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The Last Great Hunter Gatherers

The Travel Almanac

24 Jan 2024

The leader reaches in between the freshly cut, drooping skin and through to the open organ cavity. Twisting his hand with a precision that only comes with age, he pulls out the bloody liver. The baboon dripping in front of him will be dinner, and perhaps breakfast, for the four families gathered under the ledge.

Tossing offal to the scrawny, yapping dogs, he picks up his bow and wipes the arrows clean. They will be used again tomorrow by the only tribe permitted to hunt in the Serengeti: the Hadzabe.

Considered to be Africa’s last true hunter-gatherers, the Hadzabe have lived around Tanzania’s Lake Eyasi since the beginning of the Stone Age. Their origins are our origins: they are the closest living relatives of the humans who first left Africa to migrate to the rest of the world.


At first glance, one might take in their dusty environment, spiked spears and worn kudu skins and describe their way of life as primitive. While it’s true that the Hadzabe’s traditions have not changed much over the past millennia, it would be a mistake to prejudge them. For in this land of survival, their uncluttered lives are a counterpoint to the West’s preoccupation with peak everything and insta-gratification.


As discussion ensues regarding which parts of the primate to carve up, the words selected not from a universal phonetics. Rhythmic clicks come from the back of their mouths as tongues flick in a musical dance. Each ‘djik’ and ‘thock’ of the Hadzabe language literally preserves their culture, for they neither read nor write. Teachings are passed down orally and visually. A daughter watches intently as her mother plucks a bird, the child’s wondrous eyes popping out of an atmosphere of dust.

The wet season is yet to arrive hereyet to dull the odour of animal innards and still-damp hides that permeates the air. Dust rides in on a breeze, as transient as the families it lands upon. Every few months these subsistence nomads pack up their modest belongings and move to another boma [rock ledge], where food is more plentiful.

For in this land of survival, their uncluttered lives are a counterpoint to the West’s preoccupation with peak everything and insta-gratification.

Balancing the ecosystem is existentialif there is no prey to catch, the Hadzabe starve. Today’s choice of arrowhead isbarbed; tomorrow’s might be tipped with poisonous sap from the desert rose. The hunters wear their prowess with pride, whether with the skin of an antelope draping their torso or a headpiece made from baboon hair. The women are more demurely wrapped in cloth. One young girl is dressed in a cut-out hessian sack.


Chasing away the flies, the leader starts hacking at the lifeless baboon. Cutting off long, lean strips, he hands them to the children who eagerly, haphazardly, place them over the open fire. Although the men eat separately from the women and children, the seared meat is shared equally; the Hadzabe’s communal egalitarianism means no one gets more or less than another. Their appreciation is announced with every loud bite and sinewy chew—taste torn into by hungry mouths as today’s catch is savoured.

Although there is no formal hierarchy, it falls to the leader, usually the best hunter, to maintain the group’s harmony. If a dispute arises, it is usually resolved by one party apologising. If a Hazda man does not admit fault despite evidence to the contrary, he receives the most personal of punishments—confiscation of his bow, making him “more useless than a woman. The alternative, being cast out to the harsh terrain, is too punitive, for even the majestically ugly baobab trees offer little respite from the sun.


The wind whips up sand circles in the sky. It is easy to forget that in a few months’ time this will all be a sea of green. Before then, though, the women must look for sustenance, walking for hours in search of nourishment from roots, fruit and berries. On their backs are babies, quietly staring out to the wilderness. Some of the infants have fresh scars on their cheekscuts that were made by their parents. When a baby cries too much the wounds are irritated by their tears, and the child learns to stop crying. 


For many Hadzabe men, their cheek scars are as prominent as the redness of their eyes, a consequence of smoking bushweed and imbibing fermented sorghum—not that this makes them any less attractive. Marriage is a common, monogamous union between Hadzabe men and women, but should either party wish to walk away, they do just that and then they are divorced. 


The leader carefully resheathes his bloody knife. Two starlings flutter low overhead and he immediately looks up, before slowly turning to flash a knowing smile. It looks like tomorrow will be a poisoned-arrow kind of day.

Original Publication: The Travel Almanac

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