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The Old Way: A Story of the First People

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  396 ratings  ·  58 reviews
One of our most influential anthropologists reevaluates her long and illustrious career by returning to her roots--and the roots of life as we know it.
When Elizabeth Marshall Thomas first arrived in Africa to live among the Kalahari San, or bushmen, it was 1950, she was nineteen years old, and these last surviving hunter-gatherers were living as humans had lived for 15,000
Hardcover, 343 pages
Published October 17th 2006 by Farrar Straus Giroux (first published January 1st 2006)
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Peter Tillman
As always, please read the publisher's introduction (above) first, for context.

I didn't at all care for the speculative anthropology that opens the book (see Max Carmichael's review, The author’s personal observations are the meat of the book, and some are extraordinary. For instance, I invite you to jump to her description of Kalahari lions and other dangerous predators (p. 150). The most memorable part of her wonderful book “The Tribe of Tiger: Cats a
Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.)
The Old Way: A Story of the First People is an absolutely fascinating account of the !Kung, or Ju/wasi ("The People"), people of the Kalahari Desert region of southwestern Africa. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote this book in 2006, based upon the many years that she and her family spent with these amazing people starting in the early 1950s. In fact, Thomas's mother ended up publishing several anthropological monographs through Harvard University describing the !Kung hunter-gatherer lifestyle in t ...more
Sep 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is the best report on a hunting-gathering people I have ever seen: first-hand, comprehensive, detailed, with very convincing interpretations. Not only it enlightens me about these bush people, but also on many animals. The report follows up and summarizes their changing living conditions from stone to computer ages in about half a century. It is based on the work of two generations of the author's family living with the tribe for most of their years during that time. Now I have some fair im ...more
Aleksandar Totic
Apr 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I am curious about what makes us tick. The genes that evolved on the African savannah are used to explain our behavior: mating, agression, diet. "What would caveman do?", I ask myself as I deal with the wild bunch that are my children. I've always suspected that the club-wielding, meat chowin' caricature was not quite right.

The Old Way is an eyewitness account of what the savannah world was really like. Ms. Thomas was lucky to live with the last generation of Bushmen that lived the hunter-gather
Nancy McKinley
Apr 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Interesting...but told me a bit more than I wanted to know, which is usually a good thing but not so much this time...however, the saving grace of this book was how it showcased a snapshot in time of a people of extremes who lived the way of our ancestors. Historically tribal fun!
Max Carmichael
Feb 15, 2014 rated it liked it
After opening with unnecessary and dubious evolutionary abstractions and generalizations, Marshall settles into her personal, concrete narrative of Bushman life, which makes this worth reading as she updates and expands on the observations of her youth.

The saga of these resourceful and socially robust people shows, by contrast, what a false view we technologically advanced people have of our own societies, and how much we could learn from them if we recognized how dysfunctional and destructive o
Jul 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
'The Old Way' describes a hunter-gatherer's life from the most ancient of times until the very recent past.
Apr 19, 2007 rated it it was ok
Ultimately, the book appeals to the emotions rather than the intellect (but perhaps rightfully so). It is not a serious anthropological study by any means. Certain facts offered in the text could be disputed, her frequent analogies range from unneccesary to utterly ridiculous, and her attempts at providing evolutionary explanations for the long-enduring behaviors exhibited by Ju/wasi--and the rest of humanity--are amateur at best. Rather, its value lies in in the unique insight it provides as a ...more
Mar 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Old Way, was a sad book because from the beginning one knows how it will end. The same way it has ended for all such peoples that come in contact with the “White Man’s Way”, whether from the desert or the rain forest, the South Sea tropics or the arctic. I spent two years in the Canadian Arctic in the early 1970s and the Inuit people were much like the Bushmen, having been “civilized” beginning about the same time (1950s).

