What We Can Learn From the African Hadza Tribe

This traditional people live a lifestyle rooted in a deep connection to the natural world

In this interview, Dr. Paul Saladino, author of “The Carnivore Code”—a book on nose-to-tail animal-based eating—reviews what it means to be healthy at the most foundational level and shares his findings from a recent trip to Africa where he visited the Hadza tribe, who are among the best still-living representations of the way humans have lived for tens of thousands of years.

Like the !Kung tribe in Botswana, the Hadza live a hunter-gatherer life amidst the encroachment of modernized society.

“I see the Hadza as a time machine. They’re like a time capsule,” Saladino says. “They do not suffer chronic disease like we do in Western society, and that alone makes them infinitely fascinating. They do not suffer cancers like we suffer cancers.

“They do not suffer autoimmune disease, which is a huge spectrum of disease, and they do not suffer depression, mental illness, skin issues. They do not suffer dementia anywhere near the rates that we do. They age with grace. This is called squaring of the morbidity curve.

“If you look at a graph of their vitality across the lifespan, it is essentially flat and then drops off very quickly at the end. It’s like a square. They lose their vitality within the last few weeks of life, but until they’re 70 or 80 years old, they are vital individuals.”

If we look at Western society, the morbidity curve has a very different look. It’s like a ramp that steadily declines. In the Western world, people lose vitality consistently throughout life. This doesn’t happen in native hunter-gatherer societies, primarily because they don’t suffer from the debilitation of chronic disease.

The Hadza Diet

Saladino primarily wanted to find out how the Hadza eat, what foods they prioritize, and how it affects their health. Other investigators have analyzed the Hadza diet, but he wanted to confirm it for himself. For example, one 2009 study found the Hadza ate a lot of meat, tubers, berries, and fruit and honey from the baobab tree. According to this paper, the Hadza don’t eat vegetables.

The study in question also asked the Hadza to rank how much they liked each food. Honey was ranked the highest, followed by meat (primarily the eland—a very large type of antelope—baboon, and bush pig), baobab fruit, and berries. Tubers were their least favorite food. Saladino’s investigation supported these basic preferences as well.

The Hadza Lifestyle

When asked why they choose to maintain their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, being well aware of modern civilization all around them and other tribes that have chosen to farm and keep herds of cattle and goats, the Hadzi replied: “We want to be free. We like to eat meat. We want to be able to hunt and we like this lifestyle.” Another question that arose was what makes the Hadza happy? Interestingly, this is more or less a non-issue. “Happiness” is their default state of mind.

“That is their default mode when they are in nature doing what humans have always done,” Saladino says. “This is so interesting to me. Here’s this group of hunter-gatherers. They live in the bush. They do not sleep on beds. They sleep on the ground in these thatched huts that they build in a day. They’re nomadic.

“They have little camps. … The camp that we went to was about 40 to 50 men and women with children, and they moved the camp three or four times a year. They have three or four camps that they’ve established, and they know spots in the Lake Eyasi region. Some of them are better for the rainy season, some of them are better for the dry season, and so the whole camp will move throughout the year at different times.

“They have fires for men and fires for the women. They live under rock shelters. They sleep in the auspices of rocks and they are profoundly healthy individuals. They love their life because every day they get to go play. For them, play and fun is hunting. The next day, we got to see this because we went on a hunt with them. It was incredible. It was so joyous and so simple.”

The Importance of Organ Meats

Saladino recounts the hunt, noting how the organ meats were consumed in the field. After hunting down a baboon, the men created a fire to burn off the hair, after which the animal was gutted. Intestines were given to the hunting dogs, while all the other organs—heart, liver, lungs, spleen, kidneys, and pancreas—were cooked on the open fire and shared among the hunting party. Nothing is wasted, not even the bones, which are broken to extract the marrow.

They also eat the connective tissue, which is high in collagen, and the skin. The internal organs, which are the most highly prized, are called epeme, and according to the local lore, the epeme must be shared among all the men of the tribe. If a hunter chooses not to, bad things will happen to them. The hunter responsible for the kill is rewarded with the most valuable organs, however, such as the brain, which Saladino says was “delicious.”

While they might not understand individual nutrients, they clearly know that if you eat these organs, you will be more vital. “That’s why I think it’s so important for humans to get back to eating nose to tail, to eating those organs,” Saladino says. Interestingly, while the Hadza diet has been described as high in fiber, Saladino disagrees.

The tubers they collect are extremely fibrous. So much so, you can’t actually swallow them. You have to chew them and spit out the fibers, so in reality, their diet is low to moderate (at best) in fiber.

“The other thing I want to mention about eating the tubers was that there was no bathroom to wash my hands in. Nor did I want to because I’m very interested in soil-based organisms and the interaction of our microbiome with our environment. Everyone believes that the Hadza have a healthy, diverse microbiome because they eat a high-fiber diet.

“Well, No. 1, they don’t eat a high-fiber diet. No. 2, they probably have a healthy, diverse microbiome because they live in nature and they are inevitably taking inputs, information from nature, in the form of dirt and soil-based organisms.

“This is something that I’ve always expected and it’s a complete paradigm shift.”

Saladino says eating fiber doesn’t increase the diversity of the microbiome. What does, however, is eating dirt.

“There was definitely dirt on my hands and my fingers, and dirt on this tuber as I’m holding it in my mouth. The Hadza are not a dirty people though.

“They do not smell. They don’t use deodorant. They don’t have bad breath. I was really close to them a lot of the time in the bush hunting. They don’t have body odor. Yet they don’t bathe that regularly. We were there for a week and they didn’t bathe.”

