display | more...

Richard Borshay Lee is an anthropologist who has been teaching at the University of Toronto for many years. He received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley for his work on the !Kung, with whom he has been working since 1963. If you have ever taken an undergraduate course in anthropology, you have probably heard of Richard Lee, and you may well have heard him speak, for he has lectured at many universities around the world.

Lee is best known for his work on the !Kung or San, as they are now usually called (derogatorily bushmen), hunter-gatherers who live in the Kalahari desert of Botswana. He first travelled to the area in 1963 as a graduate student with his young wife; they lived in a tent and set about learning the difficult click language of the !Kung. Lee was a material anthropologist who was interested in the nuts and bolts of daily life for the !Kung, in particular how they survived in such a harsh environment, and, by extension, how our early ancestors may have survived. He followed people around watching how they got food and measuring the time they spent gaining food and the calories they got from various foodstuffs. What he discovered changed our view of hunter-gatherers forever.

First off, he found that gathered foods were much more important to the overall diet that hunted foods - meat - thereby challenging the image of early humans best summed up by the phrase "man the hunter". It was women, not men, whose work was vital to the survival of these "primitive" people, and women's gathered foods which, in essence, sustained the group. Meat was less plentiful, though more prestigious, than gathered foods - which include, in the Kalahari, nuts, roots and tubers, seeds, small rodents, and insects - and was more of a treat than a staple. Lee compiled exhaustive lists of the foods eaten by the !Kung at different times of the year, documenting the astonishing variety of edible foodstuffs available in the arid Kalahari environment. It's because of Lee's ground-breaking work that we today use the terminology hunter-gatherers instead of hunters.

By recording the daily movements of a range of individuals, Lee was also able to show that the !Kung work, on average, about three days a week, far less than we, in the industrialized world, toil, and enjoy a more than adequate level of existence. In part, of course, this is because their wants and needs are few and simple; nomadic people with no pack animals, the !Kung have no more than they can easily carry themselves. Items like meat were immediately shared among the entire band, and anyone could ask for an item they coveted and be virtually assured of receiving it, thus ensuring that no individual accumulated more wealth than their neighbours. Although appearing very poor to outsiders, Lee found an admirable simplicity of life in the Kalahari that charmed him]. He, and other anthropologists, sometimes refer to hunter-gatherers as living in the original affluent society.

Contrary to the image of "nature red in tooth and claw", to quote Hobbes, Lee found that violent fights were rare among the !Kung. Personal tension that could not be resolved was usually avoided by one of the agonists moving away, and in a case of murder he had heard of, the man was exiled from the group rather than physically punished. Marriage and divorce were relatively easy, and many of the women were strong-willed and vocal in their opinions. All in all, Lee concluded, the !Kung were an egalitarian society.

Since Lee began studying the !Kung, their lives have changed dramatically, and there are few, perhaps none, who pursue the simple nomadic life he first documented. Lee's research foci have changed as well, and he is now studying the ecological and social challenges facing the indigenous peoples of Botswana and Namibia. He is a staunch advocate of indigenous self-determination, and continues to work with the people he knows so well to help them find ways to adapt with dignity and control to the inevitable transition to modernity.

On a more personal note, I first read Richard's work as an undergrad, and his writings literally changed my views of "primitive" humans. Years later, I was thrilled when he agreed to be my PhD advisor, even though my work was on Thailand, his on Africa. At the University of Toronto, where I worked for him as a teaching assistant, I found him a riveting lecturer at the undergraduate level, popular with the students, though not as challenging or exciting at the graduate levels as some of the younger professors. He was always insanely busy and involved in a multitude of projects as he realigned his interests to respond to changing conditions, but made time when he could to meet with me and discuss my scholarly as well as my personal concerns - and one has many of these when one is writing a PhD thesis. A kind man, Richard was most supportive at the time I really needed it - thesis submission and defense - and for this, as much as for how he changed my views as a young undergrad, I'm grateful.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.