One of our most influential anthropologists reevaluates her long and illustrious career by returning to her roots—and the roots of life as we know it
When Elizabeth Marshall Thomas first arrived in Africa to live among the Kalahari San, or bushmen, it was 1950, she was nineteen years old, and these last surviving hunter-gatherers were living as humans had lived for 15,000 centuries. Thomas wound up writing about their world in a seminal work, The Harmless People (1959). It has never gone out of print.
Back then, this was uncharted territory and little was known about our human origins. Today, our beginnings are better understood. And after a lifetime of interest in the bushmen, Thomas has come to see that their lifestyle reveals great, hidden truths about human evolution.
As she displayed in her bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs, Thomas has a rare gift for giving voice to the voices we don't usually listen to, and helps us see the path that we have taken in our human journey. In The Old Way, she shows how the skills and customs of the hunter-gatherer share much in common with the survival tactics of our animal predecessors. And since it is "knowledge, not objects, that endure" over time, Thomas vividly brings us to see how linked we are to our origins in the animal kingdom.
The Old Way is a rare and remarkable achievement, sure to stir up controversy, and worthy of celebration.
In 1950, Thomas (The Hidden Life of Dogs), at 19, joined her civil engineer father, her ballerina mother (who would become a celebrated anthropologist) and her brother on a life-changing expedition into southwest Africa's Kalahari Desert to live among the Ju/wasi Bushmen. Less a rigorous anthropological study than a loving, nostalgic ode to a self-sustaining culture of hunter-gatherers, this book recounts their now extinct way of life. The Ju/wasi used ostrich eggs to hold more than a day's water supply to expand their foraging range, and burned dry grass to encourage the growth of green grass, thus attracting large antelopes and other prey. The Ju/wasi allowed polygamy and divorce, welcomed baby girls as much as baby boys and treated children with unfailing kindness, but practiced infanticide on children born to nursing mothers because, with their low-fat diet, they could produce enough milk for only one child. In recent decades, the Bushmen have been removed from their land and their way of life has been obliterated by modernity, racism, poverty, alcoholism and AIDS. Thomas offers readers a glimpse of how our prehistoric ancestors undoubtedly lived, worked, loved and played. Photos from the Marshall family album freeze the Ju/wasi in the happy 1950s.
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A window into humanity's past
Elizabeth Marshall's book is an amazing piece that allows you to see into our distant human past and realize that what we hold as normal today is the furthest thing from the truth. Human beings, for about 2 million years, have lived as hunter-gatherers in small groups devoid of any government, laws, police or corporations - anarchy. These groups were aggressively egalitarian and peaceful. In the book, you later come to find out that the Ju/Wasi are no longer the hunter-gatherers they once were and how they've, unfortunately, had to transition into a struggling farming culture on the edge of starvation and poverty.