The Old Way:
A Story of the First People

Author: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2006

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (b.1931) is an American anthropologist and author. She has written seven books, fiction and non-fiction, and for The New Yorker, National Geographic and The Atlantic Monthly.

Until recently, Bushmen of the Kalahari desert have been described as an ancient people from whom all humans can trace their genetic heritage. They are also called "San." Among the Bushmen it was with the Ju/wasi group that Thomas lived, in the 1950s, with her brother and parents. (Ju/wasi is plural, Ju/wa is singular.) Her mother, Lorna Marshall, became a noted anthropologist over the course of these and other trips, and her brother devoted most of his life to the Bushmen.

Thomas writes of the Ju/wasi having maintained "at least material aspects of their culture" since ancient times – while the world around them was changing. "Archeologists," she writes, "were to find objects used by modern Ju/wasi that dated to the Upper Paleolithic but were perhaps much older."

She describes hunter-gatherers who made objects like those of modern Bushmen as having once lived "all over the continent," including what today is Egypt. She describes Bushmen as the oldest of people in Africa, pushed back by intruders. A recent pushing back she describes as by Bantu pastoralists and immigrant European farmers.

Thomas writes of the ice age that diminished Africa's rain forest by the time it ended – around 9,000 BCE. With the loss of the rain forest, Bushmen were "reduced to eating dry berries, the shallow bulbs of little onions, ground-growing nuts, and the edible ends of grass places, as well as grubs, large ants, baby birds, snails, and caterpillars." An important tool was the digging stick, three feet long and an inch thick. With this they dug down and discovered underground foods, including plant roots. Bushmen also grabbed ostrich eggs, which provided them a meal and then might serve them as a water bottle.

The exposed skin of humans helped them run down game in Africa's warm weather. And curly hair gave their head insulation. The Bushmen could chase down small animals or antelope, which were vulnerable to overheating. Humans had shoulders unlike chimpanzees that allowed them to throw stones or a spear with deadly force.

The Bushmen started putting poison on the tips of their spears or arrows. This poison they found in the grubs of certain beetles. A few drops of this poison, writes Thomas, "will kill an animal the size of a cow, and a single drop will kill a person." With poison, Bushmen might track an animal for a few days, waiting for the poison to kill it.

Meat was an important part of the Ju/wasi diet, but "the mainstay... was vegetable food, and most of it was gathered by women, day after day," each woman with maybe five cups of water and a digging stick. "The Ju/wasi," she writes, "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 kinds 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."

Thomas writes that the Ju/wasi of the 1950s "knew more about every observable aspect of the savannah than anyone else alive." She writes of the mammalogist Charles Handley having "learned that the Ju/wasi recognized almost exactly the same species as the Western taxonomists, including insects and spiders, not to mention birds and mammals." "More difficult to appreciate," she adds, "was the botanical knowledge of the Ju/wasi."

Hunter-gatherers moved around to survive and needed a lot of unoccupied land. The increasing size of populations killed many of them and their way of life, but before this happened to the Bushmen they were isolated from their neighbors by open terrain. As was common with others, the Ju/wasi referred to themselves as people. Thomas writes that the Ju/wasi she observed "saw the people of other groups almost as if they were dangerous animals and felt nothing in common with them." Humanity was inclined to have contempt for foreign peoples, and the Ju/wasi, writes Thomas, were inclined to refer to groups of strangers as ju dole, which meant "bad person."

About role differences between males and females, Thomas writes that women gathered food, and they "never took part in hunts and would not touch hunting equipment." Men confronted dangerous animals, stood off lions and dealt with strangers... without a shred of the bravado or machismo." Walking in a group, men were in the lead and at the rear, with females and children in the middle.

Thomas writes that "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." Men, she adds, were "fully as tender toward their children, fully as ready to take part in daily tasks such as getting water or firewood."

Marriage was a loose affair, perhaps community arranged from an early age, perhaps not. Marriage involved ceremony and celebration. Men spoke of "kidnapping as one of the ways of getting a wife." Asked about this, one young man admitted that the girl could walk back home if she liked. "We explored the issue carefully," writes Thomas, "but found no example of it and concluded that it was a male fantasy that women more or less ignored." Rape was not part of the fantasy. Thomas writes that "rape was unknown" by the Ju/wasi.

A part of the looseness of marriage was the freedom to have more than one wife or more than one husband. "So it was said," writes Thomas. "We knew of no such marriage, although we once heard of a Ju/wa woman with two husbands." Thomas writes that "the Ju/wasi held a dim view of adultery, which was virtually unknown and seldom necessary, as divorce and remarriage were easily achieved."

