One day, while the 19 year old college student was walking near a bank a mile from camp, an adult hyena walked out of a hole and bared its teeth at her. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wisely walked off at an angle, showing neither fear nor aggression towards the predator. The hyena seemed satisfied and backed into its lair.

Another time she was reading at night in her tent when an adult hyena stuck its nose in to look around. They were almost nose to nose. “What is it?” she asked. The animal backed out and disappeared. She speculates that the hyena must have seen her silhouette on the tent wall and decided to check and see if the human was alive and well—or perhaps ailing and edible.

As a college-age student, Thomas accompanied her father, Laurence Marshall, a retired corporate executive, her mother Lorna Marshall, and her brother John Marshall on a family expedition to the Kalahari Desert of Namibia, then called Southwest Africa, in the early 1950s. In her new book The Old Way, Thomas relates many interesting stories, but she particularly focuses on ways the Ju/’hoansi lived as she and her family observed them in the desert.

She argues that the San, or Bushmen as she calls them, survived in an Old Way, a savannah existence that represented how humanity lived before the advent of agriculture and herding changed human societies forever. The San societies of the 1950s offered a glimpse into the past. “To go there was indeed time travel, and for the rest of my life I saw everything through the lens of the Kalahari,” she writes (p.7).

Whether or not the Ju/’hoansi band over 50 years ago represented anything more than themselves and their own way of life can certainly be debated, but this book is especially valuable for its mature reflections on their lifestyles, economy, social habits, and religious practices. The author’s reflections on their nonviolence are particularly useful for this website.

Most of the time the Ju/’hoansi were able to defuse tensions effectively. Thomas describes how one man, who was divorced and living with another woman 50 miles away, got angry at his first wife when she formed plans for their daughter to be married. She hadn’t contacted him about the matter.

The girl was frightened when her father suddenly arrived and confronted the band with what he felt was the injustice of the situation. Everyone poured out their feelings. The angry father wanted his daughter to return with him—he had his own plans for her marriage. The people responded that he had not been involved in feeding the girl and had not sent her gifts—why should he demand any rights? After four days of confrontation, the man finally left without his daughter, who was subsequently married to the man the mother and step-father had chosen.

Sometimes the Ju/’hoansi did fight, and sometimes they killed people. During their conflicts with whites and Bantus, they fought to protect themselves when they were enslaved and murdered, but for the most part they were just defending themselves, Thomas argues. She supports the statement of her mother, Lorna Marshall, who wrote that the Ju/’hoansi “are strongly set against violence, and accord it no honor. To have to fight is to have failed to find a solution by wiser means” (p.227).

Murders did occur on occasion. The family heard of five people who were killed. One man, who had killed three others, was executed by the rest of the band, as was another man who had obviously developed severe mental problems. He had moved into an aardvark hole and he rushed out to shout at people when they walked past. Thomas reasons that the Ju/’hoansi had no way of confining dangerous or mentally ill people, so they took the only recourse they felt was available to protect their safety.

The Ju/’hoansi were neither peaceful by nature, she argues, nor were they completely without violence. But they did have a well-developed sense of how to prevent violence from arising, and how to control it if it did occur. As long as they lived in the old way, out on the land, they were able to maintain their traditional systems for suppressing anger, resolving conflicts, and fostering nonviolence. Later, in the 1960s, when they moved into settled communities, they lost these control measures. Poverty, disease, hunger, and alcohol had changed their lives.

Thomas also argues that the Ju/’hoansi, in the early 1950s, did not have any tools for fighting. Their deadly poison arrows were relatively useless in a fight. Except for a direct shot to the heart or throat, the arrow killed, very slowly, by injecting a poison into the victim. The victim could retaliate by killing many others before he died himself, perhaps the next day.

The arrows were hunting tools, not weapons. Also, the Ju/’hoansi did not have shields, which would have been essential if fighting was an important part of their lives. Other, more aggressive, traditional societies possessed clubs, long spears, knives, and other weapons for fighting battles. Now they own assault rifles. Violence is an acceptable option in many societies, she argues, but it was not among the Ju/’hoansi in the 1950s.

An important ingredient in fostering their nonviolence, Thomas maintains, was the warmth and happiness of the children, whose lives were generally free of punishment, anger, frustrations, and hurts. Adults supervised children closely and intervened immediately when they acted aggressively. Since small children rarely witnessed acts of violence themselves, and since their own aggressive instincts were redirected by adults, they only had examples of nonviolence to follow.

Thomas relates how a boy once attempted an aggressive act against her. He was quickly interrupted by an older child. The offending youngster then witnessed the silent disapproval of everyone else around the camp. “Without moving his head, he looked around with cautious anxiety, as if he suddenly knew he had done an unspeakable thing” (p.238).

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. 2006. The Old Way: A Story of the First People. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux