The Old Way

IMAGINE TAKING AN EXPEDITION to a place so remote that rescue would never be possible. “We had no radio,” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes. “The days when a helicopter would appear in the sky to lift you out of your difficulty had not yet come. . . . Astronauts have a better chance of rescue than we did in the 1950s in the Kalahari.”

This was the deep savanna of the Kalahari region (now Namibia and Botswana) fifty years ago. The nineteen-year-old Thomas, with her ever-resourceful parents and brother, was eager to learn everything she could of the “Harmless People,” the Ju/wasi or !Kung Bushmen who still practiced the “Old Way” — a nomadic lifestyle that predated agriculture. Exquisitely attuned to the natural world, these people were the last of their kind to live purely as hunter-gatherers.

The Ju/wasi whom Thomas describes are quiet, athletic people who settle their disputes through group discussion. Their hunting arrows are tainted with slow-acting poison extracted from the larvae of a beetle, and once an animal is shot a hunter must run across the dry savanna for hours, sometimes days, to retrieve it. Animals and humans share an intelligence known as N!ow. Lions are considered to be something like gods, capable of stealing human life whenever they choose, but satisfied, mostly, to leave people alone. For those who move among predators as the Ju/wasi do, it is not wise to show any weakness; they suffer through extreme pain, including crushed bones, with cheer.

Sadly, if predictably, the culture is now in grave danger of extinction. As the immense veld has been parceled up, supporters have encouraged the Ju/wasi to try farming. But huting and gathering require one to live fluidly in the moment, always alert and always ready. Farming does not. As Thomas notes, a sedentary life will exact changes in the Ju/wasi’s customs and even the workings of their minds.

A conservation group has preserved some land on which a few Ju/wasi are allowed to hunt, but with alcoholism and the hitherto unknown plagues of materialism and violence, preserving anything of the Old Way is an uphill fight. We are fortunate to have Thomas’s account of these peoples’ lives before the incursion of the modern world.