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The Harmless People

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  387 ratings  ·  47 reviews
A study of primitive people which, for beauty 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 fo
Paperback, 336 pages
Published October 23rd 1989 by Vintage (first published January 1st 1959)
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Max Carmichael
Feb 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
Anecdotal and empathic and likely more reliable, and certainly more readable, than most formal ethnography, this wonderful memoir builds modestly, non-judgmentally, and gradually to its lyrical, dreamlike final scene, a description of an all-night dance.

One of the great benefits of a story like this is that it reveals the continuum connecting us with our other animal partners. Not that the Bushmen are more like animals than us civilized people, but that we're all animals together in this ecosyst
Jeanette (Again)
A very accessible ethnography for those of us with no background in the field. In the 1950s, Elizabeth spent long periods of time living with the Bushmen of the Kalahari and developed a deep love for them, and they for her. She presents them here as real people, and she made me care about them as individuals rather than just subjects of study.
Richard Reese
Mar 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 exp
Kate Savage
Jul 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'm not an expert in the unreliable narration of white anthropologists, but I know books like this should be approached with caution, skepticism, a hearty dose of anti-colonialist critique. Marshall Thomas is susceptible to racist concepts like 'primitive' and 'harmless' and 'simple,' susceptible to both romanticizing and unfairly condemning the Gikwe and Kung people she spends time with. But even wading through that confusing soup, there's still something certain about the power and beauty of t ...more
Oct 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I am, at heart, the daughter of a student of anthropology, and I myself took a minor in linguistics in college. So when I saw this book on Goodreads, I knew I would be fascinated by it, and that was definitely true.

Thomas traveled with her family to what is now Botswana and Namibia in the 1950s to live with and learn from the Bushman people, a group of hunter-gatherers whose language features linguistic clicks. This book is the result of those expeditions, and from another made in the late 1980s
Aug 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
This one starts off slowly, but really does a good job of painting a realistic picture a) of how the Bushmen of the Kalahari live and b) of how European and American people viewed them at the time of the Author's experience, circa 1958.

While she's obviously very forward-thinking for her time, there is a hint of patronism in the text, the same kind of patronism a lot of rich liberals get when discussing those poor, uneducated people. Like, "if only they knew how, they'd be more like us."

Jun 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Part memoir part ethnography, this is not an academic anthropology book, and I’ve been enjoying it more because of that.

Academic anthropology books tell you about norms. You come out with a good idea of the average person’s average life. This gives an impression of a sea of people peacefully moving through a pre-ordained pattern with minimal friction.

This book defines the average by describing the outliers: the man who never became a hunter. The girl who refused to get married. The crippled boy
Jan 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Debbie
Recommended to Valerie by: circumstance
As well as being an amazing folklorist/fantasy writer, Thomas's book on the San is one of the best I've ever read about the Kalahari and its life and people. I think I bought this one in South Africa or Zimbabwe. When I flipped through it I found a postcard I'd started to Debbie and never finished.
Jul 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
An engrossing and beautifully written small book about the Bushmen (now called the San people) of the Kalahari Dessert and other areas. Mrs. Thomas has a poet's soul, and her portrayl of these gentle souls in their native soil moved me. The book was first written around 1955 and has been updated to illustrate how the Bushmen fare today.
The Harmless People written in 1958, was very inspirational. Imagine being dropped in the desert without water or food, and surviving. Not possible you say? Well just read this classic and you too will find the secrets that include such strategies as "drinking an animal's blood" for moisture/water.

The HP are also called the Bushmen. The author never changes this "plural" word (bushmen) to singular, even when it is only one Bushmen.

Here are some cool phrases:
1. Great carcasses of fallen trees
Clayton Brannon
Dec 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I have ever read. Fascinating look at a life style that no longer exist but one that all of ancestors came from. A detailed look at the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari. Sad to say the now extinct life of a peoples that were harmed beyond measure by modern civilization.
Karen Chung
Aug 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Reposting my July 13, 2007 Amazon review of this book:

A firsthand, close-up view of a little-known and little-understood people

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 Afr
Mar 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
The author's family of anthropologists lived with the "Bushmen" of the Kalahari in the mid 1950's. An added chapter at the end tells of changes when she returned in the 1980's. She is observant and writes beautifully. Although young at the time, she is clearly well trained in her observations. She does not romanticize the hard life in the desert (including stories of people dying of hunger or thirst and a great hunter crippled by a snake bite) but one must respect the amazing skills of the peopl ...more
Lisa Kilgore
Apr 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
Excellent autobiographical account of the author's time spent living with the hunter/gatherer tribe of the African desert, the people who were featured in the movie "The God's Must be Crazy" (which by the way, according to the author, was a very poor portrayal of these people).

