The Hadzabe….A Journey to the Beginning of Time

We are sitting in the back of a stripped down Land Cruiser speeding down a sandy two tracked dirt road when all of a sudden, we veer. It is 9PM and we have been on the road for 13 hours. Jeff Leach, researcher from the Human Food Project, calls back from the driver’s seat, “we’re almost there.” I hope to God it is true as we barrel around acacia trees illuminated in the headlights in a seemingly random fashion. It isn’t true. We swerve and bump and barrel for another hour before the jeep comes to a stop on a dark plateau in northwestern Tanzania.

In the headlights, I see a fire glowing from beneath the branches of a large baobab tree. Around the fire are 5 shadowy figures.  I slide out of the jeep on wobbly legs, and go to meet them. Small men with dark skin and the wiry strength of distance runners rise to greet us. These are the Hadzabe, one of the last practicing hunter gather societies in the world. We have arrived.

Jeff Leach, our host, is an archaeologist turned microbiologist who is three months into a 2 year stint living and working with the Hadzabe. He is collecting stool samples as well as environmental samples to try to map the microbiota of the Hadza. The microbiota is the trillions of bacteria that make up the human ecosystem. The reason that Jeff is working with the Hadzabe is that they are living in the way that humans lived for 99% of human history…as hunter gatherers. This means that they don’t raise livestock or farm any crops. They simply forage and hunt.

The first night, we pull out our sleeping mats and sleep under the stars. It’s t0o dark to put up the tent. My travel companion is Jop de Vrieze, a Dutch journalist who is writing a book on the microbiota and recently published an article on fecal transplants in Science magazine.  He asks Jeff about mosquitoes (which carry malaria), and Jeff is dismissive, “Nah, don’t worry, the wind is blowing.”

The next morning, I wake up with the sun. The Hadza men are sitting around the fire again, talking and smoking. We eat eggs and onions (Jeff’s favorite prebiotic) with some Styrofoam bread, and get back into the Land Cruiser.

We spend the day sampling a camp of approximately fifty Hadzabe men and women. Jeff has dropped off plastic vials which they have filled with poo. In family groups, they deliver their samples to the table we’ve set up in the shade of a leafless sapling. Jeff’s two Tanzanian translators, Aziz and Maryam ask the families what they’ve eaten for the last three days. They also ask if they’ve been to town recently (where there is alcohol and corn) or if they’ve had any western medication in the last year. We also record their height and weight to figure BMI. Jeff says its hardly necessary because all Hadzabe have a BMI of 20, but we do it anyway. I keep myself occupied playing peekaboo with the little ones. It’s fun to realize that this game is universal.

We haven’t eaten lunch, and its nearing 5pm by the time we return to camp. When we arrive, camp has been transformed. There is a film crew on the way and a Safari company called Dorobo has turned the plateau into a canvas tent village. Daudi Peterson, founder of Dorobo Safaris is waiting in camp for us. He grabs four beers and we walk up the cliff adjacent to the camp. Looking out, we can see for miles. Daudi and his brothers grew up in Tanzania. Sons of American Lutheran missionaries, Daudi and his brothers have been running their safari company for thirty years. Part of the mission of the company is to advocate for the people of the land including the Hadzabe. Daudi is one of only 4 or 5 white people (mizungus) in the world who speak the Hadzabe’s click language. Over the next week, I harangue him with questions which he answers with grace and humor.

The film crew arrives in 2 new, shiny Land Cruisers which look quite humorous next to Jeff’s 1980, dirt colored, diesel wafting, shock missing high-quality vehicle. There are 5 members of the crew, and they’ve traveled from San Francisco to make a film based on Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. The production assistant is Michael Pollan’s nephew.

Over the next four days, we follow the Hadzabe around as they hunt and gather. The first day, we watch as the men collect honey. Food tasks are divided by gender. Men collect honey and hunt. Women gather berries, tubers, and baobab fruit.

Honey is collected from 8 different species of bees. 7 are stingless and the 8th is the honeybee that we are familiar with in the West and which definitely stings. Like we do in US, the Hadzabe smoke honey bees into a stupor before reaching into their hives to remove the honeycomb. The hive that we encountered was high up in a baobab tree. At least 25 or 30 feet. In a matter in a minutes, the men had whittled wooden pegs which they hammered into the tree with their honey ax. They built a hand drill fire in literally thirty seconds and lit a bunch of grass on fire to smoke the bees. Nimbly, three men climbed up into the tree on the wooden pegs. One smoked the bees as the other reached in for honey. The other stood in the tree and watched. They tossed the comb down to many waiting hands. I tried two bites of the comb. One was filled with pollen and honey and was maybe the most delicious thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, and the other was a comb empty of anything but bee larvae. The bee larvae exploded in my mouth like tasteless gushers. Not so delicious.

The next morning, Jop and I are invited to go hunting with Boki, a 20 year old Hadzabe boy with enough energy to fuel a steam engine. We leave as the sun rises at about 5:30 AM. Jop and I try to move quietly behind Boki as he sets off a good pace through the savannah. It’s the dry season so most of the trees look dead but they’re not. In a month, everything will be green. The trees are mostly either baobab trees or acacia. The baobab trees have big wide trunks to store water, and the acacia protect themselves with thorns that range from several centimeters to the length of your pinky finger. No joke. Needless to say, you have to be careful moving through the brush so as not to gouge out an eye.

Almost immediately as we leave camp, we see two impala which are  graceful deer- like creatures. Boki takes a shot with his homemade bow and poison arrows but misses. We track the impala for awhile. Every so often, Boki points down at the ground at a track or a clump of feces and says “impala” or “zebra” or “diky dik.” He takes a couple shots at birds and squirrels and checks some nests for eggs but nothing. Then, we see a diky dik which is like a cross between a rabbit and a deer but again, he misses. I’m sure it doesn’t help that he has two noisy mizungus trailing behind him. Next, we spook a kudu which is a very large animal like an African moose. We track the kudu for awhile and when we reach a clearing Boki motions us to stop and he takes off over the ridge. Jop asks me for some sunscreen so I fish it out of my backpack and he is putting it on, when all of a sudden 5 bush pigs barrel into the clearing. We yell for Boki and he comes running but they are gone.

The next day, we follow the tribe out to the berry fields. The Hadzabe eat a very seasonal diet. In the dry season, they eat more meat and baobab fruits and then when the rains come, the berries and the honey flow increases so they eat more berries and honey. The berries had just begun to get ripe, and so when we arrive at the berry fields after an hour walk through the bush, there is a mad rush to the bushes. Young boys and girls climb up into the trees and sing and rock and fill their mouths with berries as quickly as possible.

It’s a joy to watch. Everyone is so excited. The berries are apricot colored and faintly sweet. Cordia sinensis is the botanical name. Jeff starts stuffing his mouth with berries. Maryam, his Hadzabe translator, warns him, “Careful, Jeff. Slow down. They will make you run.” Sure enough, six hours later, Jeff reports they’ve all passed through his system. “Six hour transit time,” he says to me wonderingly, “they must have some laxative qualities.” Maryam just laughs at him, covering her mouth and shaking silently.

Then, the ladies process the baobab fruits. This is a major source of calories for the Hadzabe for 10 months of the year, and the main weaning food for infants. I have been munching on it all week. It’s sort of like eating faintly sour chalk. Check out the link below.

Aside from the honey, my favorite food of the Hadzabe is //ekwa, a root that begins with a glottal click which is written as //.  It’s botanical name is vigna frutenscens which is in the family Fabaceae or the bean family. I had no idea that bean family plants could produce woody, edible roots so this was an exciting revelation. The //ekwa are dug by the women with sharpened digging sticks. It’s quite an exercise to uncover the whole root. They are often 12-18 inches long and just as deep. It takes 10-20 minutes to dig up one root. The roots are prepared by lightly roasting them over a fire for 5-10 minutes. This warms the flesh and blackens the skin which makes them easier to peel. When the // ekwa is cooked, it is cut into 1-2 inch long chunks and chewed. There is so much fiber in the root, that you can’t swallow all of it. So you chew and then spit out the fibers in a wad, chew and spit out the fibers in a wad.

The week came to a close much too quickly. The Hadzabe are what anthropologists like to call a present focused society. They don’t plan for the future, they don’t think too much about the past. They hunt, they gather,  they sit around the fire and tell animated stories. It’s a world view almost unfathomable to a Westerner. Michael Finkel, from National Geographic wrote a wonderful article which helps articulate this way of looking at the world.

Unfortunately for the Hadzabe, they are living in a time and place that doesn’t realize how unique they are. There are pressures from all around to civilize them, to send their children to school, and to teach them to farm. (Even though their land is quite unsuitable for farming.) Perhaps, researchers like Jeff and activists like Daudi will help protect them, but it’s not a guarantee.

I don’t know what the future holds for the Hadzabe, but I do know that I am so grateful for a chance to walk beside them for a few days. There’s an aliveness in present moment living that is undeniable. When you are focused on eating, sleeping, and making babies, life is pretty straight forward.









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