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We Are What We Eat: Hunting the Hadza Way With Bows, Arrows, and Ingenuity

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Isak, a member of the Hadza tribe, takes a break while hunting.

Greenland, Bolivia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Crete. After traveling to five different countries in search of the origins of the human diet, Matthieu Paley comes to the last stop in his journey, Tanzania.

April 2014

I felt like a headless chicken. All along the course of this story—while photographing the Tsimane, the Inuit, the Bajau—my editor Pamela Chen and I had been constantly researching the next stop, changing course as needed. Africa, however, was proving to be especially challenging. It seemed this part of this story could be told both everywhere and nowhere. The continent was so vast, so many tribes!

I “just” needed to photograph a community whose diet was completely free of food from outside sources. Self-sufficiency was a must: everything they ate must either be foraged, hunted, grown or herded. No influence of foreign aid.

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A Hadza woman, Wande and her husband, Makoa, set out to find food. She uses a blade-tipped stick to dig for tubers. He brings an ax to extract honeycomb from tree trunks and a bow and arrows for hunting and defense.

I contacted university professors, fellow National Geographic photographers, writers, NGO workers, and local guides for their advice: There were the Aka, the !Kung, the Konso who still grew an ancient grain (“They have a king, a colorful character”), the Ganjule who lived near a very large lake (“But be very careful if they go hunt hippo!”), the Maasai where I could get a taste of milk and blood from the same animal, the Surmas near Tungit (how do they eat with those massive lip plugs?)

“Hold on,” an eager guide e-mailed me one morning, “I think the Suri people are more related to your profession, go there!” The Ovatue (as noted on a piece of scrap paper: four days round trip, weather depending) must be way better than the overrated Humba. And I should seriously consider the Berbers in northern Mali and go to northern Ghana and Malawi too, but most definitely forget about the northern Omo valley—way too many tourists there! Wait, Pam and I had to ask each other, did we need pastoralists or 100% foragers?

I couldn’t make head nor tails of any of this. I felt lost in my ocean of tribes with cool names. Of course there were the Hadza. The many PhDs and world-class anthropologists had all been pointing me in this direction: the Hadzas, nicely tucked away in Tanzania, have probably the most ancient diet on earth.

VIDEO: Come along with the Hadza as they hunt and gather a daily meal.

The Hadza were perfect. Except that National Geographic had put them on the cover just few years back, and it was understood the images were still too fresh in the reader’s mind. I had to look elsewhere—hence my headache and all these scribbled notes piling up on my desk.

But then it came, on that fine evening of February 5th, at 11:48 p.m., a magical e-mail from Pamela: “Good news! I spoke with Sarah Leen [the Director of Photography] today to get her advice on revisiting the Hadza. If you shoot it differently, she thinks it shouldn’t be a problem!” The thorn in my side was gone. The Hadza would have me.

*****

Flash forward a few weeks and I have arrived in the Yaeda valley. Now I have never liked hunting, especially the modern version—the loud bang, the bright orange jackets, the oozing testosterone. It’s way too much like modern warfare. When you hunt, I think you should do it by fair means, with respect for the life you are taking and without greed.

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Young Hazda hunters survey the Yaeda valley (right). Their families eat whatever they bring home; one day’s spoils included a bush baby (left). Over the past 50 years, most of the tribe’s ancestral land has been taken over by herders whose cattle scare off wildlife and by farmers who cut down trees to make fences.

Hadza only hunt with bow and arrow, and as it turns out, I quite like the experience. It’s more like a long, silent trek (and yes, lions are around) with the chance of an adrenaline rush followed by a gamey snack. In Hadzaland, the incredible challenge of hunting is self-limiting—more often than not, you bring nothing back to camp. In this pristine savannah, wildlife doesn’t deplete as long as agriculturalists or pastoralists leave the place untouched, which so far, they more or less have.

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Honey is an essential energy source as well as a tasty treat. Foragers like this teenager, Ngosha, find honey by following guides, birds that track trees to their tree-trunk nests (right). Then they light small logs or bundles of brush to make smoke to lull the bees, allowing foragers to get away with the honeycomb. After a missed shot at wild game, Kapala,a Hadza teenager, pulls his arrow out of an acacia tree (left).

Apart from larvae in honeycomb—eaten together with the honey it tastes salty, sweet, sour, delicious—most of the Hadza’s protein intake comes from hunting. Kauda and January (like the month) are some of the best hunters and trackers. And they better be; because with me as an added member of the hunting party, the challenge has just been increased. My exotic smells act like a well-tuned alarm system, generously aired to the surrounding wildlife.

