The Old Way
A Story of the First People
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, first edition, New York (USA), 2006 (2006)
343 pages, including notes and index

In The Old Way, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas tells us the story of the Bushmen, with whom she stayed back in the 1950s thanks to a family trip that her father planned. As she explains early in the book, the experience would mark the rest of her life:

To me, the experience of visiting this place and these people was profoundly important, as if I had voyaged into the deep past through a time machine. I feel that I saw the Old Way, the way of life that shaped us, a way of life that now is gone. I also feel that I saw the most successful culture that our kind has ever known, if a lifestyle can be called a culture and if stability and longevitiy are measures, a culture governed by sun and rain, heat and cold, wind and wildfires, plant and animal populations. Any human culture is a work in progress, modifying as its members adjust to new conditions, but no matter what conditions your environment offers, no matter what you use for language or what gods you worship or whether your decisions are made by group consensus or by a hereditary leader or just by someone bigger than the rest of you, for those who live in the Old Way certain elements never vary. Your group size is set by the food supply, your territory must include water, the animals you hunt will always be afraid of you, and the plant foods will always be seasonal, so you had better remember where they grow and be there when they're fruiting.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 6)

For what she encountered when she met the Bushmen (called the Ju/wa in the book) was definitely a group that lived (and very successfully, indeed) just like humans did before the Neolithic:

Our human version of the Old Way was born in the rain forests but developed on the savannah. For fifteen hundred centuries, we kep the Old Rules, then broke them all and erased the Old Way from our lives. Among the last to lose it were the Ju/wa Bushmen in the Kalahari interior, who in the 1950s were still living entirely from the savannah, as people had done since people began, eating the wild plants and the wild animals they caught and killed, making their clothes from animal skins and their tools from stone, wood, bone, and plant fiber. They had no agriculture, no domestic animals (not even dogs), no fabric, no manufactured items, and no metal except for a few lengths of wire and a few bits of tin or steel that, beginning in the 1920s or '30s, they obtained in a usurious trade at the few scattered settlements of the Bantu pastoralists at the edges of the Kalahari. If a Bushman wishing to trade journeyed to one of the Bantu settlements, the pastoralists might give him a piece of wire about ten inches long in exchange for fire or six jackal skins.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 15-16)

This lifestyle is obviously dominated by nature and its cycles, which have little to do with our own:

True, we sometimes hear the laughable suggestion that out on the savvanah with no trees to climb, we became fast hind-leg runners to escape predators. This is hardly worth the trouble to refute, as many of our would-be predators reach speeds of sixty miles per hour, at least for a few seconds, which is all it takes. True, the predators would have chased the slowest of us, not the fastest, thus providing a selective pressure for greater speed, but if that had been the case, most of us today would be faster than these predators, which we most certainly are not. Then, as now, even the fastest runner could not have escaped even from a marginally competent predator unless the runner had a big head start. Even in automobiles, we have trouble accelerating fast enough to outdistance the rush of a big cat. The ways people of the Old Way coped with predators will be discussed later, but unless you had no other option, running was not one of them. You'd never make it. You'd just excite the predator. You'd be showing how inadequate you were, how little confidence you had in your ability to defend yourself, and you'd be presenting your vulnerable back, making it easy for him to grab you.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 30-31)

Compare that with her own family:

We had tents, cits, sleeping bags, folding chairs and tables, maps, a compass, cameras, film, recoding equipment, reference books, notebooks, pens, inks, pencils, disinfectants, antivenin kits for snakebites, brandy, cases of canned foods, boxes of dry foods, dishes, cooking pots, frying pans, knives, forks, spoons, cigarettes, matches, spare tires, auto parts, inner tubes, tire patches, jacks, toolboxes, winches, motor oil, drums of gasoline, drums of water, bars of yellow soap, towels, washcloths, toothpaste, toothbrushes, coats, sweaters, pants, boots, sneakers, shirts, underwear, socks, reading glasses, safety pins, scissors, a sewing kit, binoculars, bullets, a rifle.