Their microbiome is most likely the reason for their lack of body odor, as malodorous armpits are due to specific axillary bacteria. The Hadza microbiome has previously been studied in some detail, showing they have higher levels of microbial richness and biodiversity than Western urban controls.

The Hadza are also unique in that they have an absence of Bifidobacterium, a bacteria that takes an important place in the microbiome of most people. Differences in microbial composition between the sexes have also been found, which is probably a reflection of the division of labor between the sexes.

Fiber Isn’t a Cure-All

Saladino also believes the Hadza diet challenges the importance of eating fiber. He cites two recent research papers, one of which compared Tanzanian urbanites with more rural dwellers, finding that urbanites had higher rates of inflammation. In the second, companion paper, the authors blamed the higher inflammation in urbanites on a fiber-poor Western diet. Saladino disagrees with these conclusions, saying:

“What they’re trying to say is that the urban people in Tanzania are eating more saturated fat and less fiber and that is what fuels their inflammatory phenotype. What I observed was completely different than that. In fact, when you go into a grocery store in urban Tanzania, there are two aisles, there’s two sort of shelves of oil.

“One of them is a huge shelf of vegetable oil. They call it flower oil and safflower oil, and many of the vegetable oils that we saw were actually expired and they’re in plastic. Right next to that is a whole shelf of beef fat, beef tallow.

“The beef tallow is actually cheaper than the vegetable oil, but what do people buy in the cities? They buy seed oils. So, my observation is that in the urban cities, people are probably eating more seed oils and less saturated fat than the rural settings.”

Surprising Health Benefits of Raw Honey

Saladino also recounts how the Hadza collect honey made by stingless bees that burrow into the baobab tree. It’s a common belief that honey is no different than sugar, but Saladino is starting to reconsider this notion.

That is primarily because of the presence of nitric oxide metabolites in raw honey. These metabolites help the body create nitric oxide, a molecule critical to our cardiovascular system. It regulates blood pressure and keeps blood vessels healthy. Among its many jobs, it helps blood vessels relax and widen.

Saladino cites a 2003 paper, “The Identification of Nitric Oxide Metabolites in Various Honeys,” in which they did an intravenous injection of diluted honey into sheep, showing it increased plasma and urinary nitric oxide metabolite concentrations.

Honey has also been shown to increase nitric oxide and total nitrite concentrations in humans, Saladino says. Heating decreases the nitric oxide metabolites in the honey, though, so for this benefit, you wouldn’t want to add it to boiling liquids.

“Honey is often thought to be the same as sucrose because honey does contain glucose and fructose,” he said.

But the body doesn’t treat honey the way it treats those sugars.

“It’s fascinating to me that these whole foods are an informational package that our body perceives differently than a processed sucrose/high fructose corn syrup. Actually, in these studies, honey performed differently than sucrose. Honey performed differently than dextrose.”

Saladino found a research paper that suggested darker honey had more nitric oxide, and that connected back to his experience with the Hazda people.

“I can tell you the honey I ate in Tanzania was some of the most iridescent, dark, richly colored honey I’ve ever had in my life.

“I just want to make this point that reductionist thinking in nutrition doesn’t serve us, and I would posit that honey is nothing like sucrose.”

The take-home message here is that, provided you’re metabolically healthy, you can safely include honey in your diet. It’s important to realize, though, that if you are insulin resistant or have diabetes, all forms of sugar need to be cut back until you’ve successfully reversed these conditions.

Health and Happiness Are Within Your Reach

But the health and happiness of the Hazda people aren’t primarily about diet, but rather lifestyle, notes Saladino.

“I spent a week with the Hadza. I got to hunt for berries with them and dig tubers with the women and we drank the water out of the baobab tree. I got to see all of these parts of their life. They are always in nature, they’re always in the sun. They’re always having low-level activity with spurts of sprinting.

“They follow the circadian rhythms of the sun, which was one of the most joyous things.”

“This is what humans need. As I said, the Hadza’s default state is happiness.”

The key message is that there’s intrinsic happiness that results spontaneously from engaging in certain types of behaviors, and topping that list is the regular immersion in the natural world.

“I fear that in Western society, humans have been placed into a little bit of a zoo,” Saladino says. “We’ve been given these hamster wheels to run on, which essentially are treadmills at gyms and we’ve been given this processed, synthetic food, these rat pellets that are dropped into our cage every once in a while. It’s no wonder that we’re just not happy.

“You know, I’m not a zoologist, but I have heard that when animals are placed in cages in the zoo, they become fat and unhealthy and they develop chronic diseases that they don’t get in the wild. I’ve always found that to be a fascinating parallel with humans because I think we’re exactly the same.

“The difference for us is that the door to the cage is open. We have only to open the latch and walk through. We can get back to these things. You can get more sunlight. You can avoid blue light devices. You can avoid EMFs. You can eat the diet your ancestors ate and walk out of the zoo and find a richer life. Remember, the door is open. You’ve just got to walk through it.”

More Information

To learn more about Saladino and his work, check out his website, heartandsoil.co (not .com). There, you will find his blog, podcast, social media links, and much more.

Dr. Joseph Mercola is the founder of Mercola.com. An osteopathic physician, best-selling author, and recipient of multiple awards in the field of natural health, his primary vision is to change the modern health paradigm by providing people with a valuable resource to help them take control of their health. This article was originally published on Mercola.com.

Sources and References

1 Am J Phys Anthropol 2009 Dec;140(4):751-8

2 Journal of Medicinal Foods Winter 2003;6(4):359-64

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