We Are What We Eat

We Are What We Eat

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


3 - 12+


Social Studies, World History


Kongolobe Berries

The Hadza people of Tanzania rely on hunting animals and gathering wild fruits and vegetables for food, such as these colorful kongolobe berries (Grewia bicolor)​​​​​​​.

Photograph by Matthieu Paley
The Hadza people of Tanzania rely on hunting animals and gathering wild fruits and vegetables for food, such as these colorful kongolobe berries (Grewia bicolor)​​​​​​​.
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My assignment here in Tanzania was to photograph a community whose diet was completely free of food from outside sources. Everything they ate must either be gathered, hunted, grown or herded. No influence of foreign aid was allowed.

After talking to experts, I settled on the Hadza, who have what is probably the most ancient diet on Earth.

The meat the Hadza eat comes only from hunting, which they do with bow and arrow. To experience a Hadza hunt, I tailed along with two hunters named Kauda and January.

We walked for three days in search of game. We saw cute dik-dik antelopes bobbing around, but they were too far away to even aim at. We shot at a warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), but the poisoned arrow bounced off its head, leaving the arrow completely bent. We heard the distant sounds of zebras.

And then, we got so close to a giraffe that January actually had a shot at it. He took off his sandals to avoid breaking twigs and asked me to be extra quiet. Then, he walked half-bent for half a mile, picked a poisoned arrow, aimed and shot. Not for fun, and not because I was there, but in the hope of getting some extra food for himself and quite a large number of his people.

In Pursuit of a Giraffe

The Tanzanian government allows the Hadza to hunt that kind of wildlife, which is off-limits to you and me. Large animals like giraffes provide so much meat that the whole Hadza camp—between 20 and 30 people—actually moves next to a kill.

January's arrow went in near the belly of the giraffe, and in the silence, I could actually hear the sound of it penetrating the flesh. 

We tracked the wounded giraffe for over an hour. The giraffe started to get "drunk" as the poison took effect. I wanted to keep going, but January said we should return to camp before it got dark, and continue tracking in the morning. 

The next day, after another hour of speed walking, Kauda started going around in circles. The track had grown faint. The giraffe had survived the poison and moved on. 

On our way back to the camp, Kauda spotted a hyrax sitting on a rock and managed to kill the creature. The poor thing looked—and tasted—like a large rat, though I've read it is distantly related to the elephant. That was the end of my hunting story: instead of a large, magnificent giraffe, we had to settle for a small, ratlike creature.

Starting from Scratch Every Day

Spending time with the Hadza was 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. Each day, they walk in the surrounding plain for a few hours and gather what they need: berries, honey, tubers, and baobab-fruits. And yes, sometimes animals fall, hit by their arrows, but they are not hunted for bloodthirsty entertainment or greed, but out of necessity.

Our ancestors all had that lifestyle at some point in history. The Hadza are one of the oldest peoples on Earth, perhaps even the very oldest. Some anthropologists believe they have been where they are for 50,000 years.

The Hadza are nomads who travel from place to place, with no fixed home. They 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 graveyards, no piles of garbage, no traces left behind. Over thousands of years, the Hadza have caused no damage to their environment.

Most of all, though, what struck me about 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. The Hadza truly live in the moment. When you spend your time focusing on daily survival, there is no need for worrying about unimportant things. The Hadza have kept their focus unchanged over thousands of years, and that is something to admire.

Article originally published on December 10, 2014, this material has been adapted for educational use.

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Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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