The OG’s of Hunting and Gathering
The leader reaches in between the freshly cut drooping skin and 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 yappy 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 visages, dirt-ridden mats and worn kudu skins and describe them as primitive. While it’s true that the Hadzabe way of life has not changed much over the past millennia, it is 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 instagratification.
As discussion ensues about how much of the primate to carve up, the words coming out of mouths are not from a universal phonetics. Guttural sounds escape the back of throats as jaws retrench and tongues flick to produce rhythmic clicks. Each ‘djik’ and ‘thock’ of the Hadzane language literally preserves their culture, for the Hadzabe neither read nor write. Teachings are passed down orally. A daughter watches intently as her mother plucks a bird, the child’s wondrous eyes popping out from her Dickens-esque mask of dirt.
The wet season is yet to arrive here—yet to douse the stench of animal innards, human odour and still-damp hides that permeate 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 meagre belongings and move to another boma (rock ledge), where food is more plentiful.
Balancing the ecosystem is existential—if there is no prey to catch, the Hadzabe starve. Today’s choice of arrowhead is barbed; tomorrow’s might be tipped with poisonous sap from the desert rose. The hunters wear their prowess with pride, whether the skin of an antelope draping their torso or a headpiece made from baboon hair. The women are more modestly 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 bloody 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.
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 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 toddlers have fresh scars on their cheeks—cuts that have been made by their parents. When a baby cries too much the wounds are irritated by the 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 byproduct of smoking too much bushweed and imbibing fermented sorghum. Not that it makes them any less attractive to Hadzabe women. Marriage is a monogamous union, but should either 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 tobacco-blemished smile. It looks like tomorrow will be a poisoned-arrow kind of day.
Original publication: The Travel Almanac