TANZANIA: The Last Hunter Gatherers

Hunting only with bows, arrows, and their ingenuity, what marked my time with the Hadza was how remarkably happy they seemed. In their language, there is no word for “worry” and by following their ancestral ways, the Hadza truly live in the moment. 

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All along the course of this story — while photographing the Tsimane, the Inuit, the Bajau — my editor Pamela Chen and I had been constantly researching the next stop, and then changing course as needed.

Africa, however, was proving to be especially challenging. It seemed that this part of the story could be told both everywhere and nowhere. The continent was so vast, with so many tribes! I just needed to photograph a community whose diet was completely free of food from outside sources.

Self-sufficiency was a must — everything the tribe ate must either be foraged, hunted, grown or herded. No influence of foreign aid.

I contacted university professors, fellow National Geographic photographers, writers, NGO workers, and local guides for their advice. There were the Aka, the !Kung, the Konso who still grew an ancient grain (“They have a king, a colorful character”), the Ganjule who lived near a very large lake (“But be very careful if they go hunt hippo!”), the Maasai where I could get a taste of milk and blood from the same animal, and the Surmas near Tungit (“how do they eat with those massive lip plugs?”).

“Hold on,” an eager guide e-mailed me one morning, “I think the Suri people are more related to your profession, go there!” Then there were the Ovatue (as noted on a piece of scrap paper, a four day round trip, weather depending) who I was told must be way better than the over-rated Humba. And I should seriously consider the Berbers in northern Mali and go to northern Ghana and Malawi too, but most definitely forget about the northern Omo valley — way too many tourists there!

Wait... Pam and I had to ask each other, were we looking for pastoralists or 100% foragers? I couldn’t make head nor tail of any of this. I felt lost in an ocean of tribes with cool names.

And then of course there were the Hadza.

The many PhDs and world-class anthropologists had all pointed me in this direction — to the Hadzas, nicely tucked away in Tanzania, and who have probably the most ancient diet on earth.

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The Hadza were perfect. Except that National Geographic had put them on the cover just a few years back, and it was understood the images were still too fresh in the reader’s mind. I had to look elsewhere. Hence my headache and all these scribbled notes piling up on my desk.

But then it came, on that fine evening of February 5th, at 11:48 pm, a magical e-mail from Pamela, “Good news! I spoke with Sarah Leen, the Director of Photography, today to get her advice on revisiting the Hadza. If you shoot it differently, she thinks it shouldn’t be a problem!”

The thorn in my side was gone. The Hadza would have me.

 * * *

Flash forward a few weeks and I arrive in the Yaeda valley. Now I have never liked hunting, especially the modern version. The loud bang, the bright orange jackets, the oozing testosterone. It’s too much like modern warfare.

When you hunt, I think you should do it by fair means, with respect for the life you are taking and without greed. Hadza only hunt with bow and arrow, and as it turns out, I quite like the experience.

It’s more like a long, silent trek with the chance of an adrenaline rush followed by a gamey snack. In Hadzaland, the incredible challenge of hunting is self-limiting—more often than not, you bring nothing back to camp. In this pristine savannah, wildlife doesn’t deplete as long as agriculturalists or pastoralists leave the place untouched, which so far, they more or less have.

Above: Ngosha bites into a honeycomb full of larvae.

Above: Ngosha bites into a honeycomb full of larvae.

Apart from larvae in honeycomb—eaten together with the honey it tastes salty, sweet, sour, delicious—most of the Hadza’s protein intake comes from hunting. Kauda and January (like the month) are some of the best hunters and trackers. And they better be, because with me as an added member of the hunting party, the challenge has just been increased.

My exotic smells act like a well-tuned alarm system, generously aired to the surrounding wildlife. Kauda reminds me of this on a regular basis.

They nickname me pompom — meaning something like “thick guy.” Now I have a way to go before being fat, but compared to the average Hadza body — most of them have a fabulous six-pack and could easily pose for the cover of Men’s Fitness — I am definitely pompom.

