54 of 55 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I first heard of the Bushmen through National Geographic's Genographic Project (Spencer Wells "The Journey of Man") which found genetic evidence suggesting Bushmen are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world--a "genetic Adam" from which all the worlds ethnic groups can ultimately trace genetic heritage. Within the face of a Bushmen one can see all the genetic expressions of the world (Asian eyes, African nose, Indian skin, etc..) So I was delighted when this new book appeared by bushmen expert Elizabeth Marshall Thomas who, along with her brother and parents, were one of the first westerners to live with and scientifically document the Bushmen in the 1950s (when Elizabeth was a teenager). Her parents and brother went on to become famous Bushmen experts and proponents in their own careers.
Older members of the Bushmen tribe were valued and respected for their wisdom, likewise Elizabeth is passing down her knowledge and experience for later generations. The Bushman way of life she saw in the 1950s, perhaps as old as 150,000 years, no longer exists - all it took was one generation and the long unbroken chain known as "The Old Way" has disappeared. It is the same sad story told the world over from Native Americans to Tibet to Eskimos. Yet Elizabeth reveals a deeper lesson, which is the "myth" that the Bushmen ever wanted it any other way - they want the comforts of modernization, just as we would prefer not to hunt and gather food each day. Bushmen want to travel, see the world, be a part of wider humanity, and for that we can celebrate and welcome all they have to teach. This book provides that introduction.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
In "The Old Way: A Story of the First People", Elizabeth Marshall Thomas gives us a compelling tale of how the people of the tribes of the Kalahari have survived in an inhospitable land for some 150,000 years and in doing so, she also gives us vital clues on the survival of the human tribe in general. Thomas takes the reader on a journey with the Ju/Wasi as they live in the Nyae Nyae region and, through her telling of their tale, shows us meaningful and poignant examples of how to deal with interpersonal realtionships and the difficulties that arise therein.
This, her second book about the individuals of the Ju/Wasi, tells of the traditions of hunting and gathering that are vital to their survival, and of the dire consequences that result when they are prevented from pursuing and passing on those traditions to their children. Thomas also reminds us of how, when people from so-called developed countries meddle in the affairs of countries and people we don't fully understand, even the best of intentions can go awry.
Her descriptions of the dances and singing she witnesses moved me deeply, and seemed to stir long-forgotten memories of a time when we all sat huddled in a circle in the night, telling tales and sharing the lore that helped us to survive the spirits and predators lurking in the cold darkness beyond the glow of our small fires. By interweaving and illustrating her study of the Ju/Wasi and the Nyae Nyae region in which they lived with vignettes of the individuals of the tribe, Thomas brings us to a mirror in which we can glimpse our own ancestor's struggles for survival, no matter where that may have been.
"The Old Way: A Story of the First People" is a well-written and passionate book, and one that contains many lessons we would be well advised to re-learn and hold close to our hearts as we sruggle to find a means to continue to survive in an increasingly complex world.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I bought this book, knowing little about it, simply because I have loved everything I've read by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. This is the best of her best, which says a lot. The world is fortunate that her wealthy, and obviously very intelligent, family, chose to leave our way of life behind for long periods, and immerse themselves in the lives of southern African Bushmen in the 1950s. The story of the Bushman way of life, presented here in Thomas's clear and elegant prose, is endlessly fascinating. Their lives were vigorous, challenging, and based on a sense of sharing that we can all learn from. Of course, once western "civilization" takes over, tragedy follows. But that part of the story has been--and still is--repeated endlessly the world over. Marshall is a brilliant writer and observer, following in the footsteps of her amazing parents. This book is also her tribute to her beloved brother, and his lifelong friendships with the people they met and worked with over the years.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Garry V. Grofcsik
- Published on Amazon.com
I listened to the audio version of this book available at Audible.com.
Although I have not read the text version, I imagine that listening to the author narrate this book adds to the flavor and beauty of this description of the lives of African Kalahari people in their indigenous state and their 21st Century status. The author/narrator is able to give authenticity to her prose by adding the click sounds to the words and names from her subjects' language that she includes in the narration. I simply enjoyed and learned from every sentence Ms. Marshall-Thomas generated, especially her description of her day spent foraging for food with the women of the group she studied.
At all levels this book is excellent.