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The Harmless People Hardcover – June 15, 1959


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 260 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (June 15, 1959)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394427793
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394427799
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,485,102 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

A study of primitive people which, for beauty of...style and concept, would be hard to match." -- The New York Times Book Review

In the 1950s Elizabeth Marshall Thomas became one of the first Westerners to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Botswana and South-West Africa. Her account of these nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose way of life had remained unchanged for thousands of years, is a ground-breaking work of anthropology, remarkable not only for its scholarship but for its novelistic grasp of character. On the basis of field trips in the 1980s, Thomas has now updated her book to show what happened to the Bushmen as the tide of industrial civilization -- with its flotsam of property rights, wage labor, and alcohol -- swept over them. The result is a powerful, elegiac look at an endangered culture as well as a provocative critique of our own.

"The charm of this book is that the author can so truly convey the strangeness of the desert life in which we perceive human traits as familiar as our own....The Harmless People is a model of exposition: the style very simple and precise, perfectly suited to the neat, even fastidious activities of a people who must make their world out of next to nothing."

-- The Atlantic --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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The book is a fascinating and easy read.
Kingbird
A seminal work of Thomas' experience living with the Kalahari !Kung hunter-gatherers in the 1950s.
yo-tambien
Beyond providing informative content, Thomas is an engaging writer.
Karen Chung

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 27, 1997
Format: Paperback
This is a simple account, yet honest and very entertaining. It describes a people almost totally uninfluenced by the advancements and vices of the outside world. The stories held my attention without fail. While classified as anthropology, it is not written in a scientific manner and is approachable for anyone looking to experience a wholly foreign culture.

The last chapter, which describes the people after thirty years, is discouraging, but gives some insight into our own ways of life. This is probably the best non-fiction "story" I have ever read.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By magellan HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 25, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a detailed, fascinating, and even beautiful account of the author's field study of the Kung! Bushman. Along with the Australian aborigines, the Bushman of the Kalahari desert, who inhabit an arid tableland in southwest Africa, are considered one of the two most primitive cultures in existence. The Bushmen aren't native to the Kalahari but were forced there as a result of conflicts with the white man and other tribes after the 17th century. Thomas gives a detailed account of their way of life and how they are able to survive in one of the most desolate places on earth. The Bushmen are very short of stature, averaging only 4 feet, 10 inches tall, and their skin has a yellowish tinge that is different from the blacker skin of their surrounding neighbors. The Kalahari has no surface water, and the rare rainfall immediately dries up. One of the few ways they get moisture as well as food is the tsama melon, which grows underground. The tsama melons are so important that the rights to a particular locale are inherited, which is unusual among the Bushmen. To survive in this harsh environment, the Bushmen have become expert botanists and can identify over 300 different kinds of plants, and they hunt antelope with poisoned arrows. Marriage among the Bushmen can occur at a very early age, but for women it is considered inappropriate to become fully sexually active and to marry before the age of 12. After having been almost completely wiped out between the 17th and the 19th century through conflicts with other tribes and the white man, there are now about 50,000 Bushmen inhabiting the Kalahari.
Years later, when I saw the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, I recalled my first encountering the Bushmen in Thomas's wonderful little book.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By yo-tambien on October 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
A seminal work of Thomas' experience living with the Kalahari !Kung hunter-gatherers in the 1950s. This is an intimate, personal account of her experience plus a colorful look at quite possibly how all of our ancestors once lived, including how this culture has, since the '50s, basically been destroyed by civilization. A valuable lesson in 303 pages.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Karen Chung on July 13, 2007
Format: Paperback
The Bushmen are well known - and intriguing - to phoneticians, because Bushman languages, along with Bushman-influenced languages such as Zulu and Xhosa, are the only ones in the world with linguistic clicks. As a teacher of phonetics, that was my own original motivation for reading this book. I also thought it would be useful background to have before visiting South Africa. Finally, I met a very friendly and kind Nama-speaking Bushman in Minnesota once, and that further piqued my curiosity about his home culture.

This book is truly a rich, firsthand resource on what traditional Bushman life was like in the 1950s. The Bushmen may be praised for their cleverness at being able to live in a land with very little visible water; but in this book you will learn that in fact many Bushmen died of thirst and hunger, not to mention disease, when times were unusually hard.

One half of the book is dedicated to each of two Bushman groups with whom the author and her family stayed for extended periods, the Gikwe, and the !Kung, of "The Gods Must Be Crazy" fame. It was fascinating to read about how they courted, married, divorced, gave birth, chose names, cared for children and the aged, went through puberty, gathered and hunted, interacted with animals, told stories, died, and dealt with the spirits of the dead. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of Bushman music, e.g. singing accompanied by playing on the stringed guashi, the bow, and the te k'na (mbira/kalimba/thumb piano), and the ritual dancing that sometimes went with it. Thomas states that music is by far the strongest of the Bushman arts.

Mentions of some of the effects of intruding white people on the Bushmen's lives may give you pause. The Bushmen treated their white visitors with great openness and kindness.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust) on March 18, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Folks who spend their lives staring at computer screens in vast corporate cubicle farms have a powerful tendency to drift off into vivid daydreams of gathering nuts, roots, and melons in wild country, with their hunter-gatherer ancestors, in a world without roads, cities, or alphabets. For them, there is treasure to be found in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' book, The Harmless People. It's a beautiful book.

Elizabeth was 19 when she first met the Bushmen of southern Africa. Her parents led three expeditions between 1950 and 1956 to study and film these people, who were among the last surviving hunter-gatherer societies in the world. The family spent a lot of time living in Bushmen camps, learned their language, and really got to know them. Elizabeth's book is a respectful and affectionate diary of her experiences with these people, and it is easy and enjoyable to read.

The first expedition searched for several months before finding Bushmen, because Bushmen disappeared whenever they saw outsiders, who were a dependable source of trouble. Black and white outsiders frequently kidnapped them, and forced them to spend the rest of their days as farm laborers. They never returned home. Police would arrest them if they killed a giraffe in the desert, because giraffes were royal animals protected by the law. Arrested hunters were hauled away, and never seen again. The Thomas expedition eventually gained their trust because they developed a reputation for being very generous with their gifts, and for being unusually decent white folks.

Long ago, Bushmen lived across much of southern Africa. But black and white farmers and herders aggressively seized the best lands, forcing the Bushmen into the Kalahari Desert, an exceedingly difficult place to live.
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