Visiting My Own Ancestors
Article and photos by James
|View of early mankind.
In the lush rolling hills of the Serengeti
plateau in western Tanzania, the last vestiges of our own
ancestors still live as they did before recorded history.
Less than 1,000 Hadzabe are spread across
the highland of the Great Rift Valley within view of the
towering southern caldera of Ngorogoro Crater. Of this clan,
no more than 300 still pursue lives as hunter/gatherers.
They live apart from modern humanity. Visiting the clan
is to enter a completely different reality.
|Hadazbe land and
Ngorogoro crater rim.
No evidence exists to suggest the Hadzabe
migrated from any other location. Even their very language
bears no resemblance to any other tongue. They have no chiefs
and no social rules; disputes are settled by re-location.
Marriage is arbitrary, and can be entered into or abandoned
at any time. Children are raised by the entire clan, regardless
of parentage. About the only concession to the modern world
are the metal arrowheads and knives they acquire from neighboring
tribes by trading game meat.
My driver deposited me in a clearing
after a fierce thunderstorm and simply pointed into the
bush. I began walking and almost immediately encountered
a fat Baobob tree hung densely with animal skulls and hunters'
bows that had me wondering, “What have I done?” The tree
marked the perimeter of the clan’s territory and its purpose
was to transfer whatever power was embodied in the killed
animal to the bow of the hunter. I relaxed a bit upon realizing
that not one of the skulls was human.
|Author at kill tree.
Close by, I came upon several women
with small children whose complete indifference to my presence
allowed me to take their photos. They sat flat on the ground,
legs outstretched in the wet mud, wrapped in colorful cloaks,
and chattered in a social fashion with the tongue clicks
and guttural pops only they employ. Spread about them in
loose formation were low shelters fashioned from tree limbs
and tall grasses, used during the rains and then abandoned.
|Hadzabe women and
I climbed a slight rise and crested
the summit, where I found myself face to face with a perfect
diorama of early man. Several hunters from the clan squatted
around an open fire under the granite mouth of an ancient
cave. An overpowering aroma of local ganja came to my nose
and I was immediately offered their pipe, a small white
appliance fashioned from an old animal bone.
around the open fire.
The way I approach entry into a remote
society differs with each visit, as individual cultures
make their own demands before revealing secrets. What is
accepted in one culture may be completely taboo in another,
so I learn everything possible and necessary about my hosts
before a visit. In order to observe, sometimes I must first
participate in their daily rituals.
The smoke was quite powerful and required
me to focus more intensely on my task.
First, there was
My hosts stamped out their meager fire,
and in a few seconds created a second one using a bush knife,
two sticks, and friction, which again, they stamped out.
To see if I had paid attention, they handed me the sticks.
I understood that I must now make fire to prove to them
A steel bush knife was laid flat on
the ground. A small amount of moss and a piece of thin wood
with a round hole were placed on the blade. Into this hole,
I inserted a long thin branch. I began to twirl it between
my palms, creating friction with the bush knife blade below
reflecting the heat back into the moss. In a few seconds,
I had made a small fire, to the delight of my hosts. Not
bad for an aging white guy from the suburbs.
around the open fire.
|Author making fire.
Next, I was handed a bow as tall as
I was with a pull I could barely budge. I picked up an iron-tipped
arrow and fired at a tree, only to implant the arrow in
the ground about ten feet in front of me. That brought a
round of laughter. By my third try, I managed to sink an
arrow into the tree, and that proved satisfactory. They
handed me a wooden quiver and motioned me to follow while
they disappeared into the bush as quickly as rabbits.
|Checking the bow
Apparently, we were now hunting, but
I was there to observe and not to kill. I slung the bow
and quiver, following their footprints in the fresh mud,
but within seconds I was alone. There was no way I could
maintain their pace, yet one of the hunters kept returning
to check on my whereabouts.
|Author with the
I caught up with the hunters in a small
clearing just in time to watch them drop several perched
birds, and hit one on the wing, using wooden-tipped arrows.
One made a kill firing from the hip with uncanny accuracy.
Bushmen usually hunt small game, but if a large animal is
killed, the entire clan will gather around it rather than
carrying back the meat.
Alone once more, I heard something crashing
through the brush. I froze in place as an enraged baboon
broke cover, baring immense canines, and pounding the ground
with a fist. Before I could react in any way, I heard the
dull thud of an arrow entering flesh and watched the baboon
topple over, twitching in a ballet of death. The arrows
were coated with the boiled sap of a desert rose plant that
is highly toxic. On either side of me stood a bushman with
arrows already in each bow, ready to fire again. Whether
they had used me as bait or had me covered the entire time,
I don’t really know, but I have to assume that there was
no real danger.
They field dressed the baboon, cutting
off its head. One hunter wore the bloody skin like a backpack.
Along the way, they stopped to dig tubers with a knife.
They also dropped several small quail with flat-tipped wooden
arrows. All were carried back in the baboon skin.
At the cave entrance, they smeared my
face with blood to signify my participation in the hunt.
I was offered the first chewy piece of fire-seared baboon
meat. The gesture was an honor, as they often eat their
meat raw. The skin was hung to dry in the sun and would
soon become a useful clothing article, while the skull would
take its place on the kill tree. The headman who had made
the fatal shot was already wearing a headband of its fur
like a laurel wreath.
That evening I sat in a tented camp
with a bushman who had left the old ways to live in a prefabricated
house and send his children to school. Through the night
he related to me three great epics from their oral history.
Ongoing studies by several different
universities have suggested that the Hadzabe are one of
three distinct genetic groups from which all of mankind
has descended. Yet, after thousands of years of occupation,
they have barely left a footprint on the land. Should they
disappear tomorrow, they would leave behind only their stories.
My time with them was unique, as few
people can say categorically that they have gone hunting
with their own ancestors.
James Michael Dorsey is
an explorer, award winning author, photographer, and
lecturer. He has traveled extensively in 45 countries,
mostly far off the beaten path. His main pursuit
is visiting remote tribal cultures in Asia
and Africa. See his bio for
more about James and his articles for Transitions Abroad.
Visit James Dorsey's website at www.jamesdorsey.com.