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The Old Way A Story of the First People
By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter One Fifteen Hundred Centuries
If you look at a map of Africa made in the 1940s, you will see in the southwest portion of the continent a sparsely inhabited bushland about the size of Spain. Within this is the Kalahari Desert, an area of about 120,000 square miles, much of it as seemingly empty as the Antarctic. In the interior, the map shows 20° south latitude crossing 20° east longitude, which formed part of the border between South West Africa and the Bechuanaland Protectorate, now Namibia and Botswana. But there, the map is otherwise blank, without place names or topographical features, because the mapmakers did not know of them. When in 1950 my father, Laurence Marshall, was looking at such a map in Windhoek, then a frontier town with unpaved roads, a government official told him that the place he was viewing was the end of the earth. No white person, he thought, had ever been there, and no Bantu person, either.
Yet that was where my father planned to go. He wanted to visit the hunter-gatherers who were believed to live there and was considering the map because he was preparing to take my mother, Lorna, my brother, John, then eighteen, and myself, then nineteen, into that country. But how to get there, where we might find water, how much of the interior was dry bushland and therefore habitable,and how much was true desert and therefore not habitable, was just a guess.
How we would find the hunter-gatherers was also just a guess. Much later, we were to learn that perhaps ten thousand people known as Bushmen lived there by hunting and gathering, and that perhaps one hundred thousand square miles were more or less habitable, at least for part of the year, which meant that the population density, if you can call it density, was one person for every ten square miles. Obviously, we would not find these people easily.
But find them we did. We found people who called themselves Ju/wasi and were living the lifestyle of our ancestors, a lifestyle of the African savannah that began before we were human beings, changing in form but not in essence as time passed and the climate fluctuated, and lasting until the last third of the twentieth century. That any of us are here at all is due entirely to the long-term culture that these hunter-gatherers, with their courage, skills, and knowledge, continued to uphold.
To me, the experience of visiting this place and these people was profoundly important, as if I had voyaged into the deep past through a time machine. I feel that I saw the Old Way, the way of life that shaped us, a way of life that now is gone. I also feel that I saw the most successful culture that our kind has ever known, if a lifestyle can be called a culture and if stability and longevity are measures, a culture governed by sun and rain, heat and cold, wind and wildfires, plant and animal populations. Any human culture is a work in progress, modifying as its members adjust to new conditions, but no matter what conditions your environment offers, no matter what you use for language or what gods you worship or whether your decisions are made by group consensus or by a hereditary leader or just by someone bigger than the rest of you, for those who live in the Old Way certain elements never vary. Your group size is set by the food supply, your territory must include water, the animals you hunt will always be afraid of you, and the plant foods will always be seasonal, so you had better remember where they grow and be there when they're fruiting.
Today, we find this hard to picture. If Europe had known a similar stability, the continent would still be covered with forests and steppes, the fauna would include Irish elk and lions, and little bands of people along the Dordogne River would still be painting the walls of their caves. Yet while much of the world was changing, the Ju/wasi and their ancestors maintained at least the material aspects of their culture. Archaeologists were eventually to find objects like those used by modern Ju/wasi in sites that dated back to the Upper Paleolithic but were perhaps much older-at one site that went back thirty-five thousand years, the excavation was discontinued, and the extent of its antiquity was not determined. Sites from other parts of Africa demonstrate that gracile, light-bodied hunter-gatherers who made objects like those of the modern Bushmen once lived all over the continent, in all kinds of environments. Ancient pan graves containing such objects were found in Egypt.
Aspects of this culture were known to the very first members of our lineage, whose bones were found near Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in the Klasies River Mouth Caves, where they had rested for 150,000 years, some of the earliest remains of Homo sapiens yet discovered. This original lineage was to branch and branch again as its people traveled to all corners of the world, changing themselves, adapting to different climates, perhaps even finding mates among a different kind of hominid, until they became the many varied phenotypes that today enhance our planet. But some descendants of the original people didn't experience much change. Small and light bodied, deft and graceful, these very successful people stayed in the places that had shaped our species, living in the Old Way, with aspects of the culture such as group size, ways of gathering foods, and territorial requirements very similar to those of many other creatures, all shaped by necessity in a manner that most of us today cannot imagine. Yet this was the situation in the 1950s. To go there was indeed time travel, and for the rest of my life I saw everything through the lens of the Kalahari. But back then, I didn't understand what I was seeing.
