Agriculture is wiping out the world’s oldest hunter-gatherers
The Hadza have been living peacefully, happily and sustainably in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa for at least 100,000 years. Their home, around Lake Eyasi, in Tanzania, has been called “the cradle of mankind.” A Harvard anthropologist calls them “the strongest link” we have to 2 million years of human evolution. Thanks to the spread of agriculture to nearly every corner of the earth, that link is about to disappear.
The consequences of allowing civilization to crowd the Hadza – and the handful of other hunter-gatherer tribes remaining on the planet – out of existence are captured beautifully and tragically in the 2014 documentary The Hadza: Last of the First.
Genetically, the Hadza trace back to the first humans on earth, according to National Geographic Society
Geneticist and Anthropologist Spencer Wells. “They have been living continuously in the same place for tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of years.”
For most of the last 10,000 years, the Hadza have lived untouched by, unaware of, and hidden from, the “civilized” world that was growing up around them.
While the Mesopotamians experimented with agriculture (causing floods and desertification);
while slaves built the pyramids in Egypt;
while the Roman Empire rose and fell;
while the British colonized the world;
while Native Americans lost their lives to guns and small pox;
and while other Africans were kidnapped to build the new world;
the Hadza lived in blissful ignorance of the agriculturalist imperialists around them.
Until World War I.
Their first documented contact with outsiders (two Germans) was in 1911. Although they’d been “subjects” of the German Empire for several decades, they’d avoided detection by running into the bush and hiding whenever they saw white men. After the British took control of the area in 1917, there was no more hiding.
The British colonial government tried to make the Hadza settle down and adopt farming in 1927 and again in 1939, as did the independent Tanzanian government in 1965 and 1990, and various foreign missionary groups since the 1960s. In each case, the Hadza willingly settled and took advantage of the food provided for them, but when the food ran out, they couldn’t see the sense in toiling in the fields to produce grain when they knew there was free food back in the bush. So they left.
Another reason they left the settlements was the outbreak of infectious diseases, like measles, which thrive in sedentary communities and were killing significant numbers of them.
Of the four villages built for the Hadza since 1965, only one is sporadically occupied by Hadza groups who stay for a few months at a time, either farming, foraging or taking advantage of food given to them by missionaries. But this is not because they want to. It’s because they have to.
Agriculturalists have been multiplying and expanding their territory in Africa – and the rest of the world – for several thousand years. They finally reached Hadzaland about 150 years ago, and have been pushing its people into a smaller and smaller space ever since. The pastoralist tribes Iraqw and Datoga were both forced to migrate into the area by the expansion of the Maasai – a warlike, child-abusing, genital-mutilating, cattle-herding tribe – in the late 19th century. The Isanzu farmers began living just south of Hadzaland around 1850.
‘A beautiful life’
Of around 1000 surviving Hadza, about 300 still have a diet of 100-percent foraged food. The majority of their calories come from gathering roots, fruits, nuts, berries and honey, but they are also very reliant on hunting local wildlife, such as gazelle, kudus and monkeys, which are becoming scarce due to the influx of cattle.
Members of the civilized world who’ve observed and studied the Hadza note time and again how happy they seem and how much free time they have.
“What struck me very much was how little time they really had to spend hunting and digging [for roots],” said Peter Matthiessen, author of The Tree Where Man Was Born. “They really had a lot of leisure.”
The Hadza are very egalitarian. There are no chiefs and no hierarchy. They are organized into bands or “camps” of 20 to 30 people. Conflict is resolved by one of the parties voluntarily moving to another camp. Though their work is broken up along gender lines – men hunting and women gathering – there is gender equality and their work is seen as equally important. They share everything.
Everyone helps raise the children cooperatively. The Hadza love all children born into the tribe as their own. Children are not punished and their genitals are not mutilated, as they are in surrounding agricultural tribes. When they reach puberty they are allowed to sleep in grass huts with other adolescents and explore their sexuality. The Hadza are best described as serially monogamous. There is no formal marriage or divorce. It is common for Hadza to switch partners every couple of years, and women maintain a higher level of sexual autonomy than they do in surrounding tribes and much of the civilized world.
The Hadza do not keep track of time. They have no words for the days of the week, or months of the year. Because they don’t plant or harvest, they have no use for calendars or keeping track of the seasons. Their sense of time depends only on the wandering animals and the shifting patterns of their flowering plants.
Boys first toys are bows and arrows, while girls make mud dolls. When the adults are not
hunting or gathering roots and berries, they are singing, dancing, story telling, smoking cannabis and making love. Disease is rare and herbs are used as medicine. Though they do not keep track of birthdays, it is estimated most of Hadza live into their 70s and 80s.