The Ju/wasi had sticks, skins, eggshells, grass.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 62)

Needless to say, the comparison has grown even more clearcut in the last few decades. We can barely leave our homes without a cell phone.

So, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas goes on to tell us how the Bushmen lived, about their culture, how they hunted, their environment, etc. Their is a lifestyle directly linked to the land where they lived, in spite of the fact that their was a nomadic culture that had never known even settlements beyond a few families:

As we looked into the situation more deeply, we learned that ownership of a place was conferred in a rather straightforward manner. You had the right to live where you were born, assumng that your mother was not simply passing through at the time of your birth. You had the right to live with your group, they who were the kxai k'xausi. You held a n!ore strongly or weakly, as the Ju/wasi put it, depending on whether you stayed there or not, depending on whether close relatives stayed there. If you didn't stay on your n!ore, and if your relatives were no longer there o no longer living, you would hold the n!ore weakly, and after time your ownership would fade.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 74)

It is, therefore, a culture strongly linked to the land which, as I said, may seem paradoxical for people who are, after all, nomads. What we quite often miss when talking about nomads is that they do in fact move from place to place, but always within a certain area or region. So, over a very long period of time, they end up evolving a set of customs and social habits that are perfectly adapted to their environment, something that we completely lack in our modern industrial culture. As the author explains a bit further, the borders of the n!ore are actually quite blurry:

What is a territory or a n!ore to a group like that? Not what it would be to use, a carefully delineated piece of proprety that can be bought or sold, with marked-off boundaries. A Ju/wa territory belonged to those who were born there, whose rights were acquired through a parent who was born there, on back through time. The ownership could not be transferred, and the land had no formal boundaries but faded off into no-man's-land on the far sides of which other, different groups might hold equally extensive territories. Thus the importance of n!ore derived less fro its condition as a tract of land and more from the plants and animals that lived on it, the firewood that could be found there, and, most of all, the water.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 79)

A strange concept, indeed. At least to our minds, used to maps, contracts and legal definitions. We rely on carefuly demarcated properties to avoid social conflict. But then, that is precisely because we have a far more individualistic lifestyle. The Ju/wasi only had to figure out the border between their own territory and that of other tribes. We, on the other hand, have to make sure that our own next-door neighbor knows fully well where his property ends and ours begins. It is a completely different mentality. A different lifestyle. As a matter of fact, the Ju/wasi stay away from the concept of private property, especially when it comes to the land, adopting instead an almost socialist lifestyle that extends to other areas of their life too:

When dividing big game, the hunter did not distribute the meat. That role belonged to the person who provided the arrow that actually killed the antelope, or, in other words, the owner of the poison that had its effect. By the Ju/wa system, anyone could own an arrow or arrows (although only the hunters used them), so that an old man or a woman or a boy like Lame ≠Gao, the k'xau n!a of /Gautscha, who had little chance of ever being much of a hunter, could give an arrow to a hunter and become the distributor of important meat. This custom emphasized the importance of these foods, as it was intended to enhance fairness. Anyone could find slow game and vegetable foods, anyone could set a snare, but only the strong adults could bring food in quantities large enough to feed the entire group. Without the formal system of sharing, the same people, the strongest people, would always be distributors, and over time, unfairness could emerge. My mother put it this way: "There is much giving and lending of arrows. The society seems to want to extinguish in every way possible the concept of the meat belonging to the hunter."

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 101)

And yet, as it tends to happen in other hunter-gathering societies, gathering actually played a more important role in their diets than hunting:

For all the excitement of hunting, for all the importance that people placed on meat and especially on the meat of big game, the mainstay of people's diet was vegetable food, and most of it was gathered by women. I found it interesting to compare the vegetables we ate, especially the ones we brought with us, to those found by the Ju/wasi. We had potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and carrots, plus dry beans, canned pears, and canned peaches. The Ju/wasi ate about eighty kinds of plants, including twenty-five kinds of roots, seven or eight kinds of berries, five kinds of nuts, sixteen or seventeen kids of fruits, three or four kinds of melons, four kinds of leaves of which two resembled spinach, eleven kinds of tree gum, and two kinds of beans from pods. They also ate palm hearts.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 106)

