Who Are We?

For most of the 150,000 years since we evolved in Africa, people lived in “the old way”, reports Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. We were an important predator (not the top one she says, lions had that honor) among the fauna of the African savannah. She revisits and updates the experiences she and her family had in the 1950s in her book, The Old Way. Decades before Ms. Thomas wrote The Hidden Life of Dogs or Tribe of Tiger, she and her family were the first outsiders to live among the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in the 1950s.

“People assume that because they were hunter/gatherers that they had lots of superstitions, lots of magic beliefs to explain things. They didn't, not at all. The deer don't have magic to make things happen. The lions don't. Why would we? We didn't. They did not try to control the environment, as one does when one is an agriculturist. They controlled themselves.

“I wanted to re-examine what we had seen and the experiences we had had in the light of what has been discovered in the intervening years: the antiquity of the Bushmen, and things like water independence.

“People and lions are water dependent. They have to drink water every day. All the predators have to. There are only a few water holes so there isn't one for the lions and one for the people. It worked out best when they did their hunting at different times. The night is vastly preferable and the lions got the night. By day, the people used the whole territory, not only just drinking from the water hole but also for hunting.

“Antelope are water independent. They can go for days or a season, raising their inner temperature. If ours went up that extent we die, but they do fine. They spend their energy at night and stand in the shade in the daytime. They are a whole different story from those who need to drink water.”

It turns out, the large antelope known as the elan, hunted and eaten by people, lions and wild dogs alike, is rich in precious fat.

“There were no fat people, everybody was thin. Bushmen themselves had a very low fat diet and lots of exercise, so they spent lots of calories getting the calories that they were able to eat. We (humans) need some body fat in order to be able to menstruate or to ovulate. That's quite a wise evolutionary development because better to wait until you have that (fat), rather than waste the energy. If you have a very lean body and low weight and low fat you don't menstruate as quickly as you do otherwise, or as early in life. (Now) we are very young to menstruate. (They) were much older to menstruate, approximately 20.

“Our infant mortality in America is pretty high. The Bushmen had very healthy babies and a low birthrate, which is better. You could nurse one baby. If you had another baby before the first baby was self-sufficient, you were undernourished, you would malnourish two kids and you could lose both of them. There was infanticide but it was extremely rare, and they wouldn't need to because lactation prevents pregnancy.

“There are things about the antiquity of the Bushmen’s culture that we didn't know. A musicologist found very important music which was used at a woman's first menarche called ‘elan music’ (honoring the fat-rich antelope). This ‘elan music’ was also present in other language groups of other Bushmen language groups and also the noun-less speakers who are not exactly Bushmen but they're related. This means that way back before these groups diverged, somebody invented or composed (this) music and then they took it with them.”

Ms. Thomas encourages us all to disturb less and observe more, starting with domestic dogs and cats, wild birds, animals, waters and woodlands.

“As a result, the natural world comes closer to the house. The less you meddle with what's going on around you, the more the natural world will come to you.”


[This Program was recorded July 19, 2008, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, U.S.]

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

     ... author, naturalist, ethologist. The Old Way: A Story of the First People is Ms. Thomas’ definitive exploration of humanity’s deep past. She combines her own and her family’s experiences as the first outsiders to live with the Bushmen in the Kalahara in the 1950s, with her 50 subsequent years of writing and study. Widely known for her non-fiction, The Hidden Life of Dogs, The Social Life of Dogs and Tribe of Tiger as well as her classics The Harmless People and Warrior Herdsmen, Ms. Thomas’ fiction includes Certain Poor Shepherds and two novels, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife. She also writes for The New Yorker, National Geographic, The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books.


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Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ book The Old Way ranks among the world’s great treasures. As with all of her other worthy works, it is written with exemplary compassion and clarity.


Liz and her husband, dogs and cats, son, daughter-in-law and two of her grandchildren welcomed us for several days of recording in the Thomas’ Peterborough, New Hampshire, home the summer of 2008. We were keenly aware of the privilege and their gifts -- powerful and abiding friendships as well as the unparalleled opportunity to explore the human experience with the last outsider alive who’d had pristine access to “the old rules” and “the old way”. Because words can never capture our gratitude, we trust a humble “thank you” to be the sturdy representative for the enormity of our appreciation.

Related Links:


The Old Way is published in hardcover by Farrar Straus Giroux and in trade paperback by Picador.


An earlier program with Ms. Thomas, which focused on The Social Live of Dogs, is here; our first program, recorded in 1997, is here.


Biological anthropoligist Richard Wrangham'swork shows the profound impact of cooking on our hominid predecessor and thereby on us.


Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall is the Director of and Curator in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. His distinction between anatomically modern and behaviorally modern humans helps in our efforts to understand who we are.


Frans de Waal argues that much of what humans characterize as ethical or moral behavior has precursors in the behaviors of social animals, particularly our closest relatives chimpanzees and bonobos.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh worked for years with bonobos and chimpanzees testing and expanding their ability to understand and use human language.  Kanzi (The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind -published by Wiley) is her most famous student.

Memoirist and environmental activist Alexandra Fuller reviewed The Old Way for the International Herald Tribune.  


The Hidden Life of Dogs, The Social Life of Dogs, Tribe of Tiger, are Simon and Schuster publications, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife from the S&S imprint Pocket Books, and Certain Poor Shepherds by its imprint Scribners.


The Harmless People is a Vintage book. Warrior Herdsmen was published by W.W. Norton.


Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ mother, Lorna J. Marshall, is widely recognized for her leading role creating an ethnographic record of Bushmen, garnered during the Marshall family’s many years living among the Bushman. Mrs. Marshall’s much heralded first book, !Kung of Nyae Nyae was published in 1975 by Harvard University Press, and her second, Nyae Nyae !Kung Belief and Rites, by Harvard’s Peabody Museum Press was published in 1999, the year Mrs. Marshall turned 100.


And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


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