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The Old Way

A Story of the First People

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas


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ISBN10: 031242728X
ISBN13: 9780312427283

Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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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 fifteen thousand centuries. Thomas wound up writing about their world in a seminal work, The Harmless People.

The history of mankind that most of us know is only the tip of the iceberg, a brief stint compared to fifteen thousand centuries of life as roving clans that seldom settled down adapted every day to changes in environment and food supply, and lived for the most part like the animal ancestors from which they evolved. Those origins are not so easily abandoned, Thomas suggests, and our wired, documented, and market-driven society has plenty to learn from the Bushmen of the Kalahari about human evolution.

As she displayed in The Hidden Life of Dogs, Thomas helps us see the path that we have taken in our human journey. In The Old Way, she shows how the skills and customs of the hunter-gatherer share much in common with the survival tactics of our animal predecessors. And since it is "knowledge, not objects, that endure" over time, Thomas brings us to see how linked we are to our origins in the animal kingdom.


Praise for The Old Way

"Heartbreaking and gorgeously observed . . . The Old Way is not only a timely work, but also a timeless one—a last look back before we decide how to go forward."—Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times Book Review

"It is fascinating to see how Thomas has honed her observational powers over the year . . . and how her notion of 'culture' has broadened."—Los Angeles Times

"With a perspective honed over the intervening 50-odd years . . . Thomas captures the fascinating customs of a people that had no future as a tribe."—The Daily News

"A fascinating and rewarding read . . . Marshall proves again and again the full humanity and astonishing sophistication of a people so 'primitive' that she offers them as a link to our earliest Paleolithic forebears, the first humans."—Chauncey Mabe, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Part memoir, part anthropological study, part skewering of the forces of modernity that have destroyed a way of life that was not just ancient and extraordinary, but full of clues about how we came to be who we are today . . .Thomas has produced a magnificent elegy to a way of life that has only recently passed us by . . . Her book provides us with a cultural artifact of the rarest kind—a first-hand account of a way of life usually only guessed at by experts poring over bones and fossils in the dirt."—Austin Merrill, The News and Observer (Raleigh)

"In The Old Way, Thomas has produced a magnificent elegy to a way of life that has only recently passed us by . . . She sprinkles her text with lessons on evolution, sociology, biology, and history. Whether describing the grass half-dome shelters the Bushmen lived in, analyzing their concept of land ownership or custom of gift giving, or recounting the care taken when living among dangerous wildlife, Thomas' style manages to be understated and vivid all at once. Her book provides us with a cultural artifact of the rarest kind: a firsthand account of a way of life usually only guessed at by experts poring over bones and fossils found in the dirt."—Austin Merrill, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"As she displayed in her bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs, Thomas has a rare gift for giving voice to the voices we don't usually listen to, and helps us see the path that we have taken in our human journey . . . The Old Way is a rare and remarkable achievement, sure to stir up controversy, and worthy of celebration."Science Daily

"Throughout the book Thomas evocatively imagines the ancient lives based on what she witnessed during the twilight of one of the last hunter-gatherer societies . . . The Old Way reveals how an indigenous people and an American family were able to transcend their tremendous cultural divide and find common ground."—The Explores Journal

"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

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction--among them The Hidden Life of Dogs, The Harmless People, Reindeer Moon, and The Animal Wife. She has written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The Atlantic. She lives in New Hampshire.

Ramsay Thomas