Running with the Hadza

Eric Seyfarth runs with the Hadza, Tanzania's Stone Age tribe that represents a living link to our earliest ancestors.


Eric Seyfarth
August 30, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

This is the most furious cigarette break I have ever seen. The four Hadza hunters pass a Marlboro in a circle, taking drags as though it was the last smoke on earth. Each epic inhalation is followed by ceremonial and phlegm-producing spasms of coughing and a nervous twitching of fingers that is the international sign of a person in need of another hit. The Marlboro is sucked to the filter in record time. Just as the last drag is being wrested, Numbile points across the dry riverbed and the hunters are off in a silent sprint. With a coordination directed without words, the men fan out as they reach the other bank.

Numbile is the oldest, fastest and, as far as I can tell, most experienced of the hunters. He is trailed by Asamiakoi, Bubute and Shokoji. Two of the hunters wear cloth loin coverings, and two wear Western shorts. Each is shirtless and carries a bow that matches his height. The bow and a half-dozen long arrows with white-speckled feathers are carried in each man's left hand as he runs. All have knives fastened at the waist by a leather cord.

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Red dust flies like psychedelic tracers from their sandals and glimmers in the broiling sun. I don't know what they are after, but I do know that I want to follow. This is a ridiculous idea. I am dropped after 10 paces. On the other side of the riverbed, I find myself alone, weaving through the thigh-tearing acacia thorns with the grace of a slalom skier on cafeteria trays. I realize that I am making a lot of game-scattering noise, and that unlike me, the hunters rely on stealth to make a living. Then I realize, and this is much more important, that I am running blindly through the Tanzanian bush within lethal range of four well-armed hunters, whom I have met only 15 minutes ago. I'm sure that the hunters would never try to harm me, so I am more worried about running through their line of fire than them firing at me.

I stop. The stillness merely stokes the tension. This is a land of large, stunningly successful predators. A crash in the bush behind me ignites a panic flash, quickly followed by the calming realization that such a racket could only come from my lagging companions: my wife, Jennifer, my friends Sara and Karl and the guy with the Marlboros who got us here in the first place, Patrick.

We stagger into a clearing. We are red-faced, hands on our knees, gasping for air. We are a sorry example of our species.

Patrick points 50 yards away to where our hosts are gathered under a tree. The smallest hunter, Shokoji, is up in the menacing-looking acacia, extracting an arrow-impaled bird called a francolin. We walk toward the hunters. Patrick reaches for a cigarette.

The four hunters are among less than 1,000 Hadza who still live almost entirely beyond the reach of the developed world. I had come to Tanzania with the promise of meeting these Hadza, who are among the last nomadic people left on the continent. Before leaving, I had read everything I could find about the Hadza, which wasn't much: a few anthropology texts, a smattering of information on the Internet and the eloquent "The Tree Where Man Was Born," by Peter Matthiessen, which documents his time with the tribe in the late 1960s. According to a local conservation guidebook, "Their way of life has probably been typical of humanity for much of our evolution." That way of life is fading fast.

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The actual number of Hadza is anybody's guess, because their habits defy the very notion of a census. They build no shelters, carry few possessions and move constantly in search of game. They hunt with poison-tipped arrows. They are gifted runners -- something that I learned firsthand -- relying on their speed and endurance to pursue wounded game for hours while the toxin takes effect.

More easy to count are the forces that conspire against them: farming, cattle-ranching, encroaching settlement and a government hell-bent on modernization. This is all in the name of progress, if for no other reason than that progress is measured in such things. And in developing African nations, progress -- a deity clad in a European suit clutching a cell phone -- reigns above all else. According to the presumptuously named Friends of Peoples Close to Nature, a European organization that has made a cause of the Hadza, girls and young women have been abducted and enslaved into prostitution in nearby towns, children are forced to attend school to learn English and Swahili while their own language is rejected and missionaries have subverted traditional beliefs.

By any standard of measure, the Hadza are losing badly in the struggle against better organized and more aggressive neighbors. Cattle farming, particularly by Masai and Datoga herders, has severely damaged the land and eliminated traditional game. In a place with very little water to begin with, the Hadza have been cut off from traditional water sources now appropriated by herders. Much of the water that is still accessible has been fouled by cattle. Parks and other preserves established for the enjoyment of foreign tourists have further reduced the available land.

