Long vistas and the dry season's withered vegetation enable keen eyes to spot game miles away. From a wind-bowed tree on a ridge, a man named Mahiya peers across rough terrain where Hadza bands range.
"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.