The Old Way

A Story of the First People


One of our most influential anthropologists reevaluates her long and illustrious career by returning to her roots—and the roots of life as we know it

When Elizabeth Marshall Thomas first arrived in Africa to live among the Kalahari San, or bushmen, it was 1950, she was nineteen years old, and these last surviving hunter-gatherers were living as humans had lived for 15,000 centuries. Thomas wound up writing about their world in a seminal work, The Harmless People (1959). It has never gone out of print.
Back then, this was uncharted territory and little was known about our human origins. Today, our beginnings are better understood. And after a lifetime of interest in the bushmen, Thomas has come to see that their lifestyle reveals great, hidden truths about human evolution.
As she displayed in her bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs, Thomas has a rare gift for giving voice to the voices we don't usually listen to, and helps us see the path that we have taken in our human journey. In The Old Way, she shows how the skills and customs of the hunter-gatherer share much in common with the survival tactics of our animal predecessors. And since it is "knowledge, not objects, that endure" over time, Thomas vividly brings us to see how linked we are to our origins in the animal kingdom.
The Old Way is a rare and remarkable achievement, sure to stir up controversy, and worthy of celebration.

  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux; October 2007
  • ISBN: 9781429954518
  • Edition: 1
  • Read online, or download in secure EPUB format
  • Title: The Old Way
  • Author: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
  • Imprint: Sarah Crichton Books

In The Press

“In 1950, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' father, the retired president of Raytheon, together with his wife, a former English teacher, and their two teenage children went out to live among some of the last people in the world still living as nomadic hunter-gatherers. It would be a coming of age like no other, with stunning and unforeseen rewards for the field of Anthropology. Her mother, Lorne Marshall, would write The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, one of the great ethnographies of all time; her brother John made a series of films culminating (just before he died) in the epic Kalahari Family, chronicling the fate of the !Kung through early contacts and discovery of their remarkable way of life, to their tragic displacement from the lands that had sustained them for so many thousands of year. Elizabeth herself, an extraordinarily gifted writer went on to write a number of best-selling books. Now, half a century later, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas returns to those early experiences and re-examines what she learned from the people, places, animals and lifeways encountered in the Kalahari long ago. The result is a brilliantly conceived, wise and hauntingly vivid, portrait of the natural and social worlds inhabited by people living much as our earliest human ancestors must have. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' finest book to date, The Old Way, is a deeply felt, deeply observed masterpiece that transforms the way we look at our own world.” —Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection

“This is the owner's manual we need for humankind. THE OLD WAY gives us critical insight into our past at a turning point in human history by one of the few people who has seen our kind living as we have lived for most of our species' existence. This will be one of the most important books of the millennium.” —Sy Montgomery, author of The Snake Scientist and The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans

“A study of primitive people which, for beauty and concept, would be hard to match.” —The New York Times Book Review on The Harmless People

“The charm of this book is that the author can so truly convey the strangeness of the desert life in which we perceive human traits as familiar as our own....The Harmless People is a model of exposition: the style very simple and precise, perfectly suited to the neat, even fastidious activities of a people who must make their world out of next to nothing.” —The Atlantic on The Harmless People

About The Author

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is the author of seven books, nonfiction and fiction —among them The Hidden Life of Dogs, The Harmless People, and Reindeer Moon. She's written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The Atlantic, and lives in New Hampshire.