Not bad for some "primitive" people. There are a couple of issues that are well worth emphasizing: first, that, in spite of the traditional image we have of people like the Ju/wasi living mainly off what they hunted, in reality vegetables were the main part of their diet; and, second, that their diet was actually more diverse than ours. This latter point is especially astonishing, since we tend to view our contemporary civilized lifestyle as offering so many choices that we fail to realize how, in essence, they all boil down to a bunch of boring choices, although the wrappers are different colors. In other words, the array of "choices" we have is quite misleading.

During the years we spent in Nyae Nyae, every man, woman, and child (with one notable exception, mentioned later) observed the rules of safety. No instance of carelessness was ever noted, and for as long as anyone could remember not a single human death in the entire Nyae Nyae region resulted from carelessness with grubs or arrows —not one. What's more, the care was so ingrained in the culture of everyday life that it seemed effortless. Very rarely did anyone make anything of it or talk about it. They just did it, as easily and naturally as breathing. It was part of the Old Way. I'd offer a comparative example from our society if we had one, but we don't. We certainly don't treat guns with such competence. But then, the loss of just one human life is a terrible thing in tiny communities such as those of the Ju/wasi, where everybody is essential, where people rely on one another in the struggle for existence. We in the Western world give human life plenty of lip service, but in reality, we as individuals don't matter much and the feelings aren't the same.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 135)

Avoiding a problem is preferable to combat. At /Gauscha [a source of water], for instance, the lions and hyenas seemed to visit the waterhole at different times of night so that they didn't encounter one another, thus avoiding possible conflict. And the people and the predators moved about the veld at different times, the predators taking sunset to sunrise, and the people taking the middle of the day, when the lions and most other predators were sleeping in the shade. These habits were extremely important for avoiding conflict. Moving away was a version of this arrangement and an excellent method for solving many kinds of problems. It's true that in the rather crowded game parks of East Africa, different species of predators battle one another —most of us have seen the nature films of lions making war on hyenas, and vice versa. But game parks are not entirely the Old Way, and the losers of these battles might have moved if they could, if there were somewhere else to go that wasn't already occupied. Relocating could be difficult in the game parks. But in the past, relocating was not difficult in sparsely populated Nyae Nyae. One of the most important things that can be said about the Old Way at Nyae Nyae is that there was plenty of room.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 160-161)

In most ways, women were the equals of men, fully as respected, fully as important in decision making, fully as free to choose a spouse or get divorced or own a n!ore [the equivalent of a property right]. Most men, after all, lived for at least part of their lives on the n!oresi of their wives, in service to their wives' families. Men also were the equals of women, fully as tender toward their children, fully as ready to take part in daily tasks such as getting water or firewood. Yet there was a great dividing line between men and women that the Ju/wasi did not cross. For all their equality, they did not do as we do in industrialized societies —the Ju/wasi did not, for instance, have the equivalent of woman soldiers or male nurses— and the division had a biological element that, considering that the people lived in the Old Way, is no surprise. The division came down to childbearing and hunting. Matter of birth were only for women, and matters of hunting were only for men.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 175)

I stumbled upon something very interesting when I was with the Ju/wasi in the 1950s. I happened to offer the people something called the Porteus Maze Test. This and the Rorschach Test were given to me by a professor of psychology at Harvard. I no longer remember why he asked me to administer these tests to the Bushmen. All I know is that it was to further his research, not mine. Nevertheless, I agreed to oblige him. The Rorschach Test went poorly. The women declined to try it. A few of the men gave it a go, all finding meanings that in those early days of psychological testing would have branded them as schizophrenic, or so I had been told. "Normal" people were supposed to see each ink blot as a unit, but the Ju/wa men saw them as composites, finding one little thing here and another little thing there. But this, of course, is the best way to view the environment, not as scenery, as landscape, as we view it, but as a series of small, very distinct messages —a freshly broken twigm flattened grass without dew where an animal was resting, the footprints of a certain kind of beetle that begins to move about after the day has reached a certain temperature, each tiny item an important clue as to what has taken place in the vicinity. The tiny items produce the whole picture, and these men were hardly schizophrenic. They were accomplished hunters and trackers, and the test was not cross-cultural.

