• December 10, 2014

We Are What We Eat: Hunting the Hadza Way With Bows, Arrows, and Ingenuity

Greenland, Bolivia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Crete. After traveling to five different countries in search of the origins of the human diet, Matthieu Paley comes to the last stop in his journey, Tanzania.

April 2014

I felt like a headless chicken. All along the course of this story—while photographing the Tsimane, the Inuit, the Bajau—my editor Pamela Chen and I had been constantly researching the next stop, changing course as needed. Africa, however, was proving to be especially challenging. It seemed this part of this story could be told both everywhere and nowhere. The continent was so vast, so many tribes!

I “just” needed to photograph a community whose diet was completely free of food from outside sources. Self-sufficiency was a must: everything they ate must either be foraged, hunted, grown or herded. No influence of foreign aid.

Wande and her husband, Makoa, set out to find food. width=
A Hadza woman, Wande and her husband, Makoa, set out to find food. She uses a blade-tipped stick to dig for tubers. He brings an ax to extract honeycomb from tree trunks and a bow and arrows for hunting and defense.

I contacted university professors, fellow National Geographic photographers, writers, NGO workers, and local guides for their advice: There were the Aka, the !Kung, the Konso who still grew an ancient grain (“They have a king, a colorful character”), the Ganjule who lived near a very large lake (“But be very careful if they go hunt hippo!”), the Maasai where I could get a taste of milk and blood from the same animal, the Surmas near Tungit (how do they eat with those massive lip plugs?)

“Hold on,” an eager guide e-mailed me one morning, “I think the Suri people are more related to your profession, go there!” The Ovatue (as noted on a piece of scrap paper: four days round trip, weather depending) must be way better than the overrated Humba. And I should seriously consider the Berbers in northern Mali and go to northern Ghana and Malawi too, but most definitely forget about the northern Omo valley—way too many tourists there! Wait, Pam and I had to ask each other, did we need pastoralists or 100% foragers?

I couldn’t make head nor tails of any of this. I felt lost in my ocean of tribes with cool names. Of course there were the Hadza. The many PhDs and world-class anthropologists had all been pointing me in this direction: the Hadzas, nicely tucked away in Tanzania, have probably the most ancient diet on earth.

VIDEO: Come along with the Hadza as they hunt and gather a daily meal.

The Hadza were perfect. Except that National Geographic had put them on the cover just few years back, and it was understood the images were still too fresh in the reader’s mind. I had to look elsewhere—hence my headache and all these scribbled notes piling up on my desk.

But then it came, on that fine evening of February 5th, at 11:48 p.m., a magical e-mail from Pamela: “Good news! I spoke with Sarah Leen [the Director of Photography] today to get her advice on revisiting the Hadza. If you shoot it differently, she thinks it shouldn’t be a problem!” The thorn in my side was gone. The Hadza would have me.


Flash forward a few weeks and I have arrived in the Yaeda valley. Now I have never liked hunting, especially the modern version—the loud bang, the bright orange jackets, the oozing testosterone. It’s way too much like modern warfare. When you hunt, I think you should do it by fair means, with respect for the life you are taking and without greed.

Young Hazda hunters survey the Yaeda valley (right). Their families eat whatever they bring home; one day’s spoils included a bush baby (left). Over the past 50 years, most of the tribe’s ancestral land has been taken over by herders whose cattle scare off wildlife and by farmers who cut down trees to make fences.

Hadza only hunt with bow and arrow, and as it turns out, I quite like the experience. It’s more like a long, silent trek (and yes, lions are around) with the chance of an adrenaline rush followed by a gamey snack. In Hadzaland, the incredible challenge of hunting is self-limiting—more often than not, you bring nothing back to camp. In this pristine savannah, wildlife doesn’t deplete as long as agriculturalists or pastoralists leave the place untouched, which so far, they more or less have.

Honey is an essential energy source as well as a tasty treat. Foragers like this teenager, Ngosha, find honey by following guides, birds that track trees to their tree-trunk nests (right). Then they light small logs or bundles of brush to make smoke to lull the bees, allowing foragers to get away with the honeycomb. After a missed shot at wild game, Kapala,a Hadza teenager, pulls his arrow out of an acacia tree (left).

Apart from larvae in honeycomb—eaten together with the honey it tastes salty, sweet, sour, delicious—most of the Hadza’s protein intake comes from hunting. Kauda and January (like the month) are some of the best hunters and trackers. And they better be; because with me as an added member of the hunting party, the challenge has just been increased. My exotic smells act like a well-tuned alarm system, generously aired to the surrounding wildlife.