The Hadza are cultural holdouts as well. Their click-tongue speech is unrelated to other languages in the region. Because their language is similar to the San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, some believe that they migrated from the south, but that cultural link was cut ages ago.

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I was running blindly through the hills of the Great Rift Valley because of
the good graces of Patrick Texier, the man with the Marlboros. Texier, a
French expatriate who has lived in Africa for the last 30 years, had just
joined a Tanzanian partner to start a safari company. He needed test subjects
for a dry run. We volunteered.

Texier is straight out of central casting, with
his Gallic accent and unflappability. He flew bush planes in West Africa just
out of the French army. He conspired in secret wars during the 1960s. He was a
poacher. He was an anti-poacher. On one of his few extended trips away from
Africa, he hiked across the Amazon Basin. He has done a lot of other things that he
refuses to talk about. Before this venture in Tanzania, he had run a safari
business in Sierra Leone until a brutal coup drove him out of that country.
Armed renegades invaded his company headquarters, and Texier fled into the
surrounding bush just as they stormed in. He watched from the trees as the men
slaughtered his entire staff. He escaped, returned to Paris to regain his
bearings, and then moved to Tanzania, where my friend Sara had met him during
previous travels.

Texier brought us from his home in Arusha near the Kenyan border by Land Rover
to a village near Lake Eyasi in northern Tanzania, south of the Ngorongoro
Crater. There we set up camp and met Memoya Muhido, a Datoga man who spoke a
little of the Hadza language and offered to take us to visit a group with which
he had recently made contact. The Hadza move a lot, he explained, so there
were no guarantees. We drove by the massive salt flat of Lake Eyasi, through a
small town and past children walking down the dirt main road in their blue
and white uniforms on their way to the Lutheran Missionary School. We swung
out of the town, away from a line of volcanoes that ring the lake, and into the
arid interior. The squat thorn bushes began to grow farther apart. The earth
turned from moist brown to a dry red dust.

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We left the main road and followed a path that narrowed so that the truck
was being violently scratched by unyielding thorn branches. Muhido rode in the
front passenger seat and pointed the way with a series of soft hand gestures.
Occasionally he would ask to stop the car and would sit quietly for a few
seconds, drawing on some elaborate map that he had in his mind. Eventually,
the path stopped, and so did the Land Rover. We got out and followed a set of
footprints in the red dust.

A man walked toward us. He might have been in his late 40s. He had very
few teeth. His Western-style dress shirt was open and his small torso was
muscular. He was wearing faded shorts and sandals with car-tire soles. He and
Muhido spoke for two or three minutes. Much of the time was taken by long
pauses in which each man looked at the ground or past the other toward the
trees. It was the most indirect conversation I have ever seen. After an
especially long pause the man pointed toward a giant acacia tree. Muhido
motioned for us to follow.

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There are no general rules of etiquette, at least that I am aware of, when you
walk into a camp of nomadic hunting people who are living a few steps removed
from the Stone Age. The best option, I discovered, was to silently sit on the
ground with a warm smile. That's what our hosts were doing.

As I looked around the camp, I saw that the packing-light reputation of the
Hadza is earned. The group of two dozen people had very few possessions and no
shelters. Kudu and zebra skins were placed on the ground and tucked into
recesses in the bushes that served as apartments. The only non-traditional
touches were Western shirts and shorts on a few of the men and plastic
grocery bags carefully hung from branches that looked to contain everything
the various families owned. Most people were sitting around a fire, as
three or four women melted bits of scrap plastic into beads, which the Hadza
women wear in colorful loops that cascade across their chests. A bone pipe
packed with marijuana was being slowly passed among the adults.

Muhido's few words of Hadza came in handy as Numbile, Asamiakoi, Bubute and
Shokoji walked into camp. They were empty-handed, and had stopped at the camp
before heading out again in search of lunch. That's when we invited ourselves
to go along. Whether the invitation was accepted I couldn't tell, but
something of a deal was struck when Texier pulled out the first cigarette. The
smiles on the hunters' faces made it clear that they preferred the imported
leaf over the local variety.