The Porteus Maze Test was more revealing. This test involves a series of mazes of increasing complexity, from the first maze, which is essentially a straight run, to the last, which even the most capable of us would take a while to fathom. At the beginning of each maze is a drawing of a rat, seen from above. The person taking the test is supposed to show how the rat would get through the maze, which needless to say is not a problem of consequence to hunter-gatherers, none of whom had ever seen a graphic representation of any kind before, and until we came, had not even seen a piece of paper. Even so, after puzzling over the problem for a few minutes, every man and boy but one solved all the mazes as quickly and successfully as any American would have done. They rather enjoyed the challenge. The boy who didn't solve the mazes was a youngster of about fifteen who did well enough at first, then lost confidence and stopped trying. Needless to say, I didn't press him.

But the mazes stymied the women. Not one of the women or girls could solve even the first maze, the almost straight run. The women seemed uneasy and confused and stared down at the pages blankly, as if they flatly believed that whatever I was asking of them was impossible. Surely something very important was at work, a profound psychological difference, yet what it meant, I couldn't say. When I got home I gave the mazes and my notes to the professor, but what he made of them I never learned. Recent research by others has shown that men in general navigate by orienteering, while women navigate by using landmarks, which is probably an insight into the implications of the cognitive abilities needed for long-range hunting (or to put it differently, for no fewer than thirty-five thousand years of long-range hunting) versus the abilities required to successfully complete a short-range gathering trip, knowing where the necessary plants are growing, spotting them in their settings, and getting back before dark. Such abilities may have pertained to the maze test. Or perhaps when confronted with something so strange and foreign, the women simply stepped back. In Ju/was life, it was the men who dealt with difficult situations.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 176-179)

But then, the Ju/wa concept of marriage is not the same as ours. We see a marriage ceremony as the joining of two people. The concept is so strong with us that we can scarcely imagine any other. Yet the Ju/wasi saw the marriage ceremony as a rite of passage that moved the young people into a new state of being. (Western custom may show a shadow of this concept, with white weddings, wedding gifts, and major celebrations for the first marriage, and semiprivate, toned-down weddings thereafter.) Once in the married state, the Ju/wasi remained there, if not always with the original partner, until they reached an age at which most people are no longer reproductive. Thus when people found new partners, no further ceremony was necessary because both people were already in the appropriate state. The absence of a ceremony when taking a new partner in no way implied that the couple was not joined —far from it. Ju/wa couples were fully as joined as the people in Western marriages, or more so. The couple knew it, the society knew it, and the relationships with others showed it. A woman who divorced one man and married another, for example, assumed the entire spectrum of in-law relationships with her new husband's people, just as she had done with her first husband's relatives.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 182)

We learned little about the sexual behavior of the Ju/wasi. My mother, talking in extreme privacy with some Ju/wa women, was able to elicit the fact that they enjoyed sex and experienced orgasm, but that was about all. Sex with youngsters was of course prohibited, but this went without saying, as it didn't happen and would be mentioned only in the context of a young couple's marriage, as the couple would not have sex until the girl had passed the menarche. Young people might sometimes go out to the bush and fool around, but because most girls were married by the time they reached the menarche, there were no single mothers.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 187)

N!ai reached the menarche when she was about seventeen years old, in 1959. At this time an important ceremony was held for her with eland music and dancing —a much more important ceremony than her wedding. But she and /Gunda had no child for three years, not until 1962, when she was almost twenty. This was a very normal age for a Ju/wa woman's first pregnancy —19.5 years was the average age. During the next ten years, N!ai and /Gunda had four more children. In Nyae Nyae in the 1950s, most couples had from one to four living children, rarely more. Nive live births was the highest number on record for any Bushman woman, which is much lower than any other human population that does not use contraception.

