Cara Giaimo writes: In the tree-strewn savannah of northern Tanzania, near the salty shores of Lake Eyasi, live some of the planet’s few remaining hunter-gatherers. Known as the Hadza, they live in Hadzaland, which stretches for about 4,000 square kilometers around the lake. No one is sure how long they’ve been there, but it could be since humans became human. As one anthropologist put it in a recent book, “their oral history contains no stories suggesting they came from some other place.”
Anthropologists have been scrutinizing the Hadza for centuries, seeking in their stories and behavior windows to the past. The Hadza themselves, at least at times, subscribe to a food-based method of self-understanding: they describe their predecessors based on what, and how, they ate. The first Hadza, the Akakaanebe, or “ancestors,” ate raw game, plentiful and easily slain–as one ethnographer relays, “they simply had to stare at an animal and it fell dead.” The second, the Tlaatlaanebe, ate fire-roasted meat, hunted with dogs. The third, the Hamakwabe, invented bows and arrows and cooking pots, and thus expanded the menu.
The Hamaishonebe, or “modern people” — the people of today — have a variety of meal strategies. Hadza hunting and gathering grounds are shrinking, under pressure from maize farms, herding grounds, and private game reserves, and some work jobs and buy food from their neighbors. But between two and three hundred of the 1300 Hadza remaining still survive almost entirely on wild foods: tubers, meat, fruit, and honey.
Of these staples, honey is the Hadza’s overwhelming favorite. But beehives, located high up in thick-trunked baobabs and guarded fiercely by their stinging occupants, are hard to get at, and even harder to find. Enter the greater honeyguide, an unassuming black and white bird about the size of a robin. Greater honeyguides, a distinct species within the honeyguide family, love grubs and beeswax, and are great at locating hives. This is a boon for the Hadza, who, according to some estimates, get about 15 percent of their calories from honey.
When Hadza want to find honey, they shout and whistle a special tune. If a honeyguide is around, it’ll fly into the camp, chattering and fanning out its feathers. The Hadza, now on the hunt, chase it, grabbing their axes and torches and shouting “Wait!” They follow the honeyguide until it lands near its payload spot, pinpoint the correct tree, smoke out the bees, hack it open, and free the sweet combs from the nest. The honeyguide stays and watches.
It’s one of those stories that sounds like a fable — until you get to the end, where the lesson normally goes. Then it becomes a bit more confusing. [Continue reading…]
The way this story plays out has commonly been depicted as shown in the video below, but it turns out that this relationship between humans and birds might not be quite as mutually beneficial as first thought.