Why is this so inevitable? It is not that they cannot adapt. We don’t
Marek Ondrejka
Jul 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas was indeed lucky person to live with one of the last remaining population of Bushman tribes (called Ju/wasi) in Kalahari desert in 1950, truly palaeolithic people living in the ecological niche that most of our ancestors were occupying for hundreds of thousands years. She calls it the Old Way and this book represents a fascinating account of their culture, hunter-gatherer subsistence and way of life. She claims that there are no more Bushmen in Africa living in the wild ...more
Veg E.
Feb 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
AMAZING. This is an essential read! Deeply inspiring with its report of how the two groups of Bushmen lived, it has an update on contemporary conditions which are an unintentional indictment of civilization's corrosive effects.

Through her time having personal experience with the Ju/wasi and /Gwi, as well as her subsequent research and learning, and a few return visits to the people of the Kalahari, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reports factually, with only the slightest bit of opinionated interpreta
Forrest Crock
Jun 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book as it is a personal account of the authors experiences with probably the oldest culture on earth, before they were severely changed by the influence of younger cultures. They had been influenced some in the beginning when she and her family set out to be with the Bushmen, but they still were living the culture their ancestors had lived, albeit with a few items they may have not had in the past. The book delves inti various different parts of the Bushmens culture and I ...more
Mark Wilson
Fascinating but slow read

The Old Way is an excellent view of the world of the First People, how they lived for so many previous millennia, and what has happened to them in this one. Sometimes beautifully written, always wonderfully observed, it yet suffers from repetition, and the unavoidable lack of a normal narrative line for most of the book. These are people who survived by changing as little as possible, not constantly striving toward some far-off goal in the way we come to expect in histor
Sara Gray
Jul 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a wondrous, dryly funny, and heartfelt story about an ancient people and their vanished way of life. The first half, about the hunter-gatherer culture of the Ju/wasi in the 50s, is of course the most fascinating because it plays into the "lost Eden" myth of our ancestors, while the second half details the more current plight of the Ju/wasi. I'm very glad Marshall spoke about how the projected "myth" (such as that seen in The God's Must Be Crazy) brought about so much trouble for these p ...more
Laurie McKay
Feb 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
I found the beginning of this book not to my liking. After the first 50 pages or so, the story of the Old Way began in earnest. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ descriptions made me mourn for these people and their culture.
Zimran Ahmed
Feb 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
So interesting. The writing is so so, and the sections of memoir weren't that interesting to me, but how life actually worked on the veld is fascinating and Thomas has such warmth.
Eileen Teska
Sep 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very enlightening. The ancestors of these people have been proven genetically to be the ancestors of all modern humans.
Kim Zinkowski
Nov 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
B+. A very good study.
Clayton Brannon
Jan 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent book about hunter gathers. A culture and people lost for all time by the looks of things. At times this is an especially sad book of the demise of a wonderful harmonious people.
Thomas Fackler
Sep 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Insight into the changing Earth.
Aug 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: anthropology
In 1950, retired president of Raytheon went to the Kalahari desert in the northeast part of South-West Africa (now Namibia) with his wife and teenage children: the author, aged 19, and her brother. They befriended the local Ju|'hoansi (the | is a dental click, as in the English "tsk tsk") Bushman hunters-gatherers, lived with them for many years, learned their language, and produced the first ethnographic studies of them. The first part of the book is a general description of the Ju|'hoansi in t ...more
Erin Moore
Jan 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This amazing, enlightening, and compassionate book is all of the following:

A true story of people who are living “Paleo” – caring for their children with utmost compassion, living entirely off of the land (Locally harvested! Organic! Paleo!), and breast-feeding for way longer than most Westerners are comfortable with (to the benefit of their children, both emotionally and physically).