How did this happen, considering that the people had no mechanical or pharmaceutical methods of birth control? In the Old Way, the human population, like most other populations who live in the Old Way, had its own regulation. The strenuous work and absence of body fat prevented hunter-gatherer women from menstruating at an early age, and after the burden of lactation was added to their bodies, they did not menstruate nearly as often as do the women of agricultural and industrial societies. They certainly did not menstruate monthly. It became my impression that many women, after menarche, didn't menstruate at all. We were able to note the absence of menstrual periods because the rules for later periods were the same as for the first —the woman covered herself with a cape, sat apart, and avoided men— and over the years we saw this only two or three times. At that, the women were young and had not yet had children. Even so, the twenty-eight-day cycle was understood by the Ju/wasi, as menstruation was associated with the moon, just as it is with us. According to Megan Biesele, menstruation was called "see the moon" or "go to the moon." A woman with menstrual cramps might say, "The moon torments me."

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 192-193)

In our culture, of course, we dislike old age and do our best to mask it. But to the Ju/wasi, old age was good. Old people were not burdensome, as the older people continued their activity for as long as possible, so that some of the oldest women went gathering with the rest, sharing what they brought with their families as they had always done. But eventually, as at /Gautscha, where three of the oldest women did not gather, others gathered for them. Four of the oldest men did not hunt, not feeling up to the arduous traveling and the days without food or water. They, too, were given food by others. Even so, they were valued, as factors other than their labor made them valuable. They were valued for what they knew.

This was not surprising. That we are here at all is attributable, in large measure, to the fact that a number of our ancestors lived to old age. No group of hunter-gatherers has many old people as members, but the more of them there are, and the older they are, the better. They are the ones who hold the largest amount of important information.

To us today in Western societies, the facts held in the memories of the old people seem like unimportant lore. But the Ju/wasi felt differently, for a very good reason. The older someone is, the more that person remembers about what happened before the rest of the group was born, evens that, without written records, would be lost if someone couldn't describe them. In the event of a fifty-year drought, for instance, it would be those in their sixties and seventies who might remember a way of getting water, or of getting by without water, something that their own grandparents had shown them the last time this occurred.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 202-203)

"The [Ju/wasi] are extremely dependent emotionally on the sense of belonging and companionship," wrote my mother. "Separation and loneliness are unendurable to them. I believe their wanting to belong and be near is actually visible in the way families cluster together in an encampment and in the way they sit huddled together, often touching someone, should against shoulder, ankle across ankle. Security and comfort for them lie in their belonging to their group free from the threat of rejection and hostility."

I believe that the importance of the group showed clearly in the way that the people made decisions. Women were as much a part of this as men. The people would talk together, for days if necessary, until every point of view had been considered. Our notions of secret ballots and majority rule would have seemed unpleasant to them —they preferred consensus, with everyone knowing the thoughts and feelings of everyone else, and everyone pleased with the decision. Our notions of individuality would also have seemed inappropriate to the Ju/wasi —they expected to function as group members.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 210)

No one wanted disapproval. No one wanted to make others jealous, or even mildly envious. No one wanted more influence or more possessions than anyone else. What good would it do to have many possessions if others were jealous and excluded you? The goodwill of the group was one's most valuable asset. Such respect for the social fabric eliminated many of the ills that plague our society. Theft, for example, was unknown. Surely it is significant that, at least in those days, the !Kung language had no specific word for theft. !Kung speakers could discuss the deed, of course, but unlike ourselves, with our massive lexicon ranging from pilfer to larceny, covering every nuance of this cultural feature, the Ju/wasi did not seem to have named it at all. Theft was not even mentioned as a perceived wrongdoing, unlike fighting, failure to share, failure to observe the marriage sanctions. Those things could happen. Theft essentially could not. We heard of only one instance of theft in living memory, when a man took honey from a beehive found by another man who was planning to return for it. The man who found the hive killed the man who took the honey.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 218)