“They are very dignified. They have a beautiful life and they know it, but as soon as you bring them into civilization, they are the bottom of the pile and everybody preys on them,” Daudi Peterson, director Dorobo Fund Tanzania, says in the film.
The number of Hadza able to nourish their bodies through gathering and hunting alone is decreasing, along with the size of their ancestral territory. They’ve lost more than 90 percent of their land in the last 100 years.
Traditionally a part of Hadzaland, the lush Mang’ola region has become a major onion growing center. In the remaining Hadza territory, cattle are eating the nuts and berries and scaring off the impala and kuru. The area has become so over-grazed, the cattle are eating the grass roofs right off the Hadza’s huts.
“Other tribes are constantly trying to push us from our land,” a Hadza man said in the documentary. “Why? Because the Datoga are overcrowded. Other tribes are overcrowded. From here, there, everywhere – they’re mixed together on our land. So we live like we’re in a corral, surrounded by outsiders.”
“The land has been spoiled by the Datoga,” a Hadza woman added. “In the old days we had more baobab fruit and meat. Now the land is sick.”
In the old days, the Hadza had easy access to spring water, but the demands of local agriculture and the sustained drought ravaging East Africa have reduced the water table, forcing the Hadza to dig deep wells.
But even their wells are at risk, as the film demonstrates, showing a Datoga herdsman watering his cattle at a traditional Hadza watering hole.
“We asked him ten times not to bring his cattle here, but he’s very disrespectful,” a Hadza man said. “I don’t understand the Datoga tribe. They’re very defiant.”
“The Hadza have a very peaceful culture,” said Harvard Anthropologist Richard Wrangham. “They do not try to fight back.”
Because of their limited food supply, some Hadza have resorted to trading wild honey for cornmeal from neighboring tribes. “They get the better deal,” one Hadza woman says.
A bleak future
The Hadza living in and around Mang’ola have recently become a tourist attraction. Although this has given being Hadza monetary value, it also introduced alcohol to Hadza society for the first time. Alcoholism and deaths from alcohol poisoning have become severe problems.
“Life is totally different when I’m working in the town,” says one young Hadza man in the film. “You must pay rent to sleep in a house. Also, you must buy all your food. You have to use money for everything, even water. In Mang’ola, it’s very difficult for the Hadza to get food because the animals have gone away to the reserves, and also it is very difficult to find berries. They have to beg from other types of tribes so they can get food. And whenever they get money from the tourists, they just go and buy alcohol.”
Two young Hadza boys featured in the documentary told a story about the time government officials tried to take them away to a boarding school in one of the settlements the Hadza no longer occupy:
“We got into the car and were taken to school. Those who could already read were taught to write, after being taught how to write, we were left to write on our own, then the teacher came and said that’s not how it’s done, you’re doing it wrong. We were beaten. We were not used to being beaten at home. We slept there one night, woke up very early and escaped. It took us two days to walk home. On the the way we dug a watering hole for ourselves. We ate baobab fruit we gathered and spent the night in another Hadza camp.”
Asked how they found their way home, the boys laughed, “It’s easy, we’re Hadza.”
“I want to live here until I’m an old man,” one of the boys said. “Because in town, there is no Hadza food – no kongolobei berries, noguilabei berries, no baobab fruit. Here we have them. There they don’t.”
As it stands today, it is unclear whether the boy’s wish will come true.
In 2007, the Tanzanian government leased the entire Eyasi basin to a royal family of the United Arab Emirates for use as their “personal safari playground.” The Hadza were evicted and resisters were imprisoned. Thanks to negative coverage in the international press, both parties backed out of the deal.
But the backlash hasn’t been enough to stop the government from leasing land to commercial hunting groups for tourists. Hadza men are no longer allowed to hunt in those areas.
“They are arrested for poaching on their ancestral land,” said University of Nevada Biocultural Antrhopologist Alyssa Crittenden. “The Hadza don’t recognize land rights. To them, you share the earth with the animals and plants that are on it.”
The Hadza see themselves as protectors of the land. “That’s why we stay here, to protect the place and the animals. So we are patient. We watch the animals and their movements in the area. If we leave this place, others will come in and cultivate,” a Hadza man said. “This land is our true home. We can move a few meters, but we can’t leave. There is no other place we could go.”
Jane Goodall herself made an appearance in the documentary calling the displacement and disappearance of the Hadza an “utter tragedy.”
“So many people who don’t understand – who don’t know these people – feel they can’t really be happy, because they don’t have what we feel, in the Western world, is necessary to make us happy.”
“I think within our lifetime, there will be no more bush for the Hadza to live in. We’re running out of time. If we don’t help them make this choice now, that’s it. We don’t get a second chance,” Crittenden says at the end of the film.
For information on how you can help the Hadza, visit the filmmaker’s website.