The Harmless People
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
A study of primitive people which, for beauty of...style and concept, would be hard to match." -- The New York Times Book Review
In the 1950s Elizabeth Marshall Thomas became one of the first Westerners to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Botswana and South-West Africa. Her account of these nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose way of life had remained unchanged for thousands of years, is a ground-breaking work of anthropology, remarkable not only for its scholarship but for its novelistic grasp of character. On the basis of field trips in the 1980s, Thomas has now updated her book to show what happened to the Bushmen as the tide of industrial civilization -- with its flotsam of property rights, wage labor, and alcohol -- swept over them. The result is a powerful, elegiac look at an endangered culture as well as a provocative critique of our own.
"The charm of this book is that the author can so truly convey the strangeness of the desert life in which we perceive human traits as familiar as our own....The Harmless People is a model of exposition: the style very simple and precise, perfectly suited to the neat, even fastidious activities of a people who must make their world out of next to nothing."
-- The Atlantic
Cataloging-in-Publication Data Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, 1931– The harmless people / by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.—Rev., with a new epilogue, 2nd Vintage Books ed. p. cm. eISBN: 978-0-307-77295-4 1. San (African people) I. Title. DT764.B8T4 1989 968.83′004961—dc20 89-40157 v3.1 To Stephen CONTENTS Cover Title Page Copyright Dedication Genealogy Map Author’s Note ONE The Desert TWO The Road THREE The Bushmen FOUR The Fire
away from their delicate, fragile, almost invisible community. In a short time we heard a rustle in the veld, and a young woman who seemed to be in her early twenties stepped from the bushes. She was, Ukwane said, Gai’s wife, and on her hip she carried a baby, a naked three-year-old who looked at us from his wide eyes fearlessly, then, realizing that we were strangers, buried his face in his mother’s arm. His mother stroked him calmly and came toward us smiling and nodding her head graciously,
We heard his slow footsteps as he tested the earth carefully, then a grunt as he was scorched again. It made him cross, for he walked in a huge half-circle around us with a growl running steadily in his throat. I had thought that the Bushmen were asleep, but they had also heard him and they laughed. Now and then, during the night, the burned trees crashed around us, and as our fiery wall moved slowly away, the rising smoke was gray in its yellow light, the stars were all obscured. – – – Before
cannot say for certain that it was exactly the same. Gai laid it across his thumbnail and tapped it gently, mixing the insides. Then he twisted off the head, squeezed the body, forced the paste inside onto the shaft of his arrow, and smeared it evenly with his straw. Gikwe Bushmen do not have to use a binding fluid, for their bone arrows hold the poison very well. After the foreshaft was coated evenly all around with the poison of several grubs, Gai dried the arrow by the fire, then coated the
and left Short Kwi to rest, and during the evening the children and young people were talking happily, but all the adults in all the werfs were too depressed and sad. Finally, one by one, the men went back again to Short Kwi, who by now had rallied and was sitting up, surely having been through the worst of it the night before, and talked to him about the antelopes he had killed and about the time he killed a wildebeest, an eland, and a wild pig all in one day. It has been said that Bushmen