Kauda makes sure to remind me of that on a regular basis. They nickname me “pompom”—meaning something like “thick guy.” I have a way to go before being fat, but compared to the average Hadza body—most of them have a fabulous six-pack and could easily pose for the cover of Men’s Fitness—I am definitely “pompom.”

We walk for three days, seeing cute dik-diks bobbing around (too far to even aim at) and a family of warthog (the poisoned arrow bounced off its head, and left the arrow completely bent). We hear the hiccup-like braying sounds of zebras.

After a day hunt, a man sleep out in the open. At the Hadza camp of Dedauko.
After a day’s hunt, a Hadza man sleeps out in the open.

And then, the guaranteed highlight of my past and future hunting experience—we get so close to a giraffe that January actually has a shot at it. That is: he takes off his sandals to avoid breaking twigs, looks deep into my eyes and asks me to be extra quiet, walks half-bent for half-a-mile, picks a poisoned arrow, aims and shoots. Not for fun, and not because I am there, but in the hope of getting some extra protein for himself and quite a large number of his people.

Hadza can hunt that kind of wildlife, off-limits to you and me. With the amount of meat to be had from large animals like these, the whole camp (between 20 and 30 people) would actually move next to the carcass.

The arrow goes in near the flank of the giraffe. In the silence, I can actually hear the sound of it penetrating the flesh. A cycle is completed—from arrow to target. Compare that to a gunshot, when all you hear is the explosion, ears ringing in the aftermath.

We track the wounded giraffe for over an hour. The track starts to get “drunk” as the poison takes effect. I am tense. January says we should return to camp before it gets dark; we will continue tracking in the morning. I am ready to push on, my head filling with grand ideas of award-winning shots. And that is where they will remain—in my head.

Hunting giraffe in the Gideru mountains with Kaunda and January, two Hadza hunters.
January, a Hadza hunter, tracks a giraffe shot with a poisoned arrow in the Gideru mountains.

The next day, after another hour of speed walking, Kaunda starts going around in circle. The track has grown faint. The giraffe had overcome the poison and apparently slept here before moving on. No drama of a silent giraffe drawing her last breath in a clearing of long brown grass. No Matthieu shooting an overhead shot hanging from a nearby tree, with the mist rising all around. I am truly happy that the giraffe survived—but I would have liked that shot too.

On the return, Kaunda hunts a hyrax sunbathing on a rock and some blood splatters on my camera. The poor thing looks—and tastes—like a large rodent, far from my majestic giraffe. I’ve read it is related to the elephant. That was the end of my hunting story: a rodent whose long lost father was an elephant, being cooked whole on a fire.

Saitoti eating wild berries. At the Hadza camp of Dedauko.
Saitoti picks and eats wild berries during a foraging trip.
Picking wild berries. At the Hadza camp of Senkele.
Berries like these kongolobe are eaten on the spot instead of being saved for later. After chewing off the berries’ thin flesh, the Hadza spit the seeds into the ground, sowing seeds for the next generation of berry bushes.

The Hadza were the most intense experience I had while working on this story on the evolution of the human diet. They do not practice agriculture, herd animals, or even store any food. There is nothing to eat at camp in the morning. They walk in the surrounding savannah for a few hours and gather what they need: berries, honey (there is even a bird who sometimes guides them on that venture), tubers and tangy baobab-fruits. And yes, sometimes animals fall, hit by their arrows, but not out of greed.

Cooking inside the home of a Hadza, made of branches and grass. At the Hadza camp of Dedauko.
A cooking fire inside a Hadza home.

Our ancestors all had that lifestyle at some point in history. Your ancestors too. Hadzas have the oldest mitochondrial DNA ever tested in a human population; they might in fact be among the “oldest” lineages on earth. Some anthropologists argue that the Hadza ancestors may have been where they are for 50,000 years.

The Hadza are nomads and live in camps made of twigs covered with grass, like upside-down nests. When they leave a camp behind, the twigs and grass fall off and eventually go back into the soil. There are no cemeteries, no traces left behind. Thousands of years and it can be argued that they have left no impact on their environment.

An old Hadza camp - all that is left behing is this house structure made of branches. Senkele.
The remains of a Hadza camp, left after the inhabitants moved on.