Divorce, writes Thomas "...although entirely acceptable was quite rare – in a sample of about one hundred couples, we learned of just nine divorces." And there was the looseness expressed by one Ju/wasi: "If you want to sleep with someone's wife," he said, "you get him to sleep with yours, then neither of you goes after the other with poisoned arrows."

Thomas writes that she knew of no man who questioned whether he was the father of his wife's children.

Some Ju/wasi infants died of infant diarrhea... a primary cause of infant death in many populations. But in general the Ju/wasi produced healthy babies – babies with a little body fat. There was no mechanical or pharmaceutical method of birth control, but strenuous work and a low-fat diet contributed to infrequent births, and births were separated according to a woman's ability to nurse her children. A woman "produced enough milk to feed one baby at a time. She might feed a second baby... but only after the first was eating solid food, with breast milk as a supplement." This kept the frequency of children to at least three or four years apart. "If children were less than three or four years apart, both children would be undernourished and both could die." If a woman conceived a child while she already had a child dependant on nursing, infanticide might occur. But Thomas writes that this was rare. "When people spoke of this, they spoke with deep sadness and the reason given for doing it was always the same – the mother already had a nursing child."

The Ju/wasi loved their children, writes Thomas. Thomas' mother wrote of them never tiring of their babies. "They dandle them, kiss them, dance with them, and sing to them."

The elderly were highly respected as repositories of knowledge.

There were no loners among the Ju/wasi. "Separation and loneliness are unendurable to them," writes Thomas. Sharing was a part of the close ties and an "important part of the social fabric." The Ju/wasi did not have rank. No one wanted more influence or more possessions than anyone else.

There were conflicts, but living so close together in very small communities they were inclined to get along – the way a modern family unit does. With conflict, observed Thomas, there was a tendency to mope rather than be outwardly vocal and hostile.

Fighting, failure to share, failure to observe marriage sanctions were perceived as wrong-doings, but not theft. There was no word for theft. A person who wanted something that belonged to someone might ask for it but, if denied, he might feel "the bitter pain of envy and rejection."

But people snapped. Thomas reports that the anthropologist Richard Lee has described the Ju/wasi as having a murder rate equal to that of Detroit. He found that during a fifty-year period in his study area, twenty-two murders were committed, giving the Ju/wasi a homicide rate of 29.3 per million.

Thomas was told of the following:

In a camp of about fifteen people who were sitting around their evening fires, a man shot his wife with a poison arrow. He then ran off into the night. The horrified people pulled out the arrow and tried to suck out the poison, at which point the husband rushed out of the darkness and shot two more arrows, one into his wife's brother and one into another man. The people also tried their best to help these two men, but by morning all three of the killer's victims were dying from the poison... At dawn, some of the other men armed themselves, tracked down the attacker, and killed him.

The Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker writes of these people of the Kalahari being extolled in the 1960s "as a paradigm of hunter-gatherer harmony." He writes that in earlier centuries they "had engaged in frequent warfare with European colonists, their Bantu neighbors, and one another, including several all-out massacres." (The Better Angels of Our Nature, p. 54)

Returning to the work of Elizabeth Thomas, the Ju/wasi had stories that attempted to explain the incomprehensible. It was difficult, writes Thomas, to ascertain just how seriously they believed their stories. Thomas writes:

...if you asked about lightning, the people might simply say that it was a death thing, god's fire. They did not expect to understand everything. "We don't know" was a perfectly acceptable statement, "The old people didn't tell us."

The Ju/wasi likened gods and lions. Either might kill someone for unknown reasons and without people able to do anything about it. Thomas writes that "the Ju/wasi treated the lions and the gods in somewhat the same way. They sometimes called lions "owners of the west," which was thought also as the home of a god associated with death.

According to Thomas, the Ju/wasi believed that "the gods interacted with people by sending good or bad luck, not to punish vice or to reward virtue, but because they felt like it." Thomas adds: "Quite unlike the gods of some religions, the Ju/wa gods did not worry about human shortcomings or concern themselves with human behavior."

About a lack of religious ritual, Thomas writes:

As the gods did not try to force human behavior, so the Ju/wasi did not try to force the natural world. They did not, for instance, try to make rain, or make animals fertile, or make plants grow. With the exception of burning dry grasses now and then in order to encourage green grass, they did not try to make things happen. The concept of trying to control nature belongs to the agricultural peoples, but not necessarily to those of the Old Way.

The Ju/wasi played with that part of human psychology that allows outer body experiences. Sometimes when the moon was full they would hold trance-dances till dawn. A trancing Ju/wasi might run out into the night to confront the spirits of the dead and lions and command them to leave the people alone.

Another Book

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, by Stephen Pinker, 2011

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