Thomas, anthropologist and author of such diverse bestsellers as "The Hidden Life of Dogs," and two excellent pre-history novels, "Reindeer Moon" and "The Animal Wife," began her writing career with the study, "The Harmless People," based on her youthful sojourn among the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. The Bushmen may be the only people who ever lived without war. But more on that later.
With "The Old Way," she returns to the subject of that first book - a title that has been in print since 1959. Marshall first encountered the Ju/wasi, one of the five groups of Bushmen, in 1950 when she was 18, on the first of several Kalahari trips with her parents and brother.
Her father, a founder of Raytheon, was a highly organized, take-charge sort of person, with versatile skills. Her mother, a former ballerina turned teacher, became a noted anthropologist over the course of these (and more) trips, and her brother devoted most of his life to the Bushmen.
In the 1950s the Ju/wasi maintained their ancient nomadic culture in near isolation. Except for bits of metal they obtained in trade and used for arrowheads, the Ju/wasi made everything they needed from local material. They did not farm and had no domestic animals, but obtained all their food from hunting and gathering. They were the last people on earth, says Thomas, to follow the "Old Way," a way of life that depends on knowledge handed down one-to-one from generation to generation. The Old Way depends on intimacy between habitat and humanity.
Thomas' book is not a scientific study or a memoir, but a bit of both, as well as a celebration and lament for a culture now gone. It's also a thoughtful reflection on how the Old Way shaped our species from the time we came down out of the trees and stepped on to the Savannah.
Water, says Thomas, controlled the size of human hunter-gatherer groups, and that remained true among the Ju/wasi. Rain was scarce, and water holes passed down through families. Though children were betrothed young, they did not cohabit until the girl reached menarche - about age 17 - and the average age for bearing a first child was 19.
Similarly, though no birth control was used, women bore children about four years apart and seldom had more than four. This was just what could be sustained, without starvation or overburdening the mother or group.
Alliances were complex, all going to foster the strength of the group. Survival depended on group cohesion and the force of their culture went into strengthening those bonds, subsuming, smothering, the desires of the individual.
The sharing of food, for instance, had little to do with who actually killed or gathered the food and the complex system was worked out before the gathering or hunting trip began. Periodic dances also reinforced ties and helped to dispel repressed tensions.
Repression was the usual means of maintaining harmony. Temper tantrums, even among children, were frowned upon - for one thing childish noise could attract predators. Arguments flared, of course, but were almost always settled without violence.
War, to the Ju/wasi, was unknown. Not because they were right thinking pacifists, but because they had developed the perfect weapon to make war - or murder - unthinkable.
The Ju/wasi had only one real weapon - the poisoned arrow. It was all they used to hunt (though they finished off game with a spear). The poison was invariably fatal. A man who settled an argument with a stab from an arrow couldn't take it back - but he would have days to watch his victim die. And the victim, facing certain death, would be perfectly healthy for a day or more and quite capable of wreaking revenge.
The lack of suitable weapons, and even more, the lack of any kind of shield, convince Thomas the Ju/wasi have never known war. She makes a convincing case.
By the 1980s, however, the Ju/wasi were being forced into villages. Many of those Marshall knew as children are now dead - killed in fights, often fueled with drink. Today, alcohol and violence have decimated the Ju/wasi.
While the book's conclusion is wrenching, most of it is a celebration of their intricate culture. Marshall captures the imagination with anecdotes - many from her old journals - that illustrate the matter-of-fact resourcefulness of a people who know the intricacies of all the plants and animals of their desert home.
Some of her anecdotes simply demonstrate the odd commonalities of humanity: "Although I will eventually learn enough !Kung to stumble along in the language...at this point I am at the stage where the Ju/wasi either address me in baby talk or raised voices, or both."
She describes gathering trips that take all day, but don't get going until mid-morning, baffling her own Yankee work ethic. Until she realizes the wisdom of waiting until lions and other nighttime predators are well and truly asleep.
The lion stories are horrifically thrilling. She describes a lioness coming to the edge of their small encampment and roaring threateningly: "The roar was so deep and so loud that it had no direction. It seemed to be coming from anywhere, everywhere." Yet, scary as they were, the lions never hunted or preyed upon the Bushmen.
Marshall does not try to provide answers for all her questions. Some things are "unknowable." This eloquent, passionate book does foster a sense of wonder at our own evolution. Though we've traded much of our intimacy with the earth for modern civilization, Marshall shows how many traces of the Old Way linger on in our blood.