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Shokoji pulls the francolin from the tree and hands it to Numbile, who snaps
its neck and tucks the guinea fowl-resembling bird under the leather cord around
his waist. Dramatic smoking ensues. Then the men are off. At first they walk
quickly, then break into a jog, then kick into an Olympic-medal mid-distance
pace. I struggle to keep up with them, which is made easier when the men stop
at a water hole to drink. They lower their heads at the edge of the water in a
perfectly held half-pushup. They blow gently on the surface to clear debris
and with puckered lips just touching the water drink deeply, still holding
the half-pushup as rigid as a gymnast. I take a foul-tasting swig from my
plastic bottle. The heat has cooked my water to a tea-steeping temperature.
The Hadza's choice looks much more refreshing.

The men stand up, say a few rapid-fire words with tongues clicking, and with a
cue that I miss, take off in a sprint. I lose them again. A pattern is
developing. The Hadza bound off. My fellow travelers and I follow. I try to
stay with the hunters. I get dropped. The Hadza stop. I find the Hadza. The
tourists find each other. This happens a lot, because when you are an arrow-shooting nomad, you have to sprint after a lot of meals before getting one.

On this current dash, I am alone again. I follow footprints in the dust, and
then I lose them. I am sure that my companions are as lost as I am, until I
walk into a clearing to see the four hunters and my pals, spread around a
25-foot-tall tree, craning their heads to the top branches. Three of the hunters
have their bows drawn over their heads with their arrows aimed skyward. They
hold their spare arrows between their knees. Numbile walks among the three,
pointing into the tree, talking excitedly, using hand gestures to suggest
various angles of trajectory.

At the top of the tree is a terrified looking monkey called a bushbaby.
Several volleys are launched at the house cat-sized primate that ricochet off
branches or miss entirely. I keep alert for incoming lethal-tipped arrows.
Then Bubute draws his bow, relaxes his shoulders and releases. Bull's-eye.
Straight through the chest.

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A week before driving to Lake Eyasi, I had stood at the base of the Olduvai Gorge.
The griddlelike heat created sheets of rising air that made the canyon walls
shimmer in the refraction. It was here that Mary Leakey, working with her
husband, Louis, discovered a 1.8 million-year-old skull of Australopithecus
boisei in 1959, the 1.75 million-year-old remains of Homo habilis in 1972 and,
at a nearby area called Laetoli, the 3.6 million-year-old footprints of a
strolling Australopithecus afarensis trio in 1978. These finds are
extraordinary, not only because they were discovered by one team within such a
small stretch of real estate, but also because they provide such critical
pieces of the human evolutionary puzzle: Hominids have been in the area for a
long time, they had been walking on two legs for much of that time and more
than one line of hominid species thrived at the same time.

I know the bit about A. boisei because I read the plaque that marks the spot
of Leakey's discovery as I diked the sweat pouring off my forehead with a
handkerchief. Other details of the Leakeys' forays are explained in a small,
disheveled museum that is perched at the rim of the gorge. Before her death in
1996, Mary Leakey had written off the place, having said, "I avoid Olduvai if
I can because it is a ruin. It is most depressing."

Despite Leakey's
characteristically brusque comment, I was drawn to the gorge. This is hallowed
ground for my species -- an Eden of scientific discovery, if there can be such a
paradoxical place. My mind raced with images of my kind's formative years as I
scanned the stratified walls of the gorge, each eon stacked above the
previous. The layers form a time line of human history in relief, created by
regular dustings of volcanic ash and sedimentation from small lakes that
covered the landscape.

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While the gorge holds a record that dates to the morning of human existence,
the topography of the surrounding Great Rift Valley is relatively young in
geologic time, born of recent and rapid changes. The vast semi-arid savanna
featured two critical conditions: trees scattered just far enough to allow
sight across large areas but close enough to form a network of refuge from
predators, and water plentiful enough to drink in most years but scarce enough
to force game to gather in concentrations where they could be hunted or
scavenged efficiently.

These conditions favored species that adapted well to environmental change,
walked on two legs with free hands, had eyes perched well off the ground and
were blessed with ever-expanding brains. Homo sapiens happened to fit the
bill, and ultimately, won the highest honor of speciation: survival. Something
for which I and mine can be eternally grateful.


Skewered by the arrow, the treed bushbaby struggles to escape across the top
of the canopy. Asamiakoi cuts a long branch while Shokoji fashions a bark
noose at its end. The animal is snared by a leg and pulled toward the ground.
Its strong front paws are ripped off a branch, sending a cascade of leaves
spinning below it. Asamiakoi grabs the arrow that has the animal impaled and
holds it against a bush. Shokoji takes aim and shoots the monkey again through
the chest. In that fatal moment the bushbaby grabs the arrow shaft with his
delicate humanlike front paws. Numbile pulls out the two arrows, and to
ensure that the animal is dead, puts the back of its skull in his teeth and
bites down with a crack of crushed bone. He then snaps all four legs at the
base of the body so that they hang loose and tucks the head under the cord at
his waist opposite the francolin.