For one thing, not much was known about our human origins. The Taung australopithecine, Australopithecus africanus, had been discovered by Raymond Dart in 1924. But the importance of the fossil and its recognition as a human ancestor were not acknowledged for more than twenty years because Dart (as he himself once told me) had two strikes against him when he found it. He was merely a graduate student at the time, and a South African at that, and therefore in the eyes of the higher-ups of the archaeological community, he wasn't important enough to discover the earliest hominid. So the implications of the fossil were not acknowledged until about the time we were starting our work.
Today, our beginnings are better understood. Our creator was an ice age, which began when most of Africa was covered by rain forest. As the world became colder, the growing glaciers captured much of the world's water, and not enough rain fell to support the great reaches of the world's forests, which became prairies, grasslands, and steppes. In Africa, most of the land that once had been rain forest slowly changed to open woodlands, and later to open savannah.
Our ancestors were there when all this was happening. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins presents a compelling image: You are standing beside your mother, holding her hand. She is holding her mother's hand, who is holding her mother's hand. On and on goes your lineage, each of you holding the hand of your mother, until your line is three hundred miles long and goes back in time five million years, deep into the African rain forest, where the clasping hand is that of a chimpanzee.
As our ancestors lost the rain forest and began to adjust to the new conditions, they had several things with them in addition to their DNA. If we look across the aeons to our next of kin who stayed in what was left of the rain forest-the great apes, most especially the chimpanzees-we can guess what some of those things might be. A good candidate might be the half-dome shelter of grass and branches used by savannah hunter-gatherers, a structure sometimes called a tshu, that shares important characteristics with the nests of great apes and thus, by inference, the probable nests of our rain forest ancestors. Whether in the rain forests or on the savannah, when those of our lineage find a new place to stay, the individuals fan out from the group and each one quickly whips together a little structure by weaving flexible branches into a curved, basketlike frame that then is stuffed with leafy twigs (in the rain forests) or handfuls of grass (on the savannah). The structures are used for resting or sleeping as long as the group stays put, and are abandoned when the group moves away. At the next stopping place, the individuals make new structures. If the group later returns to the old place, the individuals do not reoccupy the old structures but instead make fresh ones.
Many creatures, such as nesting birds and denning wolves, make shelters, but these differ quite profoundly from the nests of the primates in that bird nests and wolf dens are the products of lengthy group effort, some (as with birds' nests) with materials gathered far away, and often are designed for permanence, sometimes to be used for generations.
Large primates have a different strategy. They make a little structure in a few minutes, using materials directly at hand. They use the structures for a short time, abandon them when they move on, and make new structures at the next destination.
The people we knew in the 1950s used such structures wherever they camped. A woman would break branches from a bush, set these in the ground, weave the tops together into a basketlike frame, a half dome, and cover it with handfuls of grass. If the group moved, she would make another. If the group returned to the former area, she would make another and not reoccupy the first, which would probably no longer be standing.
Could such a custom continue for so long? That question would never be asked about our rain forest relatives, but only about us, not only because most of us understand other creatures so poorly and assume that all their habits are permanently hardwired, but also because by now we have become so accustomed to rapid, perpetual change that we cannot imagine life without it. And indeed, our species has made many changes since that long-ago time. But for as long as the Old Way lasted for our species, our living arrangements were not necessarily among those changes, or at least, not all of them, and not for all of us.
Thus the little nestlike structures continued to be made, probably because of their temporary nature and the ease with which they are assembled. If our ancestors made new structures every few days, making nests in the trees while big trees were available, making similar nests among bushes as the big trees vanished and the savannah began to spread out around us, adapting the structures in minor ways to changing conditions, parents teaching children for as long as we lived in the Old Way on the savannah, we had no chance to drop the habit. Neither did our primate relatives who stayed in the forests. All the great apes make nests, and all make them in trees-except adult gorillas, who over time became too big for the average tree and solved the problem as our ancestors seem to have solved it, by making nests on the ground.
