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Dim Beginnings

Since ancient times, historians and chroniclers have cited reports of travelers about people beyond the edge of civilization, usually to underscore their own superiority. But with the first colonial encounters in the New World, philosophic attempts by Europeans to find lessons in “savage” societies became more insistent. Montaigne, in 1580, held up Brazilian cannibals as a mirror to civilization and found much to admire:

There is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon—unheard of.


They still enjoy that natural abundance that provides them without toil and trouble…all necessary things…. They are still in that happy state of desiring only as much as their natural needs demand; anything beyond that is superfluous to them.

Even their warfare was “wholly noble and generous.”1 Although some of these claims in fact describe true features of the hunting-and-gathering way of life—magistrates and agriculture arose when they became both possible and necessary—others (no occupations but leisure; no dissimulation or envy) are as fanciful as fairy tales.

In the middle of the next century, Thomas Hobbes, with a different philosophic aim in mind, likened the state of nature to a time of war,

wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.2

Here too, we have partial truths, and some of the same ones; certainly (and impressively) hunter-gatherers had nothing to rely on but “what their own strength and their own invention” furnished them. But we now know that the last part of this quote is false. Montaigne, a critic of his own society, conceived of a superior state of nature; Hobbes, against the background of the English civil war, wanted one that justified authoritarian solutions. Both offered implausible descriptions.

They did, however, express the need for stories about human origins. Today we have a different kind of story, the one being literally pieced together by scientists who hunt fossils. Reconstructing early humans physically is harder than finding their fossil remains, and hardest of all is imagining them as living people who hunger, thirst, lust, rage, fear, and love. But for this neither Montaigne’s Edenic cannibals poised to fall from grace into civilization nor Hobbes’s perpetual state of war is any real help.

Cultural anthropologists of the nineteenth century thought they could shed light on origins by situating the nonindustrial cultures they studied along a historical time line, in which bands, tribes, chiefdoms, kingdoms, empires, and industrial states followed each other in more or less orderly progression. One such scheme, put forward by Marx and Engels, entailed a succession of revolutions and predicted a future that would recapture the advantages of the original bands we arose from—a quite mistaken forecast that had a part in shaping our last century.

But by the time the first Marxist society was born, social and cultural anthropologists had abandoned the quest for an evolutionary sequence of human societies. These schemes had proved far too comforting to ethnocentric European designs; worse, they obscured the fact that every culture, however simple it might seem, deserves to be understood on its own terms and as the product of many thousands of years of history. The schemes claiming to show the evolution of human societies encouraged the racism that their orderly successions implied; either the remaining primitives had to be civilized or they had to be replaced.

Against these tendencies cultural anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Franz Boas defended what was then called cultural relativism—not the same as ethical relativism, but rather the notion that we should try to comprehend people before judging them. This idea is unquestionably anthropology’s greatest contribution to human discourse and anthropologists acted on it, bringing back not travelers’ tales but scientific and scholarly accounts that have documented the immense and creative variety of different cultures. Their accounts have done much not only to combat ethnocentrism and its consequences but to call into question Western convictions about sex roles, the raising of children, and many other social arrangements.

Anthropologists concerned with biological evolution still had to reconstruct what early people were like physically and in much of their behavior, and in the late twentieth century two new approaches arose. One was behavioral primatology—the study of our nearest nonhuman relatives, especially in the wild. Some study monkeys and apes for their own sake, or to test broad evolutionary theories, but others have aimed in their studies of them to shed light on earlier phases of protohuman evolution. The field is thriving, and twenty-first-century studies of genomes will aid the effort greatly by comparing the genetics of brain function of human and nonhuman primates. The other approach has been to study today’s hunter-gatherers in the hopes of learning something about our ancestors who were hunter-gatherers for two to four million years. This was more controversial. Some cultural anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz and Edmund Leach, saw such studies as a regression to a simplistic view of hunter-gatherer societies; late-twentieth-century notions of early social evolution could prove just as questionable as the late-nineteenth-century ones and for much the same reasons.

But a century makes a difference. First, no anthropologists were suggesting that living hunter-gatherers differed in basic biological or cognitive functioning from other human beings; they were of interest partly because they still sustained themselves in much the same way as the first modern humans had. Regarding earlier phases of human evolution, the reasons for studying them would be even more indirect, and not at all biological; rather, their relevance would come from observing certain inevitable constraints, for example the need to move with game or with the availability of water or plant foods. This in turn made it almost impossible to accumulate possessions. But any inferences from such observations of living hunter-gatherers would be informed by the constantly accumulating facts of paleontology and archaeology before a picture of the distant past could be constructed.

Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore saw the value of this approach and in the 1960s organized a conference on “Man the Hunter” that brought many archaeologists and fossil hunters into contact with cultural anthropologists who had studied hunter-gatherers. The conference, and the book by the same name that emerged from it,3 clarified much about the hunter-gatherers’ life, but also put forward what some saw as facile assumptions about male dominance. The collection called Woman the Gatherer,4 one among many needed correctives, was issued by a different group some years later, but even Man the Hunter was clear about women’s roles: these were the most egalitarian of societies, gender equality included, probably because women found and provided some 70 percent of the food.

Other correctives to stereotyped ideas of hunter-gatherers included archaeological evidence of their opportunities, in some times and places, to draw on much richer supplies of food and other resources and therefore to achieve a denser population than had been found among any recent hunter-gatherers. To take another example, it now appears that our ancestors scavenged—stole carcasses from lions, leopards, and other predators, as hyenas or vultures do—much more than we used to think. Still, the four decades since that dubiously named meeting have produced intense investigations of the last few remaining hunter-gatherer groups. The studies have tended to be more quantitative than conventional ethnographies and to use a team approach rather than the old model of a lone ethnographer with her people. Cautiously, circumspectly, with countless qualifications, these studies have indeed shed some dim light on human evolution.

But some investigators of hunter-gatherer life were there long before this new movement started. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the author of The Old Way, is an exceedingly gifted writer from a family of extraordinary people. Her father Laurence was a cofounder and president of Raytheon Corporation, her mother Lorna an exacting and skilled ethnographer, and her brother John was one of the greatest ethnographic filmmakers. Lorna Marshall’s two books, !Kung of Nyae Nyae (1976) and Nyae Nyae !Kung: Beliefs and Rites (1999, as she passed her one hundredth birthday), and numerous scholarly articles have permanent value to all who care about the variety of human cultures; they are clear, thorough descriptions of all aspects of a single culture, that of the !Kung or Zhun/twasi5 of Namibia—commonly known as Bushmen. Her writings are among the classics of twentieth-century ethnography.

But she did not get there by anything like the conventional route. She was not trained in anthropology (although carefully self-taught) and began with little or no institutional connection. After Laurence retired, the couple became explorers, and in 1950 went looking for the Bushmen of what was then Southwest Africa. Fortunately for anthropology, they took their teenagers—Elizabeth, nineteen, and John, eighteen—along with them. All four displayed exceptional courage in their forays into the bush over a period of years, braving not only the elements and predators but the then-unpredictable behavior of both indigenous Africans and those who systematically abused and exploited them. They were not the first whites to explore that region, but for all the impact Western culture had made there they might as well have been. And they were almost certainly the first whites to visit the Bushmen with only good intentions.

Lorna made ethnographic studies, John made films—each a work of exceptional authenticity and clarity—and Elizabeth observed the bush world and its people with a remarkable sensibility:

It was very cold last night. The south wind blew from the Antarctic all night long, sweeping the haze out of the sky, leaving the brilliant, hard, white moon. We moved on shortly after dawn, through this gorgeous dry rolling veld, by little forests, over outcrops of rock. We went through valleys and burned areas, and over plains so long you could see the trees in the haze miles away, like a distant shore, until we came to a dry pan where we hoped to find people…. A little way into the veld, which here is yellow pinkish grass like old bloodstains, we found high spring bushes with karu vines on them…. And we found a tree full of weaverbirds’ nests swinging in the wind but all empty, and we found a shoulder blade, all white, bleached and dry, of some large antelope. We even saw a little round mouse nest, also empty, hanging from the branch of a thornbush. We walked farther but found no signs of people….

  1. 1

    The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), pp. 153, 156.

  2. 2

    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 13, paragraph 9.

  3. 3

    Man the Hunter, edited by Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore (Aldine, 1968).

  4. 4

    Woman the Gatherer, edited by Frances Dahlberg (Yale University Press, 1981).

  5. 5

    Thomas renders this “Ju/wasi.” The slash represents an implosive consonant or click (dental in this case). In my spelling skipping the click yields a close to correct sounding. Thomas glosses the name as “harmless people” or “just people,” but “real people” or “true people” are at least as correct. “!Kung” appears more commonly in the literature, and can also be pronounced without the (palatal) click.

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