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The Old Way’

In response to:

Dim Beginnings from the March 1, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In the March 1 issue, Melvin Konner reviewed my book The Old Way: A Story of the First People. I didn’t need to read his review to know what tone he would take. My family has known Mel Konner for a long time, ever since we met him in the 1960s when he was one of several young anthropologists calling themselves the Harvard Group. They were preparing to visit Ju/wa Bushmen in Botswana, and they came to my mother for advice because our family had worked among Ju/wa people in Namibia, and she had published ethnographic papers about them.

She helped the young anthropologists in every way she could, serving them meals, talking with them for hours, and sharing every scrap of our collective information. They returned from Botswana with findings that were somewhat different from ours. We weren’t surprised—they worked in Botswana mainly in the 1970s, and we had worked in Namibia mainly in the 1950s. I would think that any differences would be informative, if only to show how fast a culture can change. Thanks to incursions of the outside world that began in the 1960s, for instance, the entire Ju/wa population lost their former lifestyle, so that by the 1980s the Old Way for our species had come to an end. But the young anthropologists assumed that we had been misled or were mistaken, and attacked our work.

That was almost forty years ago. Because few other Americans were involved with the Ju/wasi, our relationships soon improved, at least on the surface. But the moment I saw Konner as the reviewer, I knew we were back where we started. I measured the length of his review—141 inches or 11 3/4 feet in all—and saw he was averaging four attacks per foot of column. And in the barrage, I’d say only one criticism had substance. Even then he distorted what I’d said. But assaults and distortions reveal nothing about a book, mine or anyone else’s. If Konner was asked to tell readers what my book was about, he didn’t do what he was paid for.

The Old Way is about the Bushmen, the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, as my family found them in the 1950s, living entirely from the savannah in the unexplored wilderness of what is now Namibia. As archaeologists were later to discover, some of their campsites had been occupied continuously since the Paleolithic, with very little change in the material culture, suggesting extraordinary cultural stability as long as the Old Way pertained. Recent research with DNA has shown that Bushmen were the ancestors of us all, which is why they are called the First People, hence some of the things we noted in their culture were probably of considerable antiquity. For all that had been written about these people, much remained unsaid.

For instance, because most anthropologists focus on humanity, animals are often ignored. Very little has been written about human hunter-gatherers and their relationship to the ecosystem, especially the animals. Yet on the African savannah, the First People were also part of the ecosystem—in many places as the only primates—and thus were importantly involved with all the other forms of life. So The Old Way includes all the information I could gather about animals, from what it’s like to recognize the tracks of one kudu among the tracks of a herd, to what it’s like to look up and see a lion’s eyes shining in the firelight, or to the fact that the Bushmen and the large predators all relied on a small number of water sources, and except during the rains were forced to live in close proximity. But they managed to avoid each other by time-sharing. The people went foraging by day, and the predators mostly by night, each group remaining in its encampments while the other group was out and about. Thus, as best they could, they avoided conflict, which was to their advantage if all were to remain near water. The Old Way tells what it’s like to walk barefoot for six miles through the veld to a place where roots grow, spend the afternoon digging for them with a pointed stick, and walk back to an encampment carrying twenty pounds of roots, a big bundle of firewood, a four-year-old child, and a nursing baby. It tells what it’s like for ten or fifteen men, women, and children to travel forty or fifty miles in single file to a new source of water. It tells what it’s like to be a social outcast, fallen far behind the other travelers, alone on the infinite veld with night and the predators coming. It tells how, in part by avoiding conflict, the Ju/wasi maintained their social fabric so that this didn’t happen often. It tells how, in small, far-flung groups scattered over thousands of square miles of empty bushland, the people kept together and in touch with one another, supporting one another so that all might live.

We call these people hunter-gatherers because that was how they got their food. We call them Bushmen because they didn’t live in towns. We call them San as initiated by the Harvard Group following the lead of an earlier anthropologist who got the term from the Nama language in which san is pejorative. But the people call themselves Ju/wasi, which means pure or worthwhile or clear or harmless people, and refers to the way they relate to one another. We would say that /wa, however hard it may be to translate, refers to social excellence. To honor that is why I wrote The Old Way.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Peterborough, New Hampshire

Melvin Konner replies:

I am sorry that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas missed the praise I gave her work and that of her distinguished family. Among other things I said that Thomas “is an exceedingly gifted writer from a family of extraordinary people”; that they “were there long before [the] new movement started” and “all four displayed exceptional courage” in their pioneering explorations; that her mother was “an exacting and skilled ethnographer” whose writings are “among the classics of twentieth-century ethnography”; and that her brother John Marshall was “one of the greatest ethnographic filmmakers” whose every film is “a work of exceptional authenticity and clarity.”

As for Thomas herself, I quoted one long passage from her new book as exemplifying her “remarkable sensibility” and I called the prose “spare, yet dense and luminous …a pleasure to read”; of the book as a whole I said, “The Old Way is at its best when read as a fluid, evocative narrative of an adventure with people whose extremely challenging way of life is now gone…. The book’s descriptions of specific human encounters are particularly valuable, and the chapters on hunting, gathering, dangerous animals, and religion are vividly descriptive and ethnologically sound.”

I am no publicist, but if I were Thomas’s I would find much to use in this review. Also, I may be mathematically challenged, but I calculate that 30 percent of the review consists of a philosophic and historical introduction to set the scene and another quarter or so is a personal reminiscence of my own. Given the high praise quoted above, there would seem to be insufficient space for the density of criticism Thomas discovered. It is puzzling, too, to find her letter accusing me and others of disrespecting her family’s contributions, when in fact it is she who ignores almost all that has been done since.

Thomas’s letter gives a fair idea of the things I liked about the book, as indicated above. I stand by that praise and recommend the book to any general reader with an interest in anthropology or African travel. As for my reservations, I stand by those as well.

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