Learning to survive in uncertain times and learning how to treat everyone in our community with respect and equality are lessons we can all benefit from. However, we don’t usually think that primitive peoples are the best teachers of these lessons. Our guest would take exception to that. As a young woman, she lived with the old Bushmen of southwestern Africa and discusses how she learned a lot about how to raise children, find food and water, and about how community cooperation and equality of the sexes enabled these people to survive and thrive in a formidable environment.

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  • Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of the book, Dreaming of Lions: My life in the wild places.

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Lessons in Survival, Family and Peace from Africa’s Bushmen

Marty Peterson: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has led a fascinating life. She grew up in a family where the outdoors was her classroom, and with parents that encouraged her curiosity and nurtured her intelligence. For years Thomas has studied animals from domestic pets to tigers, deer and lions and has written many books about them including the best-selling The Hidden Life of Dogs. She has also spent years studying people and writes about the Bushmen of Southern Africa and their “old ways” in her latest book Dreaming of Lions: My Life in the Wild Places. She learned a great deal about the Bushmen’s lives, how they managed to survive on very little food and water at times and how their culture promoted equality and peace – lessons we can take to heart today. Her journey started when she was a young woman in the 1950s. Her father retired and decided to take the family on an expedition to a literally “uncharted” territory.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: He looked on the map of the world for places where there was nothing on the map, and there were three: one was Antarctica, one was the Kalahari area – a big area in Southwestern Africa – and one was Tasmania, and he picked the one in Africa and we went. It was 120,000 square miles roughly. What was on the map was the latitude and longitude line; that was it.

Peterson: They made their way to the Kalahari and lived with the Bushmen, learning their culture and their methods of survival in a harsh and uncertain environment. Her father led the expedition; her mother became an anthropologist in order to study the people; her brother made films, and Thomas helped out anywhere she could. She spent most of her time with the women of the tribe and their children and learned priceless lessons about life in the process.

Thomas: I learned an enormous amount from the women, among them: how to be a good mother. Bushmen children, they were every parents’ dream; they were just perfectly behaved and very intelligent and they wanted to learn things. You couldn’t ask for more in this world than those children.

Peterson: Thomas was amazed at just how intelligent those Bushmen children were and how they learned to survive in the forests of southern Africa. She says that they started their education at their mother’s knee when the women would take to the woods to gather food for the community. Mothers would carry their smallest children with them when they went digging for root vegetables to bring back. This is where the children learned about where and how to find food.

Thomas: So they would start to dig, but often enough, a mother might show her child she was carrying, he might be only two or three, she’d show him the leaves of the plant that she was going to dig the root from and tell him the name, or she might ask him if he remembered the name. So, children got botanical knowledge from infancy.

Peterson: Not only did Bushmen children learn how to find, identify and harvest wild vegetables, Thomas says they were also taught how to observe animals and insects to find out where they hunted and when.

Thomas: A 12-year-old boy, I think he would be about 12, he showed me the tracks of a hyena that had gone by our encampment right around sunrise. He showed me these tiny little pinpoints in the tracks, and they were the tracks of a beetle. The beetle would move around only after it was warm enough, when the sun had come up. I could hardly see the tracks; I never would’ve noticed them, but he not only noticed them, but named who made them. And he was just a kid. I mean, we don’t have that kind of knowledge, and we don’t have anything approaching that kind of knowledge. Even beetle tracks, I don’t think there are many people alive today who would recognize what kind of a beetle it was from its tracks.

Peterson: When boys grew older, they were taught how to hunt from the other men in the community – something that Thomas says took all of that tracking ability and education that the boys learned and put it to good use. It was especially valuable because the Bushmen used poison arrows to hunt, and brought down the same prey as animals in the area.

Thomas: They would go and shoot an antelope with a poison arrow and then they’d have to track it, and they might have to track it for three or four days. If other carnivores like hyenas or leopards or lions got to the animal before they did, they’d have to drag them away, which they did. My brother actually found three bushmen guys driving off about, maybe, ten lionesses and a lion off a wildebeest they had shot who was too weak to travel. She was lying down and the lions were about to eat her. The bushmen arrived and told the lions they had to go, and they just advanced slowly toward the lions. The nearest lion turned around, a little hesitantly, and then began to leave and the others also began to leave, and they left. And the bushmen got their antelope.

