The Ju/’hoansi that the Marshall family lived with in the 1950s avoided jealousy and emphasized cooperation, according to an interview last week with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of the best seller The Harmless People. Ms. Thomas indicated to the interviewer that both she and her mother, Lorna Marshall, who did extensive ethnographic field work among the Ju/’hoansi, have been accused of overly emphasizing the absence of violence among the people. She responds that the family only reported what they saw.
She denies that she has ever written that the Ju/’hoansi had anything other than a normal society—with problems just like people everywhere. But the Ju/’hoansi culture—at least in the 1950s when she and her mother lived in Namibia—emphasized cooperation because, as she says, “life was pretty marginal and one way to get through was to have others who help you in your hour of need.”
The interview with Ms. Thomas was published in New Scientist magazine to mark the publication of her new book The Old Way, which updates her impressions of the San people that she described in The Harmless People in 1959. The interview provides some interesting personal observations. Thomas was only 19 when she temporarily dropped out of Smith College to accompany her parents and brother to Namibia to find and study the previously little known “Bushmen” people who lived there. Another personal detail: Sylvia Plath was a classmate of hers at Smith and they took a writing class together, though apparently they didn’t get to know one another personally.
In response to a question, she acknowledges that the Ju/’hoansi did experience some violence. She knew of one group in which a man killed two people before the group assassinated him. Three murders in a group of 15 people “is a pretty high percentage: that’s higher than the murder rate of Detroit.” That might seem droll, but she goes on to argue that they did recognize the human tendency to fight and they felt it was essential to try and avoid violence.
While some might mourn the demise of the hunting and gathering way of life, Thomas indicates that the Ju/’hoansi didn’t define themselves according to the way they procured food. Instead, they thought of themselves in terms of how well they could relate to others. They tried to minimize jealousy by giving away material things, so no one would have more than anyone else and people would have good feelings about one another. She believes, however, there is no going back, that the population is now too concentrated for any type of foraging economy to work.
While the Ju/’hoansi women gathered most of the food—plants, ants, caterpillars, snakes, turtles—everyone was especially excited when the men brought in one of the large antelopes. Even though the men’s success rate from their hunting was lower than the women’s in their food gathering, everyone in the band appreciated the occasions when they could all feast on meat for a while.
George, Alison. 2006. “Way of the Hunters.” New Scientist November 6, p. 52-53.