Most of all though, what marks my time with the Hadza is how happy they seem. In their language, there is no word for “worry”. The concept of “worrying” is something that is related to either the future or to the past. In their ancestral ways, the Hadza truly live in the moment. When focusing on daily survival is the most natural thing to do, there is no need for chakra alignment to get yourself centered, or mindfulness courses to experience the here and now. The Hadza, without overthinking it, have kept their focus unchanged, and that is admirable.

From here Paley headed straight to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. to share with his editors the best of his photographs from all of the places he visited. The final story, “The Evolution of Diet,” was published in the September issue, as part of National Geographic’s special “Future of Food” series.

The nine days Paley spent with the Hadza were so inspiring that he will be returning to photograph them in 2015, thanks to a grant from the French Museum of National History. In the meantime, Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

Read about Chen and Paley’s approach to photographing the evolution of diet story in “We Are What We Eat: Documenting Dinners Around the World,” and then journey with Paley to Afghanistan, Greenland, Bolivia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Crete.

There are 44 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. miniswrang
    December 3, 2015

    Awesome pics

  2. David
    November 28, 2015

    I am basing my diet on the Hadza tribe diet. Honey, meat, berries, tubers, milk some green leafy veg, baobab fruit powder. That’s all and I am already at 119/62 blood pressure from 140/81 in one day!

  3. Liz c
    August 20, 2015

    Awesome job! I truly appreciate this. I enjoyed reading this and the video as well . It helps put so much into perspective on the way we live in America. We take so much for granted. Some of those pics should be in the dictionary as the true meaning of hard work. To the person who did this project, awesome job!

  4. cyril
    May 17, 2015

    At least these communities (Hadza)should be protected and their habitat and surroundings as far as possible .It is a specimen or model for Anthropologists as well as sociologists to learn a lot about human evolution.Immensely appreciable adventurous venture.Most valued.

  5. rita
    April 18, 2015

    I can only imagine the physical energy these people have awesome!

  6. irene weinfed
    February 14, 2015

    The poor bush baby … beautiful pics…

  7. ukeje kc
    January 22, 2015

    wow! this is amazing i great job you did

  8. mike van dyke
    December 29, 2014

    We should be content with what we have and be satisfied!!!! We are spoiled!!!

  9. Mohun Aujayeb
    December 27, 2014

    Wonderful article. Many questions come to our mind and answers to which are not found therein .We are what eat. Then, can we know the lifespan of these people. their health status of these people , the disease they usually contract… their life span…

  10. Sharryn Lizbeth
    December 26, 2014

    Found this article very interesting and the fact that these people have kept it so simple for 50000 years and possible being the oldest race mind of disproves the books people believe in and have wars over.

  11. neymar
    December 17, 2014

    REAL MADRID!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Amit
    December 16, 2014

    If you have the better option and if you choose wrong option, then you are not only ignorant but also a fool.

  13. Ashley Pryor
    December 12, 2014

    Where do they get their clothes?

  14. Larry G Hodges
    December 12, 2014

    A most different life style than most in the U S of A can imagine.

  15. g h lwebandiza
    December 12, 2014

    Did you find out jow they bury their dead? What about their wedding? There is a lot to document about these people.
    During the last census the govt had to provide them meat so that they stay one place to be counted.
    It is unfortunate that they are diminishing in numbers. Soon they will go into extiction. Their phonetics they use in their language(with click sounds) is also will disappear.

  16. RS
    December 11, 2014

    Interesting article. Although they have nothing compared to our modern lifestyle. I guarantee they’re healthier and happier than we are.. They don’t have the stress we have

  17. Manpreet Singh
    December 11, 2014

    It was really very knowledgeable video for every one ….bcz most of people’s don’t know how some people are surviving in this world …I want to say thanks for all persons who see this life from near and feel the life to live with thos people’s …..and share that movement with us thnks alot …..

  18. nonnie
    December 11, 2014

    Great work looks pristine and untouched …btw check out Trinidad wi some awesome shots there

  19. Kristy
    December 11, 2014

    I wonder, what is their average lifespan?

  20. natalie
    December 11, 2014

    this article is so beautiful i want to cry. my dream is to live this way- a nomadic forager. kind of hard to do growing up in suburban new york

  21. Justin Hardegree
    December 11, 2014

    That is an intense way of life and I think that there is alot to learn from it. I have to disagree with the author’s negative portrayal of hunting in American culture though. Comparing Hadza hunting to modern hunting serves as a good way to understand the Hadza way of life, but judging stereotypical American hunting that way is ethnocentric. I grew up in rural America and we appreciated the presence of wildlife as well as hunted it. Most of the time the people who judged our hunting in a negative manner also grew up separate from our culture.

