(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)
“The five groups of San or Bushmen are called the First People. Most call themselves Bushmen when referring to themselves collectively.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from her book The Old Way
I wanted to open this article with that quote from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a great friend of the Kalahari Bushmen, so I would not be accused of using a derogatory term when speaking of the people from whom all humans on earth are descended. One of my favorite scientific discoveries of the last few decades is that every human being currently alive on the planet can trace his or her lineage directly to the same Bushman woman who lived in Southwest Africa 172,000 years ago.
The gathering of pertinent genetic data from around the world, as well as the complicated figuring that went into determining the identity of our great Mother, has now been duplicated by multiple scientific teams, and there is today universal agreement among physical anthropologists and geneticists (though not among members of Congress) that Eve, as the European-centric researchers have named her, was, indeed, a Bushman. The name I prefer for our Very First Lady is N!ai, the exclamation point indicating a loud click made by pressing the tongue against the top of the mouth and popping it down simultaneously with the sound ai (I).
Among the many groovy things about tracing our collective beginning back to N!ai is that until the 1950’s there were still extant bands of Bushmen in and around the Kalahari Desert living very much as they had for tens of thousands of years, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and her parents and brother were among the first and last non-Bushmen to gently interface with these people and to record in great detail, in writing and film and sound recordings, how our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. Thus we know, in a tangible way, from whence we came.
“Interestingly, no anthropologist wanted to join us, although my father tried hard to find one and would have paid for his or her salary and all expenses. However, unlike the modern Kalahari, where the anthropologist/Bushman ratio often seems to be one to one, in those days (1950’s) no anthropologist took an interest in our project.” from The Old Way
The first book I ever read about Bushmen was The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post. What a great adventure story! I was sixteen and intent on becoming an actor and a musician, but I was so thrilled by van der Post’s book I decided if I had to go to college to avoid going to Vietnam, I would major in the study of Bushmen. I subsequently devoured the sequel to The Lost World of the Kalahari entitled The Heart of the Hunter, and then I found Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People and read it twice. By the time I matriculated at UC Santa Cruz in 1967 with a major in Anthropology, I had read virtually everything there was in print about Bushmen.
Upon my arrival at that bucolic campus, and much to my dismay, I was informed by my snooty professors that Laurens van der Post and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas were to be ignored in regard to Bushmen because, heaven forbid, neither was an accredited anthropologist, and thus their data was suspect and I was a fool for admiring them. Nevertheless, their books introduced me to Bushmen and I have subsequently been privileged to correspond with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas about many things, most especially about the first people.
“What determined the size of our groups? Water was the single most important factor—water and the food supply around it.” from The Old Way
This may come as a surprise to you, but there was no pasta in the diet of the first people. Indeed, the so-called hunter-gatherer diet now being hailed by avant-garde nutritionists as the healthiest possible diet for most human beings contains no dairy, no gluten, no wheat, almost no grain, and very little sugar. I know several people currently reveling in newfound health since making the shift away from a grain-based diet to one composed largely of fruits, vegetables, nuts, tubers, and…wait for it…meat. And why is such a diet so good for most humans? Because, quite simply, our metabolism, our inner Bushman, if you will, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years eating what our hunter-gatherer progenitors ate and not much else.
I cannot recommend highly enough Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The Old Way to anyone interested in his or her origins. Ms. Thomas published this remarkable volume in 2006, nearly fifty years after publishing The Harmless People, having decided to revisit the copious notes she made while living with the Bushmen in the 1950’s, and to tell a new story imbued with experiences and insights accrued over her long life of study, exploration, and contemplation. I have loaned my copy of The Old Way to several people, and every one of them reported that the book inspired a profound and positive shift in their perceptions of themselves and the world.
For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, as I generally do, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has also written two great novels—Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife—of what may ultimately be a trilogy of interconnected sagas focusing on a group of hunter-gatherers living somewhere in the northern hemisphere at a time when mammoths still roamed the earth, and when lions and tigers were much more likely to kill people than vice-versa.
“We lived in groups; we could dig roots; we could find water; we could catch grubs, snails, tortoises, porcupines, and other small animals that were not fast runners (sometimes called “slow game”); some of us could run down large antelopes; and we had fire. We had lived on the savannah for a million years.” from The Old Way
We lived in groups, and we dined in groups, and we shared our kills and harvests with friends and loved ones, which brings to mind our dear friend Juliette White, globetrotter, cellist, and patron of artists and friends, who died a little over a year ago. She was, among many things, the hostess of wonderful spontaneous meals devoured by lucky last-minute invitees to her cozy cottage a couple miles inland on Albion Ridge Road. I met Juliette three years before she died. Her gift to me at the end of our first meeting was her blessing to marry her good friend Marcia, which I did. Thereafter, I was invited to a number of spontaneous dining soirees in Juliette’s commodious cottage; and some six months before she died, Juliette asked me to help her write her obituary.
So one morning over a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes bursting with huckleberries plucked from bushes growing in the forest surrounding her house, I interviewed Juliette about her long and multi-faceted life, and quite unexpectedly she said, “That was the year we went to Africa and lived with the Bushmen.” I nearly fell out of my chair. But it was true! Juliette had gone to Africa and made the long and dangerous trek by land rover into the Kalahari Desert to live for a time with the same Bushmen people that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lived with and wrote about; and Juliette had several gorgeous photographs of those Bushmen people to prove it.
I then had the pleasure of sending copies of Juliette’s photographs to Elizabeth, who then wrote to Juliette and told her that she recognized the people and was glad and very touched to see them again.
And that story reminds me of huckleberries, which Juliette loved, and which the hunter-gatherers in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s novels are frequently saved by in the absence of water or any other food as they trek across the rugged earth seeking food and safe shelter and, with any luck, dry firewood.
This past fall the huckleberries were thick on the bushes that grow around our house on the edge of the redwood forest. We picked several quarts to freeze so we would have berries through the winter and into spring, and this morning I made gluten-free pancakes with some of those huckleberries, and I thought of Juliette and Elizabeth and of the hunter-gatherer diet, and how chocolate is not on that diet, but honey is, because Bushmen love honey. Oh, yes we do.
There is a bird that lives symbiotically with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a brave and beautiful bird called the Honey Diviner. And this Honey Diviner comes to the Bushmen camp singing, “Hello my friends, I bring tidings of a big tree where the bees have amassed a great store of honey that is at this very moment oozing out of the hive and crying to be harvested. However, I do not have hands to get that honey from the bees, but you do, and I know you love honey as much as I do, so…”
And so the people follow the Honey Diviner to that big tree, even if it means running many miles across the desert, for they love honey as much as they love meat. And when they have braved the stings of those angry bees and filled their ostrich-shell bowls with honey, the people give the Honey Diviner a generous share of the sweet ambrosia, for without her they might never have found the hive.