“Man, say the Hadza, descended to earth on the neck of a giraffe, but more often they say that he climbed down from a baobab.” Peter Matthiessen, In “The Tree Where Man Was Born“.
It was another grey morning. Our native interpreter/guide, Saidi, found the temporary camp of the Hadza, a click-speaking hunter-gatherer tribe near Lake Eyasi, who still lives much like their stone-age ancestors. Saidi, a Hadza himself, has gone to school and speaks both Hadzane and some English. He lives in a village nearby and wears his guide attire: shirt, long pants and shoes. These days, the ‘stone age people’ dress in baboon fur, jeans shorts and tire-soled sandals and decorate themselves with headbands and necklaces made of plastic beads. Other than that, Hadza culture hardly shows any signs of contacts with the encroaching modern world.
When we arrived in the Hadza camp, half a dozen men were sitting around a dwindling fire, smoking and resting after their first hunt at dawn. The women and small children were hiding out in two dome-shaped shelters made out of plant material. The results of the dawn hunt had been meager, only one or two small animals like mongoose. Perhaps it was about time to move to another area with a greater stock of game? Apparently, the cycle time between camps is only a few months and they had already stayed in the same spot for quite some time. And they hadn’t caught any baboons or antelopes lately.
Smoking is engrained in the Hadza culture. Wild tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) and various psychoactive weeds were used traditionally, but nowadays Cannabis is very common. Several of the men would probably like to hang around the fire for the next few hours. However, three hunters were getting ready to go out again and we were allowed to follow them.
We set off with the Hadza hunters. They moved swiftly and softly through the bush, coordinating their hunting efforts by whistling commands to each other. We felt rather clumsy trying to keep up with them without getting hooked by acacia thorns or tripping over low branches. The terrain was a mixture of open patches, boulders, and dense brush plus a few high trees, including acacias and huge baobabs.
A few dogs followed us for a short while, but then padded off. The band of Hadza we visited doesn’t use dogs for hunting, but we figured that the dogs keep guard against predators at night.
The Hadza make their own hunting bows and arrows. They trade meat and honey for knifeblades and arrowheads made by the blacksmiths of the nearby Tatoga tribe. At least four different types of arrowheads are used. The largest metal arrowheads have one or two spurs and are laced with a powerful cardiac toxin from the desert rose (Adenium obesum or other Adenium species) that sticks like black tar to the metal. —Don’t touch that! M&M both take a step back. The largest arrows are used to hunt big game, like buffalos, zebras or larger antelopes. Sink one of these arrows in an animal and it will keep running for a few minutes before its heart gives up. Smaller metal arrowheads, without toxin, are used for smaller game, like guinea fowl or dikdik. Arrows for even smaller animals, like mongoose, simply have sharpened wood at the end. And arrows for small birds and lizards have a blunt end, so that the target is knocked dead. We only saw the hunters using the sharpened wooden arrows on our morning hunt.
Wild honey is a delicacy and forms an important part of the Hadza diet. We were told that at weddings, each guest is expected to bring one baboon and 10 liters of honey. We were out hunting for only a couple of hours and during this time the Hadza raided three beehives and harvested at least several hundred grams of honeycomb. It seemed to us that different species of bees showed very different levels of aggression.
We stood back at a safe distance from the angry bees. The Hadza guys got stung several times over, but seemed used to it. It’s part of the game.
Once a beehive had been raided, the guys closed up the hole so that the bees could go about their business again, replenishing the stores of honey until next time the Hadza pass by. Q: Do you remember every tree where you’ve found a good source of honey? A: Sometimes.
Two fat pigeons escaped, despite being chased for some distance as they flew from cover to cover. Two small blue-naped mousebirds weren’t as lucky. The Hadza guys plucked the long tail-feathers and saved them for later use as hair decoration (but they are not the ones you see in the pictures here).
After a couple of hours of speed hiking through the bush, we had closed the circle and returned to the camp. M & M were happy to be back, as the trek had been a matter of jogging through acacia brush, which required all senses to be on full alert all the time. ‘Where did the hunters go?’, they suddenly disappeared, hiding from some prey, ‘Duck! Watch that branch!’, ‘Please help free dad from the acacia thorns!’, ‘Don’t touch that plant!’, ‘Listen… what’s that sound?’ (whispering, of course, we’re on a hunt…) Fun, but physically tiresome. A great morning workout.
By the time we made it back to camp, the catch comprised the two mousebirds and one squirrel. This hunt was a tough, but valuable, experience for M & M. Cute little animals for breakfast? That’s another way of life, quite simply.
Cooking is very simple, no need to complicate things:
We all declined the half-cooked squirrel they kindly offered us. But we did try the honey of the stingless bee (most likely Hypotrigona sp.), which was absolutely fantastic! The best honey we have ever tasted. Very fruity flavor with rich citrus tones, but not overly sweet.
Baboon is the Hadza’s favorite food, as evidenced by this close-up shot of their trophy tree. There were easily some 20–30 skulls displayed on this tree. Look at the fangs on the left-most skull! Baboon hunting is risky business: a cornered baboon does not hesitate to attack.
The Hadza normally sleep out in the open by their fires. Sap from a local tree is used as mosquito repellent and the leaves of a particular plant are thrown on the fire to drive away snakes. Only in case of rain do the Hadza sleep under cover. Two of the men showed us their bad-weather shelter, a cave formed by a big flake of a boulder leaning at an angle against a huge rock. The rock formation looked oddly familiar, a fake memory originating from Matthiessen’s book. Could this be the place where Matthiessen spent a few weeks living with the Hadzabe back in the 60s? It might well be the same place, actually, because there are probably only a handful of similar optimal caves in this region and they have definitely been used by the Hadza for thousands of years. Sure enough, beneath the overhanging boulder we spot the primitive rock paintings: a sun, hunters and animals.
Q: How old are these paintings? A: They have always been there.
There are few, if any, places on earth where you get a more direct connection with our distant past. During a morning’s hunt M & M got a feeling for a true out-there way of life that runs straight back to the origin of mankind.