Although our bodies changed as we became human beings, and although we changed many of the things we thought and did, we didn't change anything unless we had to, because change for its own sake is undesirable, experiments are risky, and life is tenuous enough without departing from what is known to be helpful and safe. Repetition is a form of permanence. Whenever we could, all else being equal, we stayed with the tried and true.
One of the functions of a nest is to partially protect its occupant from all but the most determined predators, so the difference between a nest in a rain forest tree and a half-dome shelter on a treeless bushland is not as great as it might seem. The nest in the tree offers protection from predators below, while the shelter on the ground offers at least a measure of protection from predators from behind-a popular approach of the cat family. Fire is often credited as our main help against predators, but we did not control fire until later, and fire is not as helpful as many of us might suppose (more will be said about this later). This makes the savannah shelter a nest without a tree, and means that the structures have changed less than their makers.
Another good candidate for extreme antiquity is the straight stick about three feet long and an inch or so in diameter-a humble item, surely, but very important. Today, these are known as digging sticks. While we still had the rain forest, our environment consisted largely of sticks, of course, and surely we broke them off trees for many purposes, just as chimpanzees now use sticks for dipping ants and poking into beehives, say, or hurling at those who displease them. The Peabody Museum of Harvard has a collection of tools used by chimpanzees, including several such sticks, one of which a large male chimpanzee was seen using to beat a female. (The rare event, reported during a lecture at Harvard, outraged a group of politically correct female graduate students, underexposed to life and overexposed to academia, who vehemently attacked the female lecturer for reporting the event as science without censuring the male aggressor. This scene, too, was older than our species, wherein a group of primates mobs a conspecific who has temporarily fallen in status.)
In the dim, dense rain forest, most of our food had come from plants that struggled to get enough sunlight. Throughout the year they put out a profusion of moist leaves and tender buds, meanwhile providing a welcome supply of fruits and berries. The plants didn't mind if we ate a few leaves, and they wanted us to eat the fruits and berries because we would pack the seeds in dung and drop them at a distance, just as the plant intended.
On the savannah, though, the plants had more serious difficulties. The problem faced by most savannah plants is not lack of sunlight, but too much of it, and the drying that it causes. Thus some plants were grasses and others were covered with thorns to conserve water, while still others spent most of the year hidden deep in the earth in root form as bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes, with nothing aboveground to show their presence. Of course they needed sunlight, but they would wait until the rains began before sending up a stalk or vine and some leaves. The root would shrivel in the process, but with the rain and with the energy it was getting from its leaves, it would fill out again and be ready to send up another vine a year later. Until then, though, the vine and leaves were a liability, leaching moisture from the root and also betraying its location. So the root would stop feeding them. They'd dry and drop off. A wildfire might come by and burn them, or the wind might blow them away. This was what the root intended. Secure in the earth, with nothing aboveground to show its presence, it would wait out the dry season where animals could not find it. Naked mole rats sometimes eat these roots, but these little conservationists eat only part of a root without doing too much damage. Eventually the root repairs itself and the mole rats can tunnel up to it and eat more later.
As for us, with the loss of the rain forest we were reduced to eating dry berries, the shallow bulbs of little onions, ground-growing nuts, and the edible ends of grass blades, as well as grubs, large ants, baby birds, snails, and caterpillars. Many other creatures were also eating these foods, especially other primates such as ancestral baboons. These were about the size of macaques in those days, weighing perhaps 15 to 30 pounds, so they were smaller than us with our larger bodies, perhaps 60 to 140 pounds. But if modern baboons are any indication, their groups were bigger than ours. A large group of small animals is more efficient at foraging than a small group of large animals, because a large group can cover a wider area, with each individual needing less food. If the baboons found a food-producing place before we did, they picked it clean and deprived us. We needed more food, but where to find it?
Like the baboons, we would have been pulling up the little wild onions that grow on the savannah, and like the baboons, we would have noticed the shriveled stalks discarded by the deeper roots, suggesting something farther down. But the hands of a primate are not made for serious digging, as anyone who has tried to dig a hole two or three feet deep in hard earth without a tool will quickly testify, and the baboons couldn't do it. Neither could we, with bare hands.
Excerpted from The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
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