Also featured (Namibia): Owambo, Bergdama, Nama, !Ko/!Xo, !Kung, Herero

Lee (1985:p27)[1] states that before 1960, most !Kung girls were married between 12 and 15, or as is said, “the girls of Nyae Nyae go from their mother’s breast to their husband’s on one day”. Marriage sometimes takes place five to six years before menarche (N!ai[2]; Marshall, 1965:p261[3]; Marshall 1959:p350)[4], the latter occurring as late as 15.5 (Kalota, 1974)[5]. This would be so in former generations, says Shostak (1981:p127). Howell (1979:p174, 178)[6] found that 65% of Dobe !Kung women were married before menarche, occurring on average at age 16.6 (SD=1.3, median age=17.1). The mean age of marriage for girls is 16.9 (median 17.4) compared to 26.7 for males, median 25.5 (p175, 260). “Marriage need not be equated with the first experience of sexual intercourse, since the !Kung do not see to place any value on virginity and sex play among children is said to be common”.

Eight and nine-year-old brides would be married to teenaged husbands. Sexual intercourse does not take place until the girl is “ready”. However, no definite age requirement exists for marriage, and physical signs of puberty are not required (Marshall, 1976:p269)[7]. “The young couple are expected not to have sexual intercourse until the girls are “big enough”, informants said […]”, although nothing was learned about the actual sexual experiences of young couples.


Marshall did no observations on the early marital couple. The girls should be “big enough” for sexual intercourse; a “gentle old man” said, “They enjoy their youth together”. Young children may be instructed by sexual joking in their presence. This contradicts another observation that "The Bushmen strictly avoid talking about sexual matters in the presence of women and children." (Lebzelter, 1934:p38)[8].


!Kung childhood was studied by Draper (1972)[9];  infancy was studied by Konner (1973)[10]. !Kung are known for their tolerance in child rearing matters; children of both sexes play together, and both parents take part in socialisation (Barnard, 1992:p53). Children freely play games such as “Ostrich’s Courtship”[11]. Shostak (1976; 1981:p18-9, 30-1, 104-24)[12] gives a rather detailed first-hand account of !Kungchildhood sex play. Sexual intercourse is shielded from the eyes of the children, but apparently not in a serious fashion. “All the women I interviewed said their childhood sex play included sexual intercourse”. Children are not prevented if such play is done away from adults, although they “do not approve” of it. The girls are “as free and unfettered as boys”. The interviewees reveal a great deal of pressure from the part of the boys, who even played within a co-wife scenario. An “old” woman is interviewed:


“That’s what an older boy does. He waits until he is with a little girl and lies down with her. He takes some saliva, rubs it on her genital, gets on top and pokes around with his semi-erection, as tough he were actually having intercourse, but he is not. Because even though young boys can get hard, they don’t really enter little girls. Nor do they yet know about ejaculation. Only when a boy is almost a young man does he start to have sex like an adult” (1981:p112).


Michl (1986; 2002:p248-52)[13] seems to have little to add to this story.

A distinction is seen between premarital and marital pressures:


“Although sexual knowledge is Each !Kung woman’s legacy from the sexual play in childhood, most young girls see a world of difference between playing with boys their own age and having sex with their husbands- grown men. A girl’s first experience of adult sex is, therefore, often traumatic. Sexual relations may be postponed for years, but once a girl show clear signs of sexual development she is generally pressured to accept her husband’s sexual advances” (p147-8).


Konner (in press:p29-30)[14]:


“Playful experimentation with sex began in early childhood and continued through middle childhood (Konner and Shostak 1986; Shostak 1981)[[15]]. Since children did not assume responsibility for subsistence until the late teens and their play groups were frequently out of sight of adults, sexual curiosity flourished. Adults did not approve of sexual play and when it became obvious they discouraged it, usually by verbal chastisement with no real consequences. Interviews with adults revealed that they considered sexual experimentation in childhood and adolescence to be inevitable and normal. For adults, sexual activity was considered essential for mental health, and !Kung sometimes referred to mentally ill people (for example, a woman who ate grass) as deranged because of sexual deprivation. Despite childhood sexual experimentation, the transition from the sexual play of childhood to the real sex of adulthood could be difficult, especially for girls. Half were married before menarche (16.5 years), typically to men about ten years older. Thus a teenage girl was confronted with the sexual advances of an adult man after having had prior experience only with boys her own age. These advances were supposed to be delayed until menarche, but the transition from sex play with age-mates to adult sex was often stressful (Shostak 1981)[[16]]. The years from age 16.5, when first menstruation occurred, to age 19, the mean age at first birth—a delay due mainly to adolescent subfertility—were important ones. The young woman was sexually mature but did not have to care for a family and made little contribution to subsistence. She could gradually adopt adult roles and adult sexuality without having to deal with the consequences of early pregnancy”.


