Last of the Bushmen in Tanzania
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

As ancient tribes of hunter-gatherers are pushed aside or assimilated in Africa, a writer joins some of the remaining Hadzabe holdouts.

Tanzania travel

An enraged baboon is a terrifying sight, especially when it's right in front of you.

It crashed out of the bush no more than twenty feet from me, shrieking and baring its two-inch fangs.

I had just gone from pursuer to prey and stood frozen in place at this turn of events when the dull thud of an arrow entered its neck and the creature tumbled over, convulsing as the poison did its job.


Turning to see the Hadzabe smiling broadly as he knocked another arrow into his bow, I realized I was now in the Stone Age.

The Hadza Bushmen of western Tanzania are a dying race, isolated from the rest of Africa by language, culture, and an absolute refusal to update an ancient way of living. They travel light, with minimal possessions, sleeping in caves or on the ground in overnight grass shelters, as feral as the land itself. Monkey and baboon are their main diet with an occasional kudu or gazelle unfortunate enough to come within range of their bows whose arrow tips carry a potent neurotoxin. They often shoot from the hip while on the run, and rarely miss.

They have no chiefs and the women have an equal say in tribal affairs. They move easily about every two weeks and if a large animal is killed in a hunt, the entire clan will relocate to it rather than bring the animal back with them. They live entirely off the land, as the most skilled of hunters. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna that is both nourishment and medicine to them.

These bushmasters are a true window into mankind's own past; living examples of how we outlasted many other creatures, and proof that even minimal technology is not desired by everyone. They are our own ancestors and drew me like a moth to a flame.

My entre to their world came at the end of an all- night thunderstorm that swept over the Ngorogoro highlands like the wrath of God, churning the rocky forest into a quagmire that sucked my land Cruiser to a halt three separate times. Julius parked us under an enormous Baobab to slog his way into the Bushmen's camp and announce my coming.


The Baobab was slick, rubbed shiny with the fat and entrails of hundreds of kills. Countless skulls and horn racks were hung from it, a living testimony to the hunter's prowess and the tree's role as receptacle of the local clan's essence. It was the tribe's ju and they return to it often to hang their bows from it to have them absorb the power of their killed prey. It was a primeval scene in the morning fog, a six thousand year old photo of ritual, ceremony, and esoteric belief.

High for the Hunt
Julius whistled from the top of a rise and as I crested the muddy hill, there, huddled under a rock outcropping, around a tiny fire, were the hunched figures of the Bushmen. They squatted on their haunches, clothed in rags and baboon hides. Their sing song tongue echoing off the interior rock face added a surreal quality to the moment. I was looking at first man, unchanged and unaltered by time or events.

They ignored my approach and as the smoke from their fire reached my nose a second more familiar aroma was mingled with it when I noticed them passing a pipe that appeared to have been carved from an animal horn. Without introduction, a wiry young man with a halo of baboon fur around his head stood up, turned, and handed me the pipe. Now all eyes were on me and knowing this to be a defining moment I inhaled deeply. Fighting the urge to cough I held the smoke and felt its probing fingers enter my brain, numbing my senses. This was not a random act. For many tribes like the Hadza, entrance to an altered state is both ritual and ceremony and in this case it was preparation for a hunt.

Smoking with them gave me the necessary face as all six of them rose at this point to pound me on the back, laughing. This threw me completely off guard. Julius had told me they were friendly people who are known for embracing the occasional stranger but I was not prepared to be handed a bow with arrows that appeared razor sharp or prodded to follow them down the rise and into the bush.


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Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

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Tears, Fear and Adventure

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