Kauda makes sure to remind me of that on a regular basis. They nickname me “pompom”—meaning something like “thick guy.” I have a way to go before being fat, but compared to the average Hadza body—most of them have a fabulous six-pack and could easily pose for the cover of Men’s Fitness—I am definitely “pompom.”

We walk for three days, seeing cute dik-diks bobbing around (too far to even aim at) and a family of warthog (the poisoned arrow bounced off its head, and left the arrow completely bent). We hear the hiccup-like braying sounds of zebras.

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After a day’s hunt, a Hadza man sleeps out in the open.

And then, the guaranteed highlight of my past and future hunting experience—we get so close to a giraffe that January actually has a shot at it. That is: he takes off his sandals to avoid breaking twigs, looks deep into my eyes and asks me to be extra quiet, walks half-bent for half-a-mile, picks a poisoned arrow, aims and shoots. Not for fun, and not because I am there, but in the hope of getting some extra protein for himself and quite a large number of his people.

Hadza can hunt that kind of wildlife, off-limits to you and me. With the amount of meat to be had from large animals like these, the whole camp (between 20 and 30 people) would actually move next to the carcass.

The arrow goes in near the flank of the giraffe. In the silence, I can actually hear the sound of it penetrating the flesh. A cycle is completed—from arrow to target. Compare that to a gunshot, when all you hear is the explosion, ears ringing in the aftermath.

We track the wounded giraffe for over an hour. The track starts to get “drunk” as the poison takes effect. I am tense. January says we should return to camp before it gets dark; we will continue tracking in the morning. I am ready to push on, my head filling with grand ideas of award-winning shots. And that is where they will remain—in my head.

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January, a Hadza hunter, tracks a giraffe shot with a poisoned arrow in the Gideru mountains.

The next day, after another hour of speed walking, Kaunda starts going around in circle. The track has grown faint. The giraffe had overcome the poison and apparently slept here before moving on. No drama of a silent giraffe drawing her last breath in a clearing of long brown grass. No Matthieu shooting an overhead shot hanging from a nearby tree, with the mist rising all around. I am truly happy that the giraffe survived—but I would have liked that shot too.

On the return, Kaunda hunts a hyrax sunbathing on a rock and some blood splatters on my camera. The poor thing looks—and tastes—like a large rodent, far from my majestic giraffe. I’ve read it is related to the elephant. That was the end of my hunting story: a rodent whose long lost father was an elephant, being cooked whole on a fire.

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Saitoti picks and eats wild berries during a foraging trip.
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Berries like these kongolobe are eaten on the spot instead of being saved for later. After chewing off the berries’ thin flesh, the Hadza spit the seeds into the ground, sowing seeds for the next generation of berry bushes.

The Hadza were the most intense experience I had while working on this story on the evolution of the human diet. They do not practice agriculture, herd animals, or even store any food. There is nothing to eat at camp in the morning. They walk in the surrounding savannah for a few hours and gather what they need: berries, honey (there is even a bird who sometimes guides them on that venture), tubers and tangy baobab-fruits. And yes, sometimes animals fall, hit by their arrows, but not out of greed.

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A cooking fire inside a Hadza home.

Our ancestors all had that lifestyle at some point in history. Your ancestors too. Hadzas have the oldest mitochondrial DNA ever tested in a human population; they might in fact be among the “oldest” lineages on earth. Some anthropologists argue that the Hadza ancestors may have been where they are for 50,000 years.

The Hadza are nomads and live in camps made of twigs covered with grass, like upside-down nests. When they leave a camp behind, the twigs and grass fall off and eventually go back into the soil. There are no cemeteries, no traces left behind. Thousands of years and it can be argued that they have left no impact on their environment.

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The remains of a Hadza camp, left after the inhabitants moved on.

Most of all though, what marks my time with the Hadza is how happy they seem. In their language, there is no word for “worry”. The concept of “worrying” is something that is related to either the future or to the past. In their ancestral ways, the Hadza truly live in the moment. When focusing on daily survival is the most natural thing to do, there is no need for chakra alignment to get yourself centered, or mindfulness courses to experience the here and now. The Hadza, without overthinking it, have kept their focus unchanged, and that is admirable.

From here Paley headed straight to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. to share with his editors the best of his photographs from all of the places he visited. The final story, “The Evolution of Diet,” was published in the September issue, as part of National Geographic’s special “Future of Food” series.

The nine days Paley spent with the Hadza were so inspiring that he will be returning to photograph them in 2015, thanks to a grant from the French Museum of National History. In the meantime, Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

Read about Chen and Paley’s approach to photographing the evolution of diet story in “We Are What We Eat: Documenting Dinners Around the World,” and then journey with Paley to Afghanistan, Greenland, Bolivia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Crete.


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