The Hadza: Freest People on Earth Face Extinction

February 11, 2016 at 10:37 pm


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 documentary The Hadza: Last of the First.


The ‘last of the first’

Genetically, the Hadza trace back to the first humans on earth.

“They have been living continuously in the same place for tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of years,” geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells says in the film.

For most of the last 10,000 years, the Hadza have lived untouched by, unaware of, and hidden from, the “civilized” world 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 were wiped out;

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.

Purchase the Documentary on Amazon for $3.99

Their first documented contact with outsiders (two Germans) was in 1911. Until then, they’d avoided detection by hiding in the bush whenever they saw white men. After the British took control of the area in 1917, there was no more hiding.

39675659The British colonial government tried to make the Hadza settle down and adopt farming in the 1930s, as did the independent Tanzanian government and foreign missionaries in 60’s and 90’s.

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.

Of the four villages built for them since 1965, only one is sporadically occupied by Hadza groups who farm and collect food donations from missionaries a few months of the year. But it’s 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 Maasai — a warlike, genital-mutilating, cattle-herding tribe — moved into Hadzaland in the late 1800s.

‘A beautiful life’

Picking wild berries. At the Hadza camp of Senkele.

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.

img-6602-original-ed_gallery_large“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. They have no chiefs and no hierarchy.

They are organized into bands of 20 to 30 people. Conflict is resolved by one of the parties voluntarily moving to another camp.

There is gender equality as “men’s” and “women’s” work is seen as equally important. They share everything.

africa-filipo-with-sonEveryone 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. There is no formal marriage or divorce. It is common for Hadza to switch sexual partners every couple of years. Women enjoy a higher degree of sexual autonomy than anywhere in 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. Adults have plenty of time for singing, dancing, story telling, smoking cannabis and making love.

Disease is rare and herbs are used as medicine. 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.

A bleak future

hadza territoryThe number of Hadza able to survive by 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.

The lush Mang’ola region of Hadzaland 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.
grass hut“Other tribes are constantly trying to push us from our land,” a Hadza man said in the documentary. “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, thanks to Datoga herdsmen watering their cattle at Hadza watering holes.


“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.

images-1The 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 related deaths 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 and 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 … 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:

boys“We got into the car and were taken to school … 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.”

566f09bfc3c9e01555a5178e_Dorobo-Safaris-cr-courtesyAs 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 as their “personal safari playground.” The Hadza were evicted and resisters imprisoned. Thanks to negative coverage in the international press, both parties backed out of the deal.

But the backlash hasn’t stopped the government from leasing land to commercial hunting groups for tourists, where Hadza men are no longer allowed to hunt.

Arrowstraight10“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.”

A young Hadza hunter surveys the Yaeda Valley. The Hadza of Tanzania are the world’s last full-time hunter-gatherers. They live on what they find: game, honey, and plants, including tubers, berries, and baobab fruit.

Jane Goodall herself made an appearance in the documentary calling the potential 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.