A boy’s penis may be kissed by his mother (Konner, 1972:p292)[17].



Additional reading:


  • Fielder, Ch.&King, Ch. (2004) Sexual Paradox: Complementarity, Reproductive Conflict, and Human Emergence [Academic Version, http://www.dhushara.com/paradoxhtm/contents.htm]
  • Shostak, M. (2000) Return to Nisa. Harvard University Press [http://www.hup.harvard.edu/educators/pdf/shorex.pdf]. Reminds that “If a girl grows upwithout learning to enjoy sex, she had told me, her mind doesn’t develop normally and she goes around eating grass, like a crazy Herero woman who lived in the area” (p156).



Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: May 2005


[1] Lee, R. B. (1985) Work, sexuality, and ageing among !Kung women, in Brown, J. K. & Kerns, V. (Eds.) In Her Prime. Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey

[2] N!ai (1980). Shot, 1951-78. John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer; Michael Ambrosino, Executive Producer, PBS

[3] Marshall, L. J. (1965) The !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, in Gibbs, J. L. (Ed.) Peoples of Africa. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, p241-78

[4]Marshall, L. (1959) Marriage among the !Kung Bushmen, Africa 29:335-64

[5] Kalota, G. B. (1974) !Kung hunter-gatherers: feminism, diet, and birth control, Science 185, Sept.13:932-4

[6] Howell, N. (1979) Demography of the Dobe !Kung. New York: Academic Press

[7] Marshall, L. J. (1976) The !Kung of Nyae Nyae. Cambridge, Mass. [etc.]: Harvard University Press

[8]Lebzelter, V. (1934) Native cultures in southwest and south Africa: Vol. 2. Leipzig: Karl W. Hiersemann, 1934. HRAF [eHRAF 2005]

"The Bushmen strictly avoid talking about sexual matters in the presence of women and children." (Lebzelter, 1934:p38)

[9] Draper, P. (1972) !Kung Bushman Childhood. PhD Diss., Harvard

[10] Konner, M. J. (1973) Infants of a Foraging People. PhD Diss., Harvard

[11] At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

[12] Shostak, M. (1976) A !Kung woman’s memories of childhood, in Lee, R. B. & DeVore, I. (Eds.) Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbors. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p246-78; Shostak, M. (1981) Nisa: Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. New York: Vintage Books. See also Fisher, H. E. (1992) Anatomy of Love. New York & Lonfon: W. W. Norton & Co., p260-1. Also Shostak, M. (1993) A !Kung woman’s memories of childhood, in Suggs, D. N. & Miracle, A. W. (Eds.) Culture and Human Sexuality: A Reader. Pacific Grove, CA: Cole. Cf. Blackwood, E. (2000) Culture and Women’s Sexualities, J Soc Iss 65,2:223-38

[13] Michl, W. (1986) Die Beitrag der Kinderspielgruppe zu Erziehung und Sozialisation in afrikanischen Stammesgesellschaften. München: Minerva. Critical data reprinted in Michl, W. (2002) Die Kinderspielgruppe in Afrikanischen Stammesgesellschaften, in Müller, K. E. & Treml, A. K. (Eds.) Wie Man zum Wilden Wird. Berlin: D. Reimer, p239-56

[14] Konner, M. (in press) Hunter-Gatherer Infancy and Childhood, The !Kung and Others, in Hewlett, B. & Lamb, M. (Eds.) Culture and Ecology of Hunter–Gatherer Childhood. Aldine, New York, p19-63

[15] Konner, M. & Shostak, M. (1986)  Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing: An Anthropological Perspective, in Lancaster,  J. B. & Hamburg, B. A. (Eds.) School-age Pregnancy and Parenthood.  Biosocial Dimensions.  New York: Aldine De Gruyter, p325-45; Shostak (1981), op.cit.

[16] Op.cit.

[17] As cited in Konner, in press, cit.supra