Periodically, we hear of a few paleolithic tribes still in existence trying to continue their traditional way of life in spite of the pressures of the modern world. An article on the Pacific Palisade website discusses one such group, the Hadza, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. It is astonishing that they have managed to continue live as their ancestors did for 50,000 years, since the the area of land in which they roam has diminished to an almost unmanageable size. These Paleo diet hunter-gatherers, the Hadza, are a living testimony to a way of life which has long vanished on the rest of the planet.
The very existence of the Hadza people of East Africa the last true hunter-gatherer foragers in Africa is an astonishing phenomenon at best. And even more so in a world where relentless ‘progress’ and limited resources have extinguished so many traditional cultural practices. Yet this small community of some 300 indigenous inhabitants found along most of the perimeter of Lake Eyasi in the Great Rift Valley in present-day Tanzania, where we as a species evolved, has managed to sustain a way of life that has prevailed for thousands of years. Living lightly on the land, consuming only what they need, the Hadza have suffered neither the agony of deprivation nor the bitter conflicts caused by surplus.
Filmmaker Bill Benenson, was given the opportunity to meet this indigenous tribe while filming on safari in the Serengeti. He jumped at the opportunity.
‘When we first met the Hadza, even though I had been writing, producing and directing films for over 40 years, I absolutely knew that I had to make a film about them, but I couldn’t imagine how to make a documentary about them. They were so seemingly different and almost mythical to me that I couldn’t conceptualize how to create a meaningful film on their unique lives.’Benenson did find a way into the film, choosing to emphasize a glimpse of the tribe’s life in the bush, which in so many ways approximates that of earlier hominids save for the essential difference which makes them Homo erectus taming fire and cooking their food.
‘Without cooking, they wouldn’t survive,’ Benenson says, referencing the work of British primatologist Richard Wrangham, who argues the hypothesis that cooking food was an essential behavior in the evolution of human beings. ‘Cooking enabled hominids’ jaws, teeth and guts to shrink, freeing up calories to fuel their expanding brains,’ Wrangham writes.
The film, which Benenson hopes to finish for entry in festivals in the spring, is based on Wrangham’s book ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,’ on the photographic book ‘By the Light of A Million Fires,’ by Daudi Peterson, Jon Cox and Richard Baalow, and stories from the Hadza people themselves. Through a fair amount of reading and talking to anthropologists and other experts plus extended visits to Tanzania, Benenson has been able to present a remarkable visual picture of the Hadza people.
It looks as though the documentary film Benenson has produced “By the Light of a Millions Fires“, will enable us to see how our ancestors might have lived. This should be a fascinating film and may provide insight as to how we might improve our own Paleo diets.
Hadza men at archery practice. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org
Ninety-five percent of the tribes diet comes from what they gather or kill. With bows and poisoned arrows, the men hunt a variety of animals: lion, zebra, wildebeest, baboon and birds, everything but elephants, due to their size. Arrowheads are fashioned from nails they trade with the honey they collect and poisoned with the boiled sap of the desert rose. Boys as young as 8 hone their skills by killing monkeys.
Women raise the children and are the gatherers, collecting fruits, berries and nuts and digging up a variety of tuber plants, mostly the Ekwa, which is found on flat ground and rocky hillsides. Wild tubers are rich in energy and nutrients and may have higher levels of carbohydrates and protein than domestic tubers such as cassava and sweet potato.
These Paleo diet hunter-gatherers also have a way of trading. The Hadza gather honey from wild bees and trade it for items they are unable to make themselves, like metal objects and fabric or clothes.
Perhaps the most fascinating enterprise is honey collection. For the Hadza, honey is the gold of life. Pursuing it is much more predictable than hunting and it is valued even more than meat and fat in their dietary preferences, the Hadza say. They harvest the honey from wild bees of seven different species. Honey is most prized but the larvae, pupae and pollen are also important to them.
Collecting the honey demonstrates ingenuity, sensitivity to nature and skill. The Hadza locate the honey with the guidance of the honeyguide bird, who helps find new hives or those whose location has not been passed on by the gatherers through the generations. The Hadza use smoke to pacify the bees, who often build their colonies in tall trees. This is a perfect symbiotic relationship: the honeyguide leads human beings to the honey and in turn benefits from the spoils of wax and larvae left behind.
The pressures of the outside world mean that the Hadza have lost over 90% of the territory they once roamed. The Tanzanian government recently deeded 250,000 acres (10 square miles) of land for their use, but this is a tiny portion and may prove to be too small for them to continue. There is also competition with neighboring tribes;
Benenson explains that the Tanzanian government recently deeded 250,000 acres to the tribes, which ‘isn’t terribly large, representing maybe 10 by 10 miles. There are pressures from other tribes, some who are running their cattle and goats over the land, which cuts off animal migration paths, and others who plant onions and corn that suck up the water.’ Working with the Nature Conservancy and others, Benenson is trying to help the Hadza secure land rights.’We are trying to make the case that the Hadza have been here for a very long time and their way of life is how we all started out in East Africa [which is where human civilization began,’ he says.
At some point these people will disappear, mixing into the cultures of surrounding towns and cities. The continued loss of their territory or the attraction that modern life might seem to offer their young will undoubtedly continue to reduce their numbers from the 300 people that make up the tribe currently. It may take a while for this to happen, but unfortunately I believe it is inevitable. I am very glad that Bill Benenson is making this documentary. It will capture the way of life of these Paleo diet hunter-gatherers, the Hadza.
Watch the trailer of Bill Benenson’s upcoming documentary “By the Light of a Million Fires”