"I'm hungry," says Onwas, squatting by his fire, blinking placidly through the smoke. The men beside him murmur in assent. It's late at night, deep in the East African bush. Singing, a rhythmic chant, drifts over from the women's camp. Onwas mentions a tree he spotted during his daytime travels. The men around the fire push closer. It is in a difficult spot, Onwas explains, at the summit of a steep hill that rises from the grassy plain. But the tree, he adds, spreading his arms wide like branches, is heavy with baboons. There are more murmurs. Embers rise to a sky infinite with stars. And then it is agreed. Everyone stands and grabs his hunting bow.
Onwas is an old man, perhaps over 60—years are not a unit of time he uses—but thin and fit in the Hadza way. He's maybe five feet tall. Across his arms and chest are the hieroglyphs of a lifetime in the bush: scars from hunts, scars from snakebites, scars from arrows and knives and scorpions and thorns. Scars from falling out of a baobab tree. Scars from a leopard attack. Half his teeth remain. He is wearing tire-tread sandals and tattered brown shorts. A hunting knife is strapped to his hip, in a sheath made of dik-dik hide. He's removed his shirt, as have most of the other men, because he wants to blend into the night.
Onwas looks at me and speaks for a few moments in his native language, Hadzane. To my ear it sounds strangely bipolar—lilting and gentle for a phrase or two, then jarring and percussive, with tongue clicks and glottic pops. It's a language not closely related to any other that still exists: to use the linguists' term, an isolate.