A narrative of what happens to a people when they are “modernized” in a rapid time-period, with all of its cauti
Jan 29, 2009 rated it liked it
This book had a lot to say. Some of it moved rather slow. What did I come away with after I read this book? Well, Western world is at it again, thinking they know what is best for the world. The OLd Way speaks of how things were with the Ju/wasi, way back in time, before the Western World decided that the Bushman knew nothing of the world. It only took a little over fifty years for the Western world to tear down the ways of the Ju/wasi and render them homeless and unable to provide for themselve ...more
Aug 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
In the 1950s, the author's family trekked into the Kalahari to live with the San people. Fascinating account of their visit and the San's hunting/gathering way of life and gentle culture. The end of the book tells the sad story of forced changes and dislocation from their land in the years since. I'm not sure I can accept the author's thesis that the San's culture is "the Old Way", handed down from humans' earliest ancestors unchanged at the time of their visit; but that in no way reduces the in ...more
Nov 20, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: anthropolgy
I am enjoying the writing of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, as insightful, good writing, and often humorous. In this book, she tells the story of how at the age of 19, her family went to live in the Kalahari, with the Bushmen. They were observers; they didn't exactly share the life, but they did live side by side. She goes through different categories as she shows what their lives were like and their values, such as gender roles. She contends that these are the original people on the planet; these a ...more
Feb 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Bushmen, change for own sake is risky change only as needed, overexposed academia mad at scene not of their belief, 233 species of primates, grass fires for fresh grass and attract prey, poison on skin leaves odor, leopard and hyena green eyes, 20mile lion roar, mask with eyes on back, men fragile women stronger with menstruation which together with breast feeding till 4 served as natural birth control, absence of homosexuality, 9% divorces, infant diarrhea common, walk 1500 miles/year, both sex ...more
Jul 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: namibia
This is a GREAT book - found a reference to it while looking for books about Namibia/Botswana. The author came to this area with her parents and brother in 1950 as a college student. While her parents and brother maintained a lifelong relationship with the Bushmen/First People for life, her visits were less frequent. The family lived with these hunter-gatherers (making every effort possible - including eating only their own food to not make an impact on their efforts to gather food) for years; M ...more
Jurij Fedorov
Great and easy read book about anthropology. If you have not read it and plan to read more than 100 books in your life this is a must read.

Pro: Easy to read and very interesting. This a great book to start of with if you want to know how all humanity used to live.

Con: After having read a lot of others anthropology books I can much clear see the mistakes in this book. Even though the !Kung are presented in a fair way and everything is correct it does leave violent parts out of the book, or fighti
Feb 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
As my interests tend to travel in clusters, I picked this up right after I read the article about the Hadza hunter-gatherer tribe of Tanzania in the Dec 2009 issue of National Geographic.

The book was a slow start for me, but overall I would say that it was a fascinating read, even if I wouldn't call it a page-turner. The chapters about the fate of the Kalahari Bushmen in modern times (similar to the Hadza article) were not as interesting to me either ) but I understand the author's intention of
AJ Payne
Aug 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
I picked up this one because I wanted to learn a bit more about Namibian peoples, and because I like cultural anthropology. No better family to learn that from than the Marshall family who spent decades studying and working with the Ju/wasi people of northeastern Namibia. The book was fascinating, and I loved reading it. I wasn’t completely into the insistence of comparing the studied population to how humans always lived throughout history though, since I’m not sure I entirely believe it – peop ...more
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Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is the author of The Harmless People, a non fiction work about the Kung Bushmen of southwestern Africa, and of Reindeer Moon, a novel about the paleolithic hunter gatherers of Siberia, both of which were tremendous international successes. She lives in New Hampshire.

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“We had lived in savannah for a million years. During that time the world got warm again and wetter, and some of the rain forest returned. But for us it was too late. By then we knew how to live only on the savannah.
We could still climb trees, but we did not go back.”
“Then, too, the Ju/wa men had an inherent, almost natural bravery that everyone took entirely for granted. They hunted the world’s most dangerous game with quarter-ounce arrows, they stood off lions and dealt with strangers, all without a shred of the bravado or machismo that so characterizes the men of other societies, including ours. The Ju/wa men simply did what men do without making anything of it, and didn't even think of themselves as brave.” 0 likes
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