This book held me in thrall because in no way, by no stretch of my imagination, could I ever have imagined the lifestyle these people have. It is barren, without houses or washing machines or e-readers or teapots...or shoe
May 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
Nonfiction. Excellent treatise on the bushmen of the Kalahari written in the 1950s. Where they are and how they are now in 2013 i do not know, but i am certain their lives have changed since the book was written. Maybe some good, some bad now. Then: Yaws. Women leaned over while standing to piss while men squatted. It was their law. Seeing the universe differently from this oppressive dominant culture, part of which you are reading this from, is neither wrong nor incorrect. They can survive and ...more
Jan 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
I had to read this book for a class, and I found it much more enjoyable than I expected. That is, I expected it to be good already, but I didn't expect for it to be so good and rich in detail. I especially liked that in her account of the Bushmen, Thomas mentioned the expedition crew as little as possible in order to really focus on them. And that's why it's so easy to become emotionally invested in these people to the extent that the epilogue (thirty years after the expedition) is much more hea ...more
Jan 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Written by an American woman who lived for several years among the Bushmen of southern Africa in the 1950s, this is an extremely fascinating look into a hunter/gatherer culture that existed for thousands of years but has since been destroyed by the encroaching world around them. I found myself charmed as I got to know these people through Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' eyes. The last chapter, written in 1987, is hard to read as it becomes clear that their way of life has disappeared forever. But my ...more
Sep 01, 2009 rated it it was ok
This was written in 1959, and I don't know if I should blame the era or anthropology for the condescending tone the author often takes on. She's constantly describing the Bushmen in terms of animals, especially the women. She also keeps reassuring the reader that she believes the Bushmen when they tell her something, rather than just relating what the Bushmen said. Since she was there living with them, I don't take issue when she talks about her experiences and opinions, as long as they are rese ...more
Alex Tank
Feb 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
beautiful narrative account of Bushmen groups in the Kalahari. Every scene is a mix of vivid and moving descriptions of the harsh environment and the both group and individual relationships to the environment. you can feel the pounding sun, the endless dust, and the starvation and thirst on every page. my favorite scenes described Bushman cultural technology, like poisoned arrows, multi day tracking expeditions, honey gathering, animal butchering, vine/tuber hunting. also interesting are the pra ...more
Aug 24, 2011 rated it liked it
In the 1950's, the author spent time among the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert and documents their way of life. It reminds me of many native people who know the seasons and climates, the edible plants, how to utilize every part of the animals around them, and how to survive in harsh environments. The epilogue was a sad reminder of the loss of culture, knowledge and community when isolated people are exposed to western culture and materialism.
Sep 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Read this for my anthropology class and actually really enjoyed it. I can't believe in the 1950's there were people that lived in remote areas not knowing about America. Bushmen are people of South Africa moving from place to place in the vast Kalahari desert. They move around so much because of scarce resources. They don't own much, live in scherms, use every part of their kill, and have radical ideas about God, but in their world - it all makes sense.
Oct 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I initially had to read this for an Anthropology class, but I read it again for pleasure a few years later. Still think it's great! It details the lives and beliefs of different Bushman tribes and I found it fascinating. I appreciate the account being given in the first person point of view (much more interesting than if it were a simple book of facts). Read if you love learning about different cultures and how these amazing people are able to keep alive with so little!
Jul 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
I've seen this book cited as an example of a society where there is no violence... having read the book, I want to clear up one thing: the title, "The Harmless People," comes not from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's evaluation of Bushman culture. Instead, it is the English translation for what the Bushman call themselves: I believe this is a very important distinction to make.
Joe Loyd
Jan 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: anthropology
Thomas recounts her experiences among Bushmen, largely before their culture was contaminated by Western materials and ways. Her descriptions of the Kalahari and its people are picturesque and refreshing. She compares the Bushmen culture with possible cultures of our ancient ancestors, who also lived in Africa 100,000 years ago. This book is a classic for both anthropology and literature.
Sharon Zink
Dec 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016
An ethnography about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Written about the author's travels among and living with those people along with her parents when she was 19 years old. At the end she so unemployed in the white man's world. Many of them are addicted to alcohol. They are no longer able to sustain their own lives. It sounds like the story of the Native Americans.
If you like anthropology you'll likely enjoy this book. I had to read it for a class, so that always sucks the fun out of things. It was good for what it was. It was pretty interesting to learn about a civilization completely different than my own.
Jan 12, 2011 rated it liked it
For a book I had to read for school, this was pretty interesting. Some parts were very detailed/graphic that it was hard to read, but this book wasn't about enjoyment but a true narrative of real people living in Southwest Africa.
Jan 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Yeah, this is not a book I would pick up on my own. I read it and wrote three papers with it in my Anthropology class. It really is a diary of visiting the Bushmen, but gives a lot of insight into how a vastly different culture operates.
BreAnna Hutchinson
Aug 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a very interesting look at a group of people who live so simple, yet complex lives. I enjoyed this comprehensive introduction to such a fascinating culture. Thomas' writing style is very easy to read; I love the way she is able to draw the reader into these people's lives.
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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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