I once came across a comment by Irven DeVore, an anthropologist, writing about affluence. The common understanding of it, he said, is a society in which all the people’s wants are easily satisfied. The obvious – and increasingly problematic – way is to produce ever more stuff to gratify our needs. But another way is to desire less. Want little, lack little. This seemed so alien to modern life that I filed the comment away and forgot about it.
About a year later, while sitting under a tree in northern Tanzania pondering whether to accept a piece of half-cooked baboon meat, I had reason to recall DeVore. The area is magnificent in natural wonders: Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge, Serengeti and the lakes of the Great Rift Valley. But I was where few tourists venture – a wild plain encompassing shallow, salty Lake Eyasi and sheltered by the ramparts of the Rift. The people I’d come to find, the Hadza, are among the last of the true hunter-gatherers on earth. Without our guide and translator, Gitewi Surumbu, we’d soon have been lost in the trackless scrub of their homeland.
Earlier that day we’d met Sambargwa Domdu, a blacksmith time-warped in from the early Iron Age. His bellows were cowhide bags, his anvil was a rock and his only tools were a battered hammer, an ancient pair of tongs and a beat-up chisel. With these, he turned out lethal arrowheads from nails for Hadza and had suggested it might be possible to visit them. Using our 4×4 he thought he may be able to locate them in order to deliver the arrowheads. It took a lot of wild bushwacking but he managed.
Sitting around me hacking meat off a carcass were, in fact, representatives of a long and noble tradition.
The Hadza were highly sociable and seemed to take our arrival as entirely normal. In their world, what happens simply happens. We sat with a group of about 12 men smoking cannabis under a tree near their domed grass shelters (which looked like upside-down bird nests) and were offered meat and a puff of the pipe.
Hunter-gatherers are people whose food is wild and they have to follow and find it. Around 10,000 years ago, our ancestors domesticated plants and animals on the road to cellphones and paper clips. That means for about 95% of our time on earth, we humans were hunter-gatherers. It’s also how our forebears, Homo habilis, were surviving two million years ago. So sitting around me hacking meat off a carcass were, in fact, representatives of a long and noble tradition.
The Hadza were extremely laid back and, between bites, were very keen to chat. They hunted when they were hungry, they said, slept in their temporary beehive grass huts or in caves when it rained or just under a tree, moved when they felt like it and never, ever, let their long bows and arrows out of sight. When I asked about the number of animals they bagged in a week, they were puzzled. It turned out they had no concept of numbers beyond four and no idea what a week was.
Their clothing was an antelope skin apron or an old pair of shorts, relying on a fire to keep them warm at night – which they took less than a minute to light with a wooden fire drill. They wore sandals made out of wildebeest hide or went barefoot and were bedecked with colourful beads made from grass and seeds strung on sinew. A social anthropologist named James Woodburn, who spent time among them, noted that they “meet their nutritional needs easily without much effort, much forethought, much equipment or much organisation”.
They were, he found, free of jealousy, resentment, elitism, tyranny or any concept of private property. They owned what they could hold, stored no food, carried all they needed, buried their departed where they died and found the idea that anyone could own land to be incomprehensible.
For women there is none of the forced subservience of many other cultures. They’re frequently the ones who initiate a breakup – and woe to the man who proves himself an incompetent hunter or treats his wife poorly.
They’re gentle stewards of the land and their entire life, it appears to me, is one insanely committed camping trip.
Their lives were not “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes had put it, but were mostly relaxed and happy. The only time the Hadza were extremely unhappy was in 1964 when the Tanzanian government provided brick houses, piped water, schools and a medical clinic and insisted they stay in one place, plant crops and become “civilised”. Many got sick and died from unaccustomed food and boredom. Within 10 years they had all returned to nomadic life.
They’re gentle stewards of the land and their entire life, it appears to me, is one insanely committed camping trip. They’re also the only tribe in Africa that’s never paid taxes.
With DeVore in mind, here’s something we in the modern world could learn from them. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has noted that in human history, every time a population overtook the carrying capacity of the environment, it was forced to innovate and ‘bounced’ upwards through exploration, innovation and specialisation – or died out. Which means that modern civilisation is the product of adversity, hunger and stress, which seems, paradoxically, to grow with affluence.
Nearly a billion people are, right now, living in abject poverty and go to bed hungry. For thousands of years the Hadza took only what they needed so they never ran out of land or food and are therefore perfectly adapted to their environment.
For thousands of years they’ve been living the simple life and are today, in DeVore’s words, the original affluent society. What this seems to tell us is that happiness is not linked to what we have, but what we think we require. DM/ML