Primitive and traditional societies are of a special interest for anthropologists. They show life style and relations that are often different from the ones established in western civilization. Moreover, field anthropological studies in such societies enable tracing the development of social institutions, define the factors of influence, and make conclusions about the effect of the lifestyle on the social structure. Current essay will focus on three societies that differ geographically, culturally, and socially, namely the San Bushmen in Kalahari Desert, the Yanomamo tribe in the Amazonian jungles, and the rural South India. It will research the gender issues among the given peoples, and connect their roles to the way of life they societies lead. The paper will analyze the roles of women and men, the way they complement each other or cause conflicts, the relations between men and women, and the way gender roles and relations have changed in the course of time.

The San Bushmen

The San people or Bushmen, as the European colonizers called them, are indigenous population of the South Africa. Most of them live on the territory of Botswana, and Namibia, and small amounts live in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the Republic of South Africa (Suzman, 2001). The San are traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, though they cannot solely rely on the gifts of nature anymore. Most of them are trying to adapt to the challenge of the rapidly changing society. Since the San lost the possibility to travel across the borders, their life has changed to sedentary, and they have lost economic autonomy (Suzman, 2001).


The traditional San society was highly egalitarian. The studies of the San tribes in Kalahari Desert that retained their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the 1960s showed that women had received equally valued roles in the family and in the groups, often performing leadership functions (Felton & Becker, 2001). Normally, gender roles varied: men were hunters, and women were gatherers and they seldom overlapped due to practical reasons. Men provided meat, mainly antelope, by hunting. They prepared and used neurotoxin poison on their arrows. The poison did not act immediately, and hunting expeditions could last weeks. At the same time, women went foraging with daughters and young boys. They collected berries, nuts, mushrooms, herbs, roots, and melons. Women could also set snares to capture small animals and clubbed them adding to the meat supply of the tribe. Foodstuffs gathered by women contributed 70-80% to the San food ration, so the tribe regarded gathering an important activity and respected women for their labor (Felton & Becker, 2001; Kwekudee, 2013). Moreover, before the San engaged in trade with the BaNtu and the white people, they used plants and animal products for making tools, construction materials, clothes, medicines, and weapons (Kwekudee, 2013). Women’s knowledge of the veld was useful for men’s hunting expeditions and women could occasionally join them for hunting. Meanwhile, men could also participate in gathering. The San women gained great respect due to their contribution to the common welfare (Felton & Becker, 2001). 

Gender was a source of women’s empowerment. Female initiation was very important and it occurred when a San girl experienced her first menstrual blood. After that, a girl was considered fit for marriage and child bearing. Shostak reported of trial marriages between young people, the possibility to have a co-wife, and having several partners throughout life (as cited in Felton & Becker, 2001). Both men and women could be shamans, contact spirits and practice healing. Currently, “about half of the men and a third of the women in the Kalahari are said to be shamans” (Kwekudee, 2013).

Change to a settled way of life has changed the relations in the San society and the role of women. Contrary to the traditional sharing, the wages people earn are regarded as their property. Since men have access to better-paid jobs, their importance as bread-makers rises. Automatically, women become confined to child rearing and housekeeping. Traditional foraging for the household remains female activity, while commercial harvesting of the veld products, farming, or rearing cattle is work for men. Militarization of the San also attached more power to men (Felton & Becker, 2001). The issues of education, health, violence, etc. have an expressed gender character. Young girls do not receive or drop education early due to getting married and bearing children. Female reproductive health suffers because they contract sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS being one of them. Many San are addicted to alcohol. Women suffer from their own drinking, from addiction of their men, from drunken violence of their partners, and from the influence alcohol has on gender relations (Felton & Becker, 2001). Sedentarization affected traditional gender roles in a dramatic way, and the San women have suffered from it more than men. 

The Yanomamo

The Yanomamo or Yanomami is an Indian tribe in the jungles of Amazonia. The tribe counts from 22.5 (Peters-Golden, 2002) to 32 thousand members (Survival International, n.d.) that live in villages dispersed over a wide area. Chagnon (1992) considers that the tribe avoided extermination and preserved its pre-historic lifestyle due to minimum contact with the white people (as cited in Peters-Golden, 2002). Unlike the San people, the Yanomamo grow crops around their villages. Hunting and gathering provides only below 20% of their ration (Peters-Golden, 2002). The Yanomamo is an egalitarian society. Although they have heads of villages, they make decisions upon discussions where everybody can speak. There is no distinct hierarchy, and there is no chief over the whole tribe. However, such egalitarianism does not spread on women, while the Yanomamo society is distinctly male-dominated.