We walk for three days, seeing cute dik-diks bobbing around (though too far to even aim at) and a family of warthog (the poisoned arrow bounced off its head, and left the arrow completely bent).

We hear the hiccup-like braying sounds of zebras.

Above: On the way to collecting tubers, a staple food of the Hadza and the women’s work.

Above: On the way to collecting tubers, a staple food of the Hadza and the women’s work.

Then, the guaranteed highlight of my past and future hunting experiences — we get so close to a giraffe that January actually has a shot at it. He takes off his sandals to avoid breaking twigs, looks deep into my eyes and asks me to be extra quiet, then walks half-bent for half-a-mile, picks a poisoned arrow, aims and shoots. Not for fun, and not because I am there, but in the hope of getting some extra protein for himself and quite a large number of his people.

The Hadza can hunt that kind of wildlife, off-limits to you and me. With the amount of meat to be had from large animals like these, the whole camp (between 20 and 30 people) would actually relocate to the carcass.

January’s arrow goes in near the flank of the giraffe. In the silence of the bush, I can actually hear the sound of it penetrating the flesh.

A cycle is completed — from arrow to target. Compare that to a gunshot, when all you hear is the explosion, ears ringing in the aftermath.

We track the wounded giraffe for over an hour. The track starts to get “drunk” as the poison takes effect. I am tense. January says we should return to camp before it gets dark, and that we will continue tracking in the morning. I am ready to push on, my head filling with grand ideas of award-winning shots. And that is where they will remain — in my head.

The Hadza walk in the surrounding savannah for a few hours and gather what they need for the day.

The Hadza walk in the surrounding savannah for a few hours and gather what they need for the day.

The next day, after another hour of speed walking, Kaunda starts going around in circles. The track has grown faint. The giraffe had overcome the poison and apparently slept here before moving on. No drama of a silent giraffe drawing her last breath in a clearing of long brown grass. No Matthieu shooting an overhead shot hanging from a nearby tree, with the mist rising all around. I am truly happy that the giraffe survived — but I would have liked that shot too. On the return, Kaunda hunts a hyrax sunbathing on a rock and some blood splatters on my camera. The poor thing looks — and tastes — like a large rodent, far from my majestic giraffe. I’ve read it is related to the elephant. And that was the end of my hunting story — a rodent whose long lost father was an elephant, being cooked whole on a fire.

Above: The day’s spoil for the Hadza hunters includes a bush baby.

Above: The day’s spoil for the Hadza hunters includes a bush baby.

The Hadza were the most intense experience I had while working on this story on the evolution of the human diet. They do not practice agriculture, herd animals, or even store any food. There is nothing to eat at camp in the morning. They walk in the surrounding savannah for a few hours and gather what they need — berries, honey (and there is even a bird who sometimes guides them on that venture), tubers and tangy baobab-fruits. And yes, sometimes animals fall, hit by their arrows, but not out of greed.

Nomads who live in camps made of twigs covered with grass, like upside-down nests, when the Hadza leave a camp behind, the twigs and grass fall off and eventually go back into the soil. There are no cemeteries, no traces left behind. Thousands of years and it can be argued that they have left no impact on their environment. Our ancestors all had that lifestyle at some point in history. Your ancestors too.

Hadzas have the oldest mitochondrial DNA ever tested in a human population — they might in fact be among the “oldest” lineages on earth. Some anthropologists argue that the ancestors of today’s Hadza communities may have been where they are for 50,000 years.

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Most of all though, what marks my time with the Hadza is how happy they seem. In their language, there is no word for “worry”.

For the Hadza, the concept of “worrying” is something that is related to either the future or to the past. Following their ancestral ways, they truly live in the moment. When focusing on daily survival is the most natural thing to do, there is no need for chakra alignment to get yourself centered, or mindfulness courses to experience the here and now. The Hadza, without overthinking it, have kept their focus unchanged over thousands of years, and that is admirable.



Matthieu Paley is a National Geographic photographer currently based in Turkey. He focuses his efforts on documenting self-sufficient communities all over the world. paleyphoto.com