Folks who spend their lives staring at computer screens in vast corporate cubicle farms have a powerful tendency to drift off into vivid daydreams of gathering nuts, roots, and melons in wild country, with their hunter-gatherer ancestors, in a world without roads, cities, or alphabets. For them, there is treasure to be found in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ book, The Harmless People. It’s a beautiful book.
The first expedition searched for several months before finding Bushmen, because Bushmen disappeared whenever they saw outsiders, who were a dependable source of trouble. Black and white outsiders frequently kidnapped them, and forced them to spend the rest of their days as farm laborers. They never returned home. Police would arrest them if they killed a giraffe in the desert, because giraffes were royal animals protected by the law. Arrested hunters were hauled away, and never seen again. The Thomas expedition eventually gained their trust because they developed a reputation for being very generous with their gifts, and for being unusually decent white folks.
Long ago, Bushmen lived across much of southern
Africa. But black and white farmers and herders aggressively seized the best lands, forcing the Bushmen into the Kalahari Desert, an exceedingly difficult place to live. Some places were so dry that the primary sources of water were melons, roots, and killed animals. Some winter nights dipped below freezing, leading to sleepless nights for the nearly naked people.
Each group lived in a specific territory, sometimes several hundred square miles in area, which had clearly defined traditional boundaries. They intimately know every bit of their homeland, every rock, every bush, and every notable variation of the terrain. They knew exactly where different types of food could be found. They often had to move their camp every few days.
Hunting was done with spears and bows and arrows. Arrows were treated with a poison made from the pupa of a beetle, which could take several days to kill the prey. After shooting, hunters waited two or three days, then tracked the wounded animal, hoping to find it dead. One unlucky hunter was fully impaled on the long horn of an angry buffalo who wasn’t dead yet. Amazingly, he survived. Another time, hunters tracked a wounded wildebeest, and found it surrounded by 20 to 30 hungry lions. Amazingly, they drove away the lions, finished off the animal, and carried the meat back to camp.
In the honey season, men climbed high into the trees to raid the hives, whilst being stung everywhere by a furious cloud of stingy bees. There was a long tradition of fatal falls. Hives that were frequently raided became fiercely defensive, viciously attacking all of the Bushmen on the ground, before the climbing began. Honey was definitely not a free lunch.
Living in a harsh land, the Bushmen were very careful to sidestep the problems caused by overpopulation. The stability of their society was more important than the survival of every newborn, and these cultural values enabled their way of life to be sustainable. They believed that there was a period of delay between birth and becoming alive. If the newborn was crippled or deformed, it was promptly buried and forgotten. When conditions were strained, and it was not possible to feed more mouths, newborns were not kept. The Bushmen had no tools for contraception or abortion. To avoid the pain of infanticide, they frequently abstained from intercourse for long periods of time, when there was room for no more. Usually, childbirth was a joyful event, because the number of pregnancies was voluntarily limited.
Thomas described the ongoing soap operas of camp life, and the inevitable friction that developed among people who lived in close contact with others all the time. Camp life was not a never-ending love fest. But great care was taken to avoid conflict, and to promptly defuse and resolve conflicts. Belongings were constantly kept in circulation via gift-giving to avoid jealousy. The fundamental keys to their success were cooperation and sharing.
She presented us with a fascinating description of thriving in a challenging land. Bushmen life seemed to be far less dismal than life in corporate cubicle farms. Bushmen enjoyed healthy, satisfying, and meaningful lives, despite their lack of televisions, computers, cell phones, automobiles; despite being a cruelly persecuted minority; despite being surrounded by lions and leopards who enjoyed having children for lunch; despite the blast furnace summer days when the sand burned their feet. Life was good. They had what they needed.
Thomas published her book in 1961. She returned to the region in 1986 and 1987 and discovered that the Bushmen had been blindsided by what is called sustainable development (i.e., catastrophic destruction). This inspired her to produce a revised edition, which was published in 1989, to bring us up to date.
The Bushmen had been driven off their land and forced into villages, where their superiors treated them like the scum of the Earth. Their culture disintegrated into a nightmare of malnutrition, disease, alcoholism, homicide, and wage labor. People quit sharing, ate in secret, and hid purchases.
Thomas summed up the new reality: “No Bushmen lack contact with the West and none is undamaged by it. And their own way of life, the old way, a way of life which preceded the human species, no longer exists but is gone from the face of the earth at enormous cost to the individuals who once lived it.” Welcome to industrial civilization!
Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Harmless People, Vintage Books,
New York, 1989.