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The Old Way: A Story of the First People Hardcover – October 17, 2006

4.8 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1950, Thomas (The Hidden Life of Dogs), at 19, joined her civil engineer father, her ballerina mother (who would become a celebrated anthropologist) and her brother on a life-changing expedition into southwest Africa's Kalahari Desert to live among the Ju/wasi Bushmen. Less a rigorous anthropological study than a loving, nostalgic ode to a self-sustaining culture of hunter-gatherers, this book recounts their now extinct way of life. The Ju/wasi used ostrich eggs to hold more than a day's water supply to expand their foraging range, and burned dry grass to encourage the growth of green grass, thus attracting large antelopes and other prey. The Ju/wasi allowed polygamy and divorce, welcomed baby girls as much as baby boys and treated children with unfailing kindness, but practiced infanticide on children born to nursing mothers because, with their low-fat diet, they could produce enough milk for only one child. In recent decades, the Bushmen have been removed from their land and their way of life has been obliterated by modernity, racism, poverty, alcoholism and AIDS. Thomas offers readers a glimpse of how our prehistoric ancestors undoubtedly lived, worked, loved and played. Photos from the Marshall family album freeze the Ju/wasi in the happy 1950s. (Oct.)
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Review

"In 1950, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ father, the retired president of Raytheon, together with his wife, a former English teacher, and their two teenage children went out to live among some of the last people in the world still living as nomadic hunter-gatherers. It would be a coming of age like no other, with stunning and unforeseen rewards for the field of Anthropology. Her mother, Lorne Marshall, would write The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, one of the great ethnographies of all time; her brother John made a series of films culminating (just before he died) in the epic Kalahari Family, chronicling the fate of the !Kung through early contacts and discovery of their remarkable way of life, to their tragic displacement from the lands that had sustained them for so many thousands of year. Elizabeth herself, an extraordinarily gifted writer went on to write a number of best-selling books. Now, half a century later, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas returns to those early experiences and re-examines what she learned from the people, places, animals and lifeways encountered in the Kalahari long ago. The result is a brilliantly conceived, wise and hauntingly vivid, portrait of the natural and social worlds inhabited by people living much as our earliest human ancestors must have. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ finest book to date, The Old Way, is a deeply felt, deeply observed masterpiece that transforms the way we look at our own world."  --Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection

"This is the owner's manual we need for humankind. THE OLD WAY gives us critical insight into our past at a turning point in human history by one of the few people who has seen our kind living as we have lived for most of our species' existence. This will be one of the most important books of the millennium."
--Sy Montgomery, author of The Snake Scientist and The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans
 
Praise for The Harmless People:

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

“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

Praise for The Hidden Life of Dogs:

"Popular science of the highest order: revelatory, impeccably observed, and a joy to read. A four-woof salute to Thomas and a vigorous tail-wag to boot." —Kirkus Reviews
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374225524
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374225520
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #966,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on February 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
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.
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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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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