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The Old Way: A Story of the First People Paperback – October 30, 2007
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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 Audible Audio Edition 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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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. It's also a thoughtful reflection on how the Old Way shaped our species from the time we came down out of the trees and stepped on to the Savannah.
Water, says Thomas, controlled the size of human hunter-gatherer groups, and that remained true among the Ju/wasi. Rain was scarce, and water holes passed down through families. Though children were betrothed young, they did not cohabit until the girl reached menarche - about age 17 - and the average age for bearing a first child was 19.
Similarly, though no birth control was used, women bore children about four years apart and seldom had more than four. This was just what could be sustained, without starvation or overburdening the mother or group.
Alliances were complex, all going to foster the strength of the group. Survival depended on group cohesion and the force of their culture went into strengthening those bonds, subsuming, smothering, the desires of the individual.
The sharing of food, for instance, had little to do with who actually killed or gathered the food and the complex system was worked out before the gathering or hunting trip began. Periodic dances also reinforced ties and helped to dispel repressed tensions.
Repression was the usual means of maintaining harmony. Temper tantrums, even among children, were frowned upon - for one thing childish noise could attract predators. Arguments flared, of course, but were almost always settled without violence.
War, to the Ju/wasi, was unknown. Not because they were right thinking pacifists, but because they had developed the perfect weapon to make war - or murder - unthinkable.
The Ju/wasi had only one real weapon - the poisoned arrow. It was all they used to hunt (though they finished off game with a spear). The poison was invariably fatal. A man who settled an argument with a stab from an arrow couldn't take it back - but he would have days to watch his victim die. And the victim, facing certain death, would be perfectly healthy for a day or more and quite capable of wreaking revenge.
The lack of suitable weapons, and even more, the lack of any kind of shield, convince Thomas the Ju/wasi have never known war. She makes a convincing case.
By the 1980s, however, the Ju/wasi were being forced into villages. Many of those Marshall knew as children are now dead - killed in fights, often fueled with drink. Today, alcohol and violence have decimated the Ju/wasi.
While the book's conclusion is wrenching, most of it is a celebration of their intricate culture. Marshall captures the imagination with anecdotes - many from her old journals - that illustrate the matter-of-fact resourcefulness of a people who know the intricacies of all the plants and animals of their desert home.
Some of her anecdotes simply demonstrate the odd commonalities of humanity: "Although I will eventually learn enough !Kung to stumble along in the language...at this point I am at the stage where the Ju/wasi either address me in baby talk or raised voices, or both."
She describes gathering trips that take all day, but don't get going until mid-morning, baffling her own Yankee work ethic. Until she realizes the wisdom of waiting until lions and other nighttime predators are well and truly asleep.
The lion stories are horrifically thrilling. She describes a lioness coming to the edge of their small encampment and roaring threateningly: "The roar was so deep and so loud that it had no direction. It seemed to be coming from anywhere, everywhere." Yet, scary as they were, the lions never hunted or preyed upon the Bushmen.
Marshall does not try to provide answers for all her questions. Some things are "unknowable." This eloquent, passionate book does foster a sense of wonder at our own evolution. Though we've traded much of our intimacy with the earth for modern civilization, Marshall shows how many traces of the Old Way linger on in our blood.
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.
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.