We walk back to the dry riverbed that we had crossed earlier. The hunters
gather leaves and sticks for a fire. Bubute spins with his hands a blunt-ended
arrow shaft into a softer piece of wood on the ground. He places the glowing
ember at the base of the wood with the flat edge of his knife. The fire starts
quickly. The unplucked bird and the unskinned monkey are set on the flames.
The bushbaby is placed belly up, arms spread, head thrown back. Its wide eyes
stare at me. Fur and feathers send up thick white smoke. The monkey, only
minutes ago hopping across the brittle canopy of leaves, becomes lunch with
our eyes locked.

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The Hadza pull apart the animals with their hands and eat the cooked parts,
draping the rest on the fire until medium-rare. They consume everything -- feet,
tail, skin, heads, innards. They offer a choice piece of monkey to me. I choke
down the meat, trying to hide my queasiness. I also try to ignore the creeping
realization that the course is a mere chromosome or two removed from my own
flesh.

After eating we sit in silence, broken by the coughing of the hunters, who
have reduced two cigarettes to the filter. After producing the second
cigarette, Texier holds out the pack and elaborately crushes it for all to
see. Though crestfallen by this universal gesture, the men take the news as
well as anybody could in their situation.

The hunters move close to one another. Then they begin to sing. One lays down
a remarkable baritone, another leads with lilting complex phrases, the last
two join in strange and powerful harmony. The moment surpasses language, and I understand that the men sing of both remorse and hope from a place
deep in history and human emotion. They finish. We stand to walk back to the
camp. Something crashes in the bush so close even I see it. The brown-red
flash of an impala grazes our periphery. The hunters spring up the riverbank,
and I lunge to chase them. Then I stop. My delusions have run long enough. I
had lost the will to stay with them generations ago.

I stand with my companions at the top of the bank. We look over the parched,
rolling hills of the Great Rift Valley where perhaps some of the most
important lessons about being human have been learned. Each of us reels under
the weight of our private thoughts. I try to keep mine clear of the contents
of my stomach. Five minutes later the hunters are back. The impala got away.

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We walk back to the camp. The group has grown to about 30 since we left
in the morning. Another party of hunters has killed a baboon. This has been a
good day. A woman is stewing the primate. Red chunks of meat are piled into a
small metal pot. She occasionally cuts off a piece, which she eats or hands
to one of the little children who sit with her. Several men squat in a circle
nearby. One pounds a piece of scrap metal on a rock with a hammer. He is
making an arrow tip. The cold metal will take a long time to fashion into the
delicate shape that he needs. The afternoon sun is softening. There will be
enough to eat tonight.

Texier has driven the Land Rover to the edge of camp. The big white truck
resting under the shade of the tree is a rough contrast with the Hadza quietly
sitting in tight circles, passing their bone pipe. I try to ignore the truck,
but the effort of doing so only introduces another rough contrast to the
moment: my judgment.

I want to tell the woman preparing the baboon that she should cook the pieces
a little longer before she hands it to the kids. I want to suggest to the guy
pounding the arrow tip that he could save a lot of time if he softens the
metal in the fire. But then he probably wants to tell me that I should get in
shape and lose the dead-weight notebook that I have been uselessly shifting
from one hand to the other since I arrived.

I look at the guy patiently whacking away at the piece of scrap metal as I
walk toward the truck. My kind will probably survive for some time, I tell
myself. His has about the same chance as a treed bushbaby staring down a
speeding arrow. And in this moment I realize my arrogance. What it means to
survive is far more complex. The hard lesson taught in the Olduvai Gorge is
that success is bred of eons, not decades. Selection favors only those who
meet the terms, but the terms remain a mystery, beyond the possibility of our
imaginings.

The arrow-tip maker and I will have lived in the identical instant of greater
time. My bones and his bones are destined for the same era of sediment. Whose
remains will be dug up by intruding hands and what story will be told about
them are questions that will not be answered for a long time to come.


Eric Seyfarth

MORE FROM Eric Seyfarth

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Africa Travel




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