We happened to be present at /Gautscha during an eclipse of the moon and were mildly suprised when the Ju/wasi made almost nothing of it. (In fiction, they would have fallen to their knees in terror, bseeching the white people to save them.) "Don't worry," they said, scarcely bothering to look up at the spectacle. "The moon will come right back." One man said that the moon had gone behind clouds. But later, when I pressed him for more, he told that the eclipse was caused by a lion covering the moon with his paw to give himself darkness for better hunting. Yet even this explanation had strong roots in reality. In places such as /Gautscha at the end of the dry season, when most of the grass is short and sparse, the lions prefer to hunt during the dark of the moon because the darkness hides them when the short grass won't. (Not for nothing do the Ju/wasi call a lion "moonless night.") Still, the story was not meant to be taken as fact in the way that, say, the Book of Genesis is sometimes taken. It was a story, and it showed, among other things, the profound awareness that the people had of lions.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 251-252)

Quite unlike the gods of some religions, the Ju/wa gods did not worry about human shortcomings or concern themselves with human behavior. Nor did the Ju/wasi look to the gods for moral leadership, probably because a camp full of people who can read tracks is a more powerful deterrent to antisocial actions than a god could ever be. Hence the gods didn't punish moral wrongdoing or reward moral virtue. Neither did anything else that lived on the savannah. Again, it was the Old Way.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, pp. 258-259)

As has been said, the Ju/wa gods did not try to bend people to their will. No deity laid out a moral code, or sanctioned any foods or behaviors. Even so, some foods and behaviors were prohibited by rules that had been handed down through the generations. People knew of these rules because the old people told them, and kept them because to break them would bring illness or sometimes death. The gods did not prpmote the rules as, say, the Judeo-Christian God promoted the Commandments, so the reason that people kept the rules had less to do with the gods' displeasure and more to do with practical consequences. Young people didn't eat ostrich eggs, for instance, not because it was thought that the gods would disapprove, but because it was thought that ostrich eggs would make them sick. In all likelihood, no medical reason or personal experience is behind this prohibition —it is simply a food taboo with origins lost in antiquity. Yet it was the fear of bad results, not the anger of the gods, that made people respect these prohibitions.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 264)

The anthropologist and filmmaker Claire Ritchie, who participated in extensive studies of the transition from the Old Way to the new, points out that with all these developments, the economic aspect of the culture reversed itself. Formerly, all the adults had produced food for the community, sharing with one another, supporting the young and the old. In the past, women had provided about 80 percent of the food. But by 1980 at Tsumkwe, only the few men who had jobs were able to acquire food, either because they were paid in food or because they bought it. Their unemployed relatives depended on them, but there wasn't enough for all. Claire Ritchie and my brother made a survey of the diet of the people of Tsumkwe and found that on many days, many people ate nothing, meanwhile suspecting that somewhere, some of their equally desperate relatives were eating but not sharing. Jealousy and anger, those destructive emotions that once the people had suppressed with such dedication, flamed into life and infected everybody.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 284)

Over time, however, problems began to arise. Hunting and gathering, the fallback of the farmers, became increasingly difficult. A sedentary lifestyle is not compatible with gathering, as any area produces only a certain amount of wild foods, and under continued pressure these get used up. The small animals that were slow game were under the same pressures as the plant communities, and big-game hunting, while still possible in theory, had in the past produced only about 20 percent of the food. There were othe problems with big-game hunting. On their own conservancy, the Ju/wa men were permitted to hunt only with bow and arrow. But the men with the skills to bow hunt were aging, and many of the younger men did not want to be bound by Stone Age technology. They hunted with rifles if they had them, or on horseback with spears and dogs if they didn't. The latter method was only too easy —the antelopes were afraid of people on foot but were not afraid of horses. A man on horseback could ride right up to an antelope and jab it with a spear. The method was illegal but, because many people did not know this, it was practiced anyway, and combined with the commercial biltong hunting, mentioned earlier, had taken a serious toll of the antelope population.

(Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: The Old Way, p. 297)

Entertainment Factor: 7/10
Intellectual Factor: 8/10