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The Hadzabe: Visiting My Own Ancestors

Article and photos by James Michael Dorsey

View of early humanmankind in Tanzania.
View of early humankind.

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 Ngorongoro Crater. At most, 300 of this clan 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 Ngorongoro crater.
Hadazbe land and Ngorogoro crater rim.

No evidence exists to suggest the Hadzabe migrated from any other location. Even their language bears no resemblance to any other tongue. They have no chiefs and no social rules; disputes are settled by relocation. Marriage is arbitrary and can be entered into or abandoned at any time. Children are raised by the entire clan, regardless of parentage.

The only concessions to the modern world are the metal arrowheads and knives they acquire from neighboring tribes by trading game meat.

The Meeting

After a fierce thunderstorm, my driver deposited me in a clearing and pointed into the bush. I began walking and almost immediately encountered a fat Baobob tree hung densely with animal skulls and hunters' bows, which 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. Upon realizing that not one of the skulls was human, I relaxed a bit.

Author at kill tree.
Author at Kill Tree.

Close by, I encountered 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 socially 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 children.
Hadzabe women and children.

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. I was immediately offered their pipe, a small white appliance created from an old animal bone.

Hadzabe gathered around the fire.
Gathered squatting 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 utterly 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 Initiation

The smoke was quite powerful and required me to focus more intensely on my task.

First, there was a test.

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 make a fire to prove my legitimacy to them.

A steel bush knife was laid flat on the ground. A small amount of moss and thin wood with a round hole was 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.

Hadzabe gathered around the fire.
Gathered squatting around the open fire.

Author making fire.
The author is making a 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, which proved satisfactory. They handed me a wooden quiver and motioned me to follow. At the same time, they disappeared into the bush as quickly as rabbits.

A Hadzabe woman checking out the bow and arrow pull.
Checking the bow pull.

The Hunt

Apparently, we were now hunting, but I was there to observe and not to kill. I slung the bow and quiver, following the footprints of the hunters 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 my whereabouts.

Author with the Hadzabe hunters.
Author with the Hadzabe hunters.

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.

Hadzabe hunter stalking game with his bow and arrow.
Hunter stalking game.

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.

The poison arrowheads the Hadzabe use to hunt.
Poison arrowheads.

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 quails 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. Throughout the night, he related to me three great epics from their oral history.

Ongoing studies by several universities have suggested that the Hadzabe are one of three distinct genetic groups from which humanity 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.

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