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The Old Way: A Story of the First People Paperback – October 30, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. When Thomas was 19, her father, one of the founders of Raytheon, moved her family to Africa to live among the bushmen of the Kalahari. It's hard to imagine a teenager today who would not only give up the comforts of living in an industrialized nation like the United States but also utterly embrace and come to love a group of people who live without possessions or even permanent dwellings. Thomas sees the !Kung San as noble people, and her voice imparts the respect—almost awe—she feels in their presence. Her narration is as intimate as if she were sharing with friends her intricate knowledge of the plants and animals of the Kalahari. She speaks Ju/wasi, the click language, so she can easily explain much by using the group's own words. Thomas's voice is also wise and loving: she helps us see as these gentle people do and takes us with her through their endangered, fragile environment.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.


“Heartbreaking and gorgeously observed . . . The Old Way is not only a timely work, but also a timeless one.” ―Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times Book Review

“A work of impressive scholarship and, more important, a book that connects the dots linking us to the first stages of the human race. . . . Remarkable.” ―The Washington Post

“It is fascinating to see how Thomas has honed her observational powers over the years . . . and how her notion of 'culture' has broadened.” ―Los Angeles Times

“Thomas captures the fascinating customs of a people that had no future as a tribe.” ―The Daily News (New York)


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1st edition (October 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 031242728X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312427283
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #176,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

56 of 57 people found the following review helpful 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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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Balbach on January 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By David Thompson on January 11, 2007
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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