Peterson: Thomas says that women never hunted back then. The Bushmen had strict rules about “men’s work” and “women’s work,” but it wasn’t to keep women down. Men’s “power” was hunting and endurance.

Thomas: Women’s power was that a woman can make another human being; that was the women’s power. So, the two would get very separate because one could interfere with the other or compromise the other. Women didn’t feel they were discriminated against because they didn’t hunt, and they weren’t.

Peterson: When it came to food, Thomas says the Bushmen had ways to make sure that no one went hungry, even if they weren’t very good hunters.

Thomas: Anybody could gather. Men could gather if they wanted to; anybody could gather. And what you gathered you owned. I mean, you could eat it or you give it to somebody else, whatever. With the hunting of large game, the meat was shared very specifically, not necessarily by the hunter. Somebody else would make the sharing, and that was so that no one person became so important. Because if the best hunter was always be dividing the meat, he might favor his relative or something, and it was much better to have it formal and by somebody else.

Peterson: In a land where resources where hard to find and water was scarce, the Bushmen found that keeping the peace with everyone in their community was the best way to survive.

Thomas: They felt that cooperation and goodwill were survival tools, you could say. Everybody was equal; nobody was more important than anybody else. There were no chiefs, no leaders, everybody had the same value, and it was so that people didn’t get jealous of each other, and it kept people in a cooperative mood. This was the point. Not that people didn’t have hard feelings because of course they did, they were human beings, but the idea was to suppress this. Archaeologists later found an encampment that had been occupied continuously for 35 thousand years, and the material culture had basically hardly changed at all.

Peterson: Not only did the Bushmen cooperate with the members of their own communities, Thomas says that it was necessary to keep the peace with others in neighboring camps. How better to do this than to occasionally make the trip to visit friends and relatives…and take them a little present.

Thomas: To be cooperative and to have goodwill was a survival thing because if your waterhole failed then there was no place else to go except to another waterhole where there were other people. It would be good if they welcomed you rather than drove you away or you had to fight them to get to the water. Ties were through marriage, through kinship, and a gift partnership discovered by another anthropologist named Polly Wiessner . People had gift partners, and every now and then, maybe every couple of years or something like that, one would travel to the other. It could be up to 100 miles to bring a gift and visit. And then quite awhile later, the partner might come back to the first person and bring a gift, and this was to keep faraway people in your mind, keep good relations with them, and then if your waterhole dried or if you had to, for some reason, go somewhere else, you would be welcomed.

Peterson: The lives of the Bushmen today is very different than it was back in the hunter-gatherer culture that Thomas first witnessed back in the 1950s, and for those communities that’s a good thing. After all, would you want to walk 15-hundred miles a year carrying your 2-year-old child looking for root vegetables? Or tracking a wildebeest through the dense undergrowth for 3 days, hoping that you get there before the lions or hyenas do? Neither did the Bushmen. They wanted to be farmers and raise animals and plants on their own farms…and now they do. However, when the European farmers moved in, they shot the lions and other predators or pushed them back into ever-decreasing habitats, and she thinks that’s a pity. During her life, Thomas has observed and written about animals and she says we can learn a lot from them…especially empathy.

Thomas: I remember I went to Etosha National Park in Namibia and there was a fenced area where we were staying, and there was a lioness right outside the fence. I was doing some chore, I forget what, but the lioness was just lying there. She was watching me, not with predatory interest at all, she just wondered what I was doing, and I yawned and she yawned. And yawns are catchy among people, but I didn’t realize they were catchy among people and lions. That’s because she was empathizing. She was just watching what I was doing, maybe wondering what it was or why – studying. That’s what we do when we watch wildlife.

Peterson: You can read about how she and the Bushmen of old interacted with wildlife, as well as learned to survive and get along with each other in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book, Dreaming of Lions available in paperback from Chelsea Green press at chelsegreen.com. You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.