The Yanomamo are polygamous. There is shortage of women, and men make raids on neighbor villages to capture the new ones. They can also fight with clubs among themselves for a woman (Peters-Golden, 2002). At the same time, the female representatives of the tribe have less social freedom. Their life is defined by reproductive function. Girls take care of small children from an early age. In most cases, they cannot choose a spouse; parents can promise their daughter to a much older man, while she is still a child. The gender distribution of labor is distinct. Men can attack other tribes or protect their tribe. In addition, they hunt and burn wood for agricultural purposes. Hunters use arches or blowing pipes and often apply curare on their arrows. Meat of peccary, tapir, monkey, or deer constitutes only 10% of the ration, but hunting is a prestigious male occupation (Survival International, n. d.). Adults develop warlike behavior in small boys, encourage games with arch and arrows, fighting, and striking girls (Peters-Golden, 2002). On the other hand, girls have to work as soon as they can do it, while boys can enjoy childhood until late teens. Women stay in or around the village most of the time; they weave baskets, make pots, take care of children, collect firewood, and work in the garden. Gathering nuts, insect larvae, and shellfish are the female occupations too. Both men and women do planting and harvesting of crops, and fishing (Survival International, n. d.). Domestic violence is a frequent case among the Yanomano, and the reason for punishing a wife can range from slow cooking to jealousy. The punishment can be very severe, from beating with fists or with a club to casting arrows or even murdering a wife. Women acquire status and respect only with age. Elderly women can even travel between enemy villages without fear (Peters-Golden, 2002).

The contact with the white people, mainly missionaries and gold-miners, led to dramatic consequences. Gold-miners killed many tribesmen and introduced infectious diseases that decimated the Yanomamo population. Contact with missionaries changed the social balance in the tribe. For example, the men working for Christian missions cannot remain polygamous. Moreover, loggers, gold-miners, and soldiers prostituted Yanomamo girls, infecting them with sexually transmitted diseases (Survival International, n. d.). 

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Rural South India

India is notorious for its caste system and traditionally subordinated position of women. In spite of many governmental efforts to change the situation, it has significantly shifted only in big cities. In rural areas, the Hindus continue millennial practices of early child marriage, domestic violence, and gender discrimination. In Karnataka province, South India, Hinduism is a dominant religion. Dharwad district of Karnataka has the highest rural female population. Handigol, Guledgudda, & Dabali (2010) focused on gender issues in four villages with different education, land access, and irrigation statuses. 

The study showed an oppressed position of women. The first source of authority in the rural areas is land, and only 2.5% of rural women are landowners. The difference is striking compared to 75% of landowners among men (Handigol, Guledgudda, & Dabali, 2010). A similar situation occurs in the ownership of premises: 3.75% of women versus 78.33% of men (Handigol, Guledgudda, & Dabali, 2010). The ratio does not depend upon the status of the village. Respectively, men have an unrestricted right to dispose of money, while only 13% of women have access to it (Handigol, Guledgudda, & Dabali, 2010). Thus, women are much more deprived of property and financial rights. The exploration of domestic violence in Karnataka by Rao (1997) showed that in private conversations many women complained of physical insult by their husbands. However, only 22% of women (only those who were abused gravely and systematically) agreed to admit it in the official interview format. Wife beating is a legitimate practice, especially in rural communities, and even relatives of the victims tend to ignore it unless it has extremely negative consequences (Rao, 1997)

As in all, in patriarchal societies women are confined to housekeeping. While men decide upon education, investment, marriages, and jobs, they do not interfere in housekeeping and childcare. The latter are considered traditional female domains (Handigol, Guledgudda, & Dabali, 2010). Social involvement for women is limited to jatras (local fares) and religious functions, while men dominate in social functions. Banks, markets, and government offices are almost an exclusive domain of men (Handigol, Guledgudda, & Dabali, 2010).  

Few rural women complete secondary education. They live within the strict limits imposed by religion and tradition, marry and become pregnant at an early age. They have little social contacts necessary for integration in the modern society. Nevertheless, as the generations change, women in rural India receive more rights and power. Nevertheless, the process is slower than in the cities, but the changes are evident, as modern women participate in decision-making more often compared to their mothers and grandmothers (Handigol, Guledgudda, & Dabali, 2010).  


The analysis of gender issues of the primitive and traditional societies reveals the following facts. In foraging societies, the role of women is as important as that of men. They gain respect for their contribution to the welfare of their community. Social and spiritual leadership is not limited by gender, as it is among the San people of Kalahari Desert. Sedentarization shifts accents in the society to domination of men and oppression of women. In our time, demarcation of state borders, expansion of the sedentary society, and nationalization of the natural resources predefine sedentarization of the indigenous peoples as in the example with the San and the Yanomano. The Yanomano, where agriculture is utilized to provide foodstuffs for people, demonstrate male dominance in all spheres. Rural India, where sedentary way of life has been practiced for millenniums, has a developed patriarchal society with social and religious institutions that support gender discrimination as status quo.


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