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Brian Jones

Anthropology H200

November 29, 2005

A Report of The Harmless People

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ The Harmless People is an ethnographic study of the

Bushmen, Africa’s last hunter-gatherer society. In particular, the account of the study

retells Thomas’ experiences of living with the Gikwe and Kung tribes. However, these

stories took place in 1955; since then, much has changed in the Bushmen society. The

epilogue, titled “The Bushmen in 1989,” explains how Western society has negatively

influenced the society of the Bushmen.

Over the last few decades, South African farmers have infiltrated the territory of

the Bushmen and turned everything awry. It is true that farmers have interacted with the

tribesmen for much longer than this; but after World War II, new farmers arrived who did

not seem to care about letting the Bushmen live their own lives. With the government on

their side, the farmers forced the Bushmen to work for them, with the terrifying

punishment of losing land if they acted otherwise. Furthermore, many Westerners wanted

to turn the Bushmen territory into a game park for wealthy Europeans. In order to keep

the land, many Bushmen attempted to run farms themselves and “contribute” to the

governmental society. In this way, the farmers were not only being more productive with

the land, but they were Westernizing the natives. This is what has nearly destroyed the

Bushmen society.

What many outsiders have failed to understand is that the Bushmen were not

unaware of Western society. After all, they interacted easily with Thomas and her group
of anthropologists back in 1955. They understood what trucks were. Because they were

long allowed to live their own way, Western society did not harm the Bushmen. Outsiders

tend to think that the Bushmen were destroyed by Westernization because they could not

understand it. This may be slightly true in a few particular cases, such as the introduction

of alcohol; but for the most part, the Bushmen had simply decided for a long time to

maintain their old ways of living.

The Bushmen, then, were not harmed because they could not handle Western

society; rather, they were harmed because Western society was not compatible with what

they wanted in life. For Westerners, industrialization and the expansion of the global

economy fill their needs. Bushmen, on the other hand, simply want to be left alone for the

most part. They never had the urge to expand their society in any way, and they certainly

never had a need for money. This was also a problem when they started working on

farms, because they were paid with something they could not use amongst themselves.

The point here is that, contrary to popular belief, Westernization is not the same thing as

an inevitable evolution of society. No society is better than another; different systems are

compatible for different peoples.

In any case, this is the message in the book’s Epilogue. It is well-placed, not only

because of chronological reasons, but because in all the previous chapters the reader

learns how well the Bushmen succeed on their own. For instance, when Thomas’ group

finds an 18-foot snake near their camp, one of the natives nonchalantly walks up to the

snake’s hiding place and tries to kill it. Although he fails, the snake leaves. The group is

astonished at how unworried he is about such a dangerous creature. Surely, the Bushmen

learned centuries ago how to deal with all kinds of animals. This is a good example of
what evolution of society actually is. Rather than necessarily developing the arts,

literature, a currency, and other basic pieces of Western society; the evolution of a society

is the adaptation to the environment. Western society has gone through this process, in

the same way that they’ve tried doing with other, more “barbaric” societies – but it is not

the only way.

However, even if one wanted to argue that the arts, literature, and other cultural

subdivisions must be in a society, then the Bushmen would easily pass the test. Music, as

Thomas reports, is an immensely important part of their culture. Ukwane, one of the

older members of the Gikwe tribe, loves singing. His works, called “mood pieces” (this is

what all non-medicine Bushmen songs are called), are simple yet beautiful displays of his

emotions. Possibly the most remarkable thing about this is that Ukwane played these

songs with half a melon and the reed of his hunting bow. One song, entitled “Bitter

Melons,” describes the feeling of sadness when melons found in the wild turn out to taste

bitter. It seems as though the message of the song is quite simple, and some Westerners

may laugh at this; however, I would defy them to produce any song that did not have to

do with love or killing someone. Bushmen songs relate to a great number of events, and

the music itself can truly fill the listener with the emotion of each one. The “mood songs”

are aptly named.

Dancing, also, is an important part of Bushman life. When problems arise, or

when the people have the urge to do so, the men perform a medicine dance. The women

can dance also, although for the most part they simply watch. Thomas was blessed to see

one such dance, which started with only a few girls dancing around a small fire in the

evening. A crowd grew quickly, and soon the entire camp was involved with rattling the
instruments, singing, and dancing wildly. Some of the men went into a trance or began

screaming. It sounds as though it was similar to an African-American evangelical church

service, which makes quite a bit of sense. The dance lasted all night, and finally ended in

the morning.

As for literature, the Bushmen are indeed not literate. This is not a problem,

though, because they are an oral society – or, at least, they were. Up until a few decades

ago, every piece of knowledge in the community was passed down from the elderly, who

had experienced the fullness of life. Advice about living and the many details therein

were passed down through the oral tradition, but that is not all. Many remarkable tales

would be passed down from one generation to the next, and thus writing it all down was

unnecessary. Several stories involved Pishiboro, which is “one of the names of God.” In

one story, for instance, Pishiboro marries an elephant; when his younger brother decides

to eat the elephant, Pishiboro gives in and joins him. Later, when the elephant’s family

comes for revenge, the younger brother creates an anthill in which Pishiboro can hide. It

works, but eventually Pishiboro dies anyway. What this story means is beyond me.

However, a story is a story, and it works for the Bushmen.

Unfortunately, as the Bushmen slowly became part of Western culture, the oral

tradition became lost. The elders are now no longer members of great esteem; in contrast,

they are merely old people of no use. It is interesting how it is the same way in Western

culture; why would we want to spread something to other societies if it made key

members useless? When thought about in this light, Western expansion seems a bit

ridiculous.
The oral tradition is also of importance because it holds the laws and customs of

the people. These customs are taken very seriously, as Thomas’ group quickly learned.

For instance, if one hunter kills an animal, he has the right to the largest share of the meat

– although generally speaking, the hunter will share his portion with his close kin. Also, a

woman must not go off with European men without a tribesman accompanying her.

These are only a couple examples of many rules which the Bushmen hold dear.

It is quite sad, then, that the Bushmen way of life has disintegrated so vastly in the

past few decades. Many Bushmen have been killed by their own kin. Arguments are

much more frequent. All the work that Bushmen perform is paid for with very little

money, which in turn is spent on alcohol. Thomas argues that, deep down, the Bushmen

still want to hold on to their old ways; hopefully, she is right. On the surface, however,

they have abandoned their old way of living for something much worse.

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