National Geographic : 2009 Dec
"I'M HUNGRY," SAYS ONWAS, SQUATTING BY HIS FIRE, BLINKING PLACIDLY THROUGH THE SMOKE. THE MEN BESIDE HIM MURMUR IN ASSENT. IT'S LATE AT NIGHT, DEEP IN THE EAST AFRICAN BUSH. Singing, a rhythmic chant, dri s over from the women s camp. Onwas mentions a tree he spotted during his daytime travels. e men around the re push closer. It is in a di cult spot, Onwas ex- plains, at the summit of a steep hill that rises from the grassy plain. But the tree, he adds, spreading his arms wide like branches, is heavy with ba- boons. ere are more murmurs. Embers rise to a sky in nite with stars. And then it is agreed. Everyone stands and grabs his hunting bow. Onwas is an old man, perhaps over 60---years are not a unit of time he uses---but thin and t in the Hadza way. He s maybe ve feet tall. Across his arms and chest are the hieroglyphs of a lifetime in the bush: scars from hunts, scars from snakebites, scars from arrows and knives and scorpions and thorns. Scars from falling out of a baobab tree. Scars from a leopard attack. Half his teeth remain. He is wearing tire-tread sandals and tattered brown shorts. A hunting knife is strapped to his hip, in a sheath made of dik-dik hide. He s removed his shirt, as have most of the other men, because he wants to blend into the night. Onwas looks at me and speaks for a few moments in his native language, Hadzane. To my ear it sounds strangely bipolar---lilting and gentle for a phrase or two, then jarring and per- cussive, with tongue clicks and glottic pops. It s a language not closely related to any other that still exists: to use the linguists term, an isolate. I have arrived in the Hadza homeland in northern Tanzania with an interpreter, a Hadza woman named Mariamu. She is Onwas s niece. She attended school for 11 years and is one of only a handful of people in the world who can speak both English and Hadzane. She interprets Onwas s words: Do I want to come? Merely getting this far, to a traditional Hadza encampment, is not an easy task. Years aren t the only unit of time the Hadza do not keep close track of---they also ignore hours and days and weeks and months. The Hadza language doesn t have words for numbers past three or Well past his prime as a hunter, but in full flower as a storyteller, Onwas is the father figure for one of the many groups of Hadza who still follow an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle.