance does in our culture.
I first arrived in the Kalahari in the early 1970s, when the !Kung were still primarily hunter-gatherers. My question then was: how do people without meat on the hoof, grain in the larder and money in the bank survive hard times?
When I was there for about a year, some answers came. There was a heavy rain. The desert plants died and the wild game dispersed. As people grew hungrier, they began telling vivid stories about loved ones who lived as far as 200 kilometers away. They spoke about how they much missed them. Soon people were busily crafting beautiful objects — gifts. Finally, when push came to shove, 150 !Kung began trekking to the encampments of the people they’d been remembering. There they stayed until conditions in their home area improved.
What I’d witnessed was a structured system at play. The Bushmen used the storytelling to keep feelings for distant persons alive. The gifts are their way of telling the receiver, “I’ve held you in my heart.” Over the years, I saw this repeated many, many times. It would turn out that the !Kung spent as much as three months a year visiting “exchange partners,” and this was the key to their survival.
Q. WERE THERE ANY SPECIAL MESSAGES IN THE GIFTS?
A. That the relationship was alive and well, and to remind the exchange partner that they had a kind of contract to call on each other in times of need.
Actually, in the Kalahari, people send gifts to their exchange partners even when there isn’t a crisis. Like Christmas cards and presents, these objects are information on the status of the relationship. We may not particularly want Aunt Sally’s holiday fruit cake, but we’d be troubled if it didn’t arrive every year. In the Kalahari, if gifts aren’t sent, it means the relationship is in poor repair. People know their networks are crucial to how they get past the hard times, and they tend them with loving care.
Q. WHY ARE THESE NETWORKS WORTH STUDYING?
A. I think they are a clue to how modern humans moved out of Africa around 45,000 years ago. Unless these migrants had support systems in a founding group and could maintain ties with them, it probably wouldn’t have been possible to keep pushing into unknown territory.
It only took modern humans some 5,000 years to move out of Africa, cross Eurasia and end up in Australia. I think that the invention of social networks — the storing of relationships for a time when you will need them — is what facilitated this expansion.
It may also have played a role in the development of culture. People who made exquisite gifts and told enthralling stories would have been more successful in maintaining relationships. They might have been the ones who would have had better opportunities for survival and to pass their genes onto the next generation.
Q. DO YOU SEE ANY CONTEMPORARY EXAMPLES OF THIS BEHAVIOR?
A. Facebook. People who use it say it keeps memories of distant friends alive and it sometimes brings long-lost relationships back home.
We all know of people who’ve been “friended” by old pals from college and former neighbors they’ve lost touch with. When they see pictures of them and read “sharings” from their Facebook partners, they are reminded of their presence in their lives.
One constantly hears stories of people finding jobs and business opportunities through these sites. Hey, and what does a blogger do? Tell stories! The videos and snapshots that people post echo the exchange gifts of the !Kung. They are a kind of token that says, “I’ve kept you in my heart.”
Q. DO YOUR BUSHMAN FRIENDS KEEP YOU IN THEIR NETWORK WHEN YOU’RE BACK IN UTAH?
A. There are signs they do. About five years ago, my phone in Salt Lake City rang in the middle of the night. Some of my friends managed to gain access to a satellite telephone left untended by a safari tour operator. They’d even found someone who knew how to work the thing. They said they’d just rung up a well-known American who’d been to the Kalahari a few years earlier making a documentary. He had, according to the !Kung, promised to send their soccer team some athletic shoes. Would I, they asked, purchase them in Utah and then send him the bill? He’d agreed to this, they claimed. I could bring the shoes next time I traveled to Namibia.
Q. WERE YOU ANNOYED?
A. No. I frequently worried about how the !Kung could survive the modern world. Just that day I had worked with data showing that in the 30 years since they’d moved to permanent settlements, their caloric intake had declined from what it had been when they were hunting and gathering.
This call showed that the !Kung could combine new technologies with age-old strategies to get things they needed.
These Bushmen had survived for millennia by maintaining ties of mutual support with people outside their immediate group. By accessing this satellite phone and devising this complex strategy to get the shoes, they’d extended the range of their support network from 200 to 15,000 kilometers.