All the information I found seems to point to this little paragraph from Lee book{1}:

Occasionally the Ju/ ′hoansi had major gatherings, usually in winter, when up to 200 people from eight or more camps would get together for a few weeks. [...] Old people described the excitement of these events, when dances involving 100 participants would go on for two nights and a day.

What does the "had" mean: last year, 30 years ago, or longer? Was it a kind of once-in-a-lifetime event or were these events regular? If so, how often?
Did any anthropologists go to these major gatherings, or did they just hear about them?

Did any other field workers (from Marshal or Lee's generation) talk about them?

{1: Lee, R. B. (1984). The Dobe! Kung. New York; Montreal: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.}

  • 1
    I don't suppose the footnotes/endnotes for that passage from the book in question have anything to say on this subject? I ask because that's the first place I'd go to research an answer to this question, and if you've already done so, you should put your findings in the question to save everyone else the trouble.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 29, 2021 at 18:13

2 Answers 2


A pdf at the University of Toronto of a chapter by Lee on The Intensification of Social Life among the !Kung Bushmen speaks of these gatherings, and the number of individuals reaching 200 was not represented as an unusual occurrence.

Among the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, availability of water was the key seasonal variable. During the winter dry season (May-August) all the Bushmen were concentrated at one of several permanent water points in groups of as many as 150 to 200 people. In the spring (September November) the rains created temporary pools of water all over the desert, and the people went out to live at them. During the main rains (December-April) the people were dispersed in groups varying in size from 7 to 50 people, who ranged widely as the major food plants came into season


So the camps would typically collect at the permanent waterholes located in the region. He does discuss one circumstance which can cause an increase in the size of the gatherings however (all emphasis mine):

The Bushman men's initiation camps or choma were held in the winter every four or five years. The choma brought together the largest aggregations of Bushmen. The reason for this is that at least seven boys of the correct age were needed to make it worthwhile to run the elaborate six-week-long initiation program. and one had to call in a large number of local groups-to get together enough boys between the ages of fifteen and twenty. The families of the boys camped together and provided food for the initiation camp throughout the six-week period. When very large groups of twenty or more boys were initiated together, the numbers in the adjacent camps must have been well over 200.

This indicates that there was a periodic increase in the size of the gatherings coinciding with the choma every 4-5 years, or when enough young men were of age. Lee goes on to reiterate however that the larger number of in the gatherings wasn't stricly related to the choma, but was also helpful for the performance of the trance-curing dance.

Even in the years when choma camps were not formed, winter camps of 100 to 200 were common. The trance-dance curing ceremonies (Lee 1967, 1968a) brought together medicine men from far and wide. The curing medicine was thought to be especially effective when many performers entered a trance at the same dance. Since the big trance dances went on round-the-clock for twelve to thirty-six hours, subsistence had to be organized to provide support for the singers, dancers, and trance performers. This was difficult to do unless there were fifty or more adults in a camp, since to be effective the trance dance had to have at least fifteen to twenty adults participating at any one time.

This doesn't address a some of your auxiliary questions, but the way the information is presented here it does not appear to be uncommon for that large of a group to gather.

From comments considering why these larger gatherings might have been considered special:

Old people described the excitement of these events...

You might focus further research on the choma or trance-dance being enabled at/by these larger gatherings, or the hxaro aspect ellipsised out in your original quote for consideration in why these events were memorable to certain individuals. Some of these particular (celebrations/rituals?) operated best with larger numbers of individuals, since subsistence still had to be a major concern at these larger gatherings (from the earlier Lee quotes):

The families of the boys camped together and provided food for the initiation camp throughout the six-week period.


subsistence had to be organized to provide support for the singers, dancers, and trance performers

Concerning further comments, addressing why one writer focuses on one issue more than others, I can't say, (and to be fair my exposure to this subject is limited by what can be readily gleaned from the internet during these covid days.)

The lack of mention in other ethnographies concerning these gatherings might be summed up near the end of the Lee article Eating Christmas in the Kalahari (emphasis as always, mine):

“But why didn’t you tell me this before?” I asked Tomazo with some heat. “Because you never asked me,” said Tomazo, echoing the refrain that has come to haunt every field ethnographer

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    You're welcome. It was some interesting reading, cultural anthropology was so long ago for me.. Lees' article on Eating Christmas in the Kalahari I found very enjoyable, and highly informative about the nature of an egalitarian society. It also shows sometimes the most important questions may be the ones we fail to ask...
    – justCal
    Mar 31, 2021 at 13:46
  • Strangely, Lee seems to be the only one talking about these huge gatherings. The others who spend time with them (like Marshall, Shostak or Wiessner) don't mention it ―though I could have missed it. It's weird since these events should have quite a big impact on their life.
    – JinSnow
    Mar 31, 2021 at 14:47
  • I searched choma (thanks to you), but did not find anything about these major gatherings. You are right "big impact" might not be a valid argument. The main argument is: why the others don't talk about it? Marshall for instance stayed with the !Kung several times "throughout the 1950s and 1960s, each lasting from a few months to a year and a half" (wiki/Lorna_Marshall). They should have seen at least one of these gatherings. But there is not even a picture of it.
    – JinSnow
    Mar 31, 2021 at 15:25
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    I have updated the answer to try to address some of the comments. Concerning the Marshal visits, its possible he just missed, or that, like discussed here, it just wasn't apparent to him that there was anything exceptional occurring. Lee was the main source I found available to read, so I can't really address Marshals work directly.
    – justCal
    Mar 31, 2021 at 15:54

To complete justCal answer

I found information supporting the yearly winter camp containing 100 to 200 people in Marshall-Thomas 's 1989 book "The harmless people"

In the dry season, two hundred people came to Gautscha and lived in the bushes at the edge of the pan. {1}

So we solved one issue (winter camp), but not the most important point: the Choma initiation camps every four or five years containing well over 200 people. To my knowledge, Lee is the only one talking about it. The other don't talk about at all.

Marshall and the other could have missed it. (Though Marshall spent a full year with the !Kung, before visiting a group of the Gikwe {2}).

As JustCall said, the Kung could have simply not shared this information if they did not ask for it. It's possible, but the same is true for Lee.

And given the importance of these super large gatherings (for them) and their "excitement" about it, I find it surprising that the others didn't hear and talk about it.

The excitement of the !kung should be something for people living most of the time in a group/society composed of 15 to 35 people...

These super large gatherings are important for that reason. But they seem to be based on a single source (Lee), who seems to only have heard of them (?). There is not even a picture of it.

The question remains: did any scientist ever saw and documented one of these large initiation events containing "well over 200" people?

{1: Marshall-Thomas. (1989). The Harmless People (2nd Revised edition). New York: Vintage.}
{2: Marshall-Thomas. (1989). By the way the Gikwe live in even smaller bands. "The /Kung Bushmen live comfortably by Gikwe standards" : Jones, G. I. (1961). Westafrikanische Masken. By Kurt Krieger and Gerdt Kutscher. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde, 1960. Pp. 93, plates 80, map. Africa, 31(2), 196-197.}

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