The diversity of cultural groups in Africa is unrivaled by any other continent. In East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania alone can boast close to 200 different tribal groups.
The East African sites of Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli have yielded archeological evidence of human presence in the area dating back 50,000 years, and one local tribe has lived nearby since before recorded history.
A link to first man
The Hadzabe people occupy the Great Rift Valley and Serengeti Plateau of western Tanzania near Lake Eyasi. They are locally known as “Bushmen” and currently number less than 1,000. Of those, perhaps 300-400 are traditional hunter-gatherers. They have no stylistic or linguistic connection to any other African tribal group and have resisted encroachment from the outside world. They are basically Stone Age people and that is by choice. As a result, they have become a model study by Harvard University of how earliest mankind’s social networking might have begun. The Hadzabe are most likely a direct link to first man.
The first written account of the Hadzabe comes to us from German explorer Oscar Baumann in 1894, who never actually met any of them as they hid from this intruder. Anthropologist Otto Dempwolff lived among them for several weeks in 1911 and reported them to be an egalitarian society who lived in small clans with no chiefs. They remain so to this day.
They are nomadic within set boundaries established by the present Tanzanian government, traveling in small bands, sleeping in temporary huts made from grass and tree branches, or in caves. They make fire using two sticks and friction. They are primarily monogamous, have no concept of ownership other than a few personal belongings they carry wherever they go, and disputes are often settled by the offender voluntarily leaving the band. The men hunt with bow and arrow using a potent neurotoxin from the adenium coetaneum shrub. Their six-foot bows are taller than most of them and they are crack shots, oftentimes firing while on the run and rarely missing.
If a large animal is killed, the band will simply relocate to the kill site rather than hauling it back. Nothing is wasted. All parts of the animal not eaten will be used to make tools, clothing, or carry bags.
Men and women forage collectively and use digging sticks to collect roots and tubers. Women are especially responsible for the collection of fruit and berries.
Both women and men wear colorful beaded jewelry obtained through trade with neighboring tribes. The local Barbaig people are skilled metal workers who trade spear tips, knives and arrow heads to the Hadzabe in exchange for game meat. The women weave small grass baskets or make pouches from animal hides that they wear around their necks to carry items much like a modern purse.
Honey is a staple, and the Hadzabe believe they have a special relationship with both the honey badger and the indicator bird, which they mimic in conversation, claiming these animals lead them to honeycombs in trees. They will hammer wooden pegs into the honey-bearing tree to use as steps, then climb up with a burning branch wrapped with moss to smoke out the bees. When the bees fly, the Hadzabe consume the liquid honey and larvae while the indicator bird will take the wax honeycomb for itself. This relationship is part of their ancient mythology that's filled with fascinating tales of how the earth was created and early man’s interaction with various giants, including some who returned from the dead.
Visiting the Hadzabe
This traveler was privileged to spend much time with the Hadzabe, and even with their extreme isolation, I found them to be open, friendly and inquisitive.
My introduction was surreal, as I came out of a clearing on the trail and was confronted with a large baobob tree hung thick with dozens of animal skulls and bows. Because of linguistic differences my local guide could not give a definitive explanation for this fetish, but what I got from it was that the tree represented the soul of the clan and by hanging their bows on the skulls of animals they have killed, they were taking their power from them. For me, this was one of the most insightful windows to their culture and early animistic practices.
I shared a ceremonial pipe with them and was given a bow and arrows to join them in a baboon hunt, which was successful due in no part to my participation. Baboons are plentiful in this area and are a regular source of meat and hides for the Hadzabe. When we returned from the hunt I was given a lesson in fire making, and then had to make the evening’s fire to sear the fresh baboon meat. Within minutes of skinning the animal, the women were preparing its hide for use as a carrying bag while I received a ceremonial smear of blood on my face for participating in a hunt.
While their neighbors consider them to be fierce warriors, they were not only friendly to me but went out of their way to bring me into their daily life. This included lessons on how to shoot a bow with arrow, which I could barely draw even though I was twice their size. They showed me how to dig for roots and identified a couple dozen local plants that were either edible or medicinal, communicating through pantomime at which they have a great natural talent – it's almost a complete language.
While most of their time is spent hunting or collecting food, at the end of the day they engage in conversation, telling stories and relating oral histories. Affection between families, especially for their children, is obvious. Without a common language I was unable to keep up, even through my guide, but did not feel the necessity. I was included in the circle around the fire and considered that alone to be a high honor.
While many people look at a tribal culture such as the Hadzabe and say they are primitive or backwards, I consider such people to be a gift. They live a wonderfully simplistic life by choice, rarely fight among themselves, and are happy with minimal possessions. It seems to me that the modern world could take a life lesson from such people.
As the world continues to shrink, with more and more travelers leaving the beaten path, many remote cultures such as the Hadzabe will eventually be revealed to the modern world. Such people are an anthropological window to our own past, so the great question is: will mankind exploit them or learn from them?