  22. Anna F.
    December 11, 2014

    May these tribes continue to live well and thrive – and may their habitat be left alone by outsiders: the rest of us humans not so perfectly in tune with our environment.

  23. Clara Garcias
    December 11, 2014

    Unfortunately not everything is what it seems only few of them remains living hunting as the Goverment does not support their style of life and they feel they don´t belong to this planet anymore and have become alcholics. I just know the group of Hadzabe from Eyasi area; Mangola. We have been supporting them for the last 4 years, but they are ment to die, no one gives them the legal support they need… unfortunately this documentary is no t the reality of most of them…they are no longer eating monkeys beacuse the farmers cut the few tres they have to make charcoal…
    It is really sad… It would be great if they could live as they were living before but with the legal support…

  24. Amy John
    December 11, 2014

    the bush baby is too cute to eat!

  25. Rafaela
    December 11, 2014

    Nothing in the world compares to the beauty of their way of living! Congratulations. Great work!

  26. Diego Lozada
    December 11, 2014

    Beautiful register

  27. TrIbo ni Tarzan
    December 11, 2014

    if you think how can such individuals live in such conditions,too bad… They actually live in a life of luxury compared to people living in a 1st world environment.they only live to survive, while you live so that others may gain from you. They only work for what they need and not wants. They are contented.

  28. Geri
    December 11, 2014

    The immensely talented photographer took us inside their lives…I felt like I was there. Congratulations on the beautiful, insightful look into how others live & eat.

  29. sakthikumar
    December 11, 2014

    Really nice life…

  30. Preety Singh
    December 11, 2014

    Its weird that people still live in such condition.

  31. jeong Kook sang
    December 11, 2014

    Admire! Maybe my long long time ago ancesters ! From far east asia

  32. Manish C Chavan
    December 11, 2014

    Amazing Photography with beautifully captures’ Hadza Life……….Really i appreciate

  33. Isah Zakar
    December 11, 2014

    Very nice

  34. Ali hossain
    December 11, 2014

    Thanks . All photo is good .
    Ali hossain ,Photographer , BLRI, Savar , Dhaka, Bangladesh.

  35. Ansha Khurana
    December 11, 2014

    I can’t imagine how difficult was this for the photographer to interact and take pictures of such tribe who even don’t know about the outside source food..How difficult the life was for our ancestors…we can’t think of such life..
    Amazing work…

  36. Nik
    December 11, 2014

    Now throw in a coke bottle at watch the fun! 😛

    December 11, 2014

    I love the natural environment

  38. sumesh gopal
    December 11, 2014

    Its a wounderful jurny so trubals have lot of tresure behind them so want to protect them save them….

  39. noralden
    December 11, 2014

    Life stile

  40. Thomas Lynch
    December 10, 2014

    I live vicariously through the article…

  41. Theo
    December 10, 2014

    Είναι δυνατόν από την Αφρική να ξεκίνησαν οι πρώτοι άνθρωποι;Και αντί να τους βγάζουμε τέτοιες ωραίες φωτογραφίες,να μας έβγαζαν αυτοί;

  42. Nick Khattar
    December 10, 2014

    I noticed there was no mention or consideration of the !Kung people of the Kalahari? Are there none left living in the traditional hunter/gatherer lifestyle?

    • Alexa Keefe
      December 11, 2014

      Thank you for your comment! The !Kung were indeed mentioned in Paley’s original text. I have put the mention back in.

  43. Rich Persoff
    December 10, 2014

    Once a photographer, I can sympathize with Mr. Paley’s difficulties in meeting his assignment. Even with lots of input from PhD’s & professionals, it appears that his overall life experience with primitive living limited him, at least initially, to ‘Gee-Whiz, isn’t that fabulous!’ and ‘What a wonderful shot I can make!’ attitudes.
    As I look at his well-composed and informative photographs, my hunch is that the burdens of reporting accurately, and pleasing that even less knowledgeable art director back in the U. S., prevented him from being able to see deeply. It’s the difference between making a photograph “of” a subject, and a more insightful photograph “about” that subject or situation. One owes it to one’s ‘creative spirit’ to invest the energy to internalize the subject.
    IMHO, in similar situations – e.g., in an environment which is new and strange – the photographer should not even take his camera out of the case until he knows what’s happening. I’m reminded of my efforts to photograph a play or ballet for publicity. The pix were pretty sterile until I had watched several times and had a deeper understanding.

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