Extract from Part One: Wild
Hadza Honey - Lake Eyasi, Tanzania
In northern Tanzania, on the green and brown savannah near the shore of Lake Eyasi, I watched an incredible collaboration between human and bird, Sigwazi, a Hadza, and a honeyguide. Honeyguide birds respond to the twists and twirls of the Hadza’s whistles, special calls that are passed down from one generation of hunter to another as a way of summoning a helper in their hunt for honey, Hadza’s favourite food.
As Sigwazi walked, he whistled… This wasn’t a melodious tune, more a series of angular ups and downs on a musical scale, each passage finished with a high-pitched twirl. To my ears there was no obvious musical pattern to follow but something in the bush was paying close attention to this whistle. Noticing movement above the trees, Sigwazi broke into a sprint, weaving through the scrub and around baobab trees as he continued the whistle. A wordless conversation was under way, an exchange between a human and a bird. Sigwazi looked towards the flutter of activity in the canopy, and there perched on a branch was an olive-grey bird the size of a starling.
Barring a few flashes of white on its tail, the bird looked plain and unassuming, but after a few more whistles from the hunter, it revealed itself to be exceptional. ‘Ach-ech-ech-ech’ came its reply to Sigwazi’s whistle, signalling that a deal was on. The bird had agreed to lead the hunter to honey hidden among the branches of the giant baobabs. These trees are as wide as they are tall, living for up to a thousand years, fed by a root system so deep that they can access water in periods of extreme drought. Finding a bees’ nest concealed among the baobab’s tall branches can take a hunter-gatherer several hours as they need to inspect tree after tree; with the assistance of a honeyguide, it takes a fraction of that time. The bird’s scientific name captures its talent perfectly: Indicator indicator.
Somehow, over hundreds of thousands of years, the two species, humans and honeyguides, found a way of sharing their different skills. The bird can find the bees’ nests but can’t get to the wax it wants to eat without being stung to death. Humans, meanwhile, struggle to find the nests, but armed with smoke can pacify the bees. Theirs is the most complex and productive of any partnership between humans and wild animals.
Sigwazi watched as the bird he had attracted with his whistle hovered above one of the baobabs. This signalled there was honey; now it was time for Sigwazi to start climbing. He was short (five feet tall at most), wiry and slim. I figured his physique was the reason he was the member of the group chosen to climb the tree, but I came to realise it was more a question of bravery. Sigwazi was the one least concerned about disturbing a bees’ nest, being stung or, worse still, falling thirty feet to the ground. He handed his bow and arrow to a fellow hunter, stripped off his ripped T-shirt and frayed shorts and removed the string of red and yellow beads from around his neck. By now almost naked, he started to chop up fallen branches with an axe and sharpen them into thin sticks. Baobabs are so soft and sponge-like that hunters can drive these pegs into their trunks with ease to create a makeshift ladder up towards the canopy. Swinging back and forth, Sigwazi made his way up the baobab, forcing a new peg in above his head as he climbed, clinging on, balancing and hammering all at once.
As he neared the top of the tree another hunter climbed up behind and handed him a bunch of smouldering leaves. With these, Sigwazi closed in on the nest and immediately launched into a mid-air dance punctuated with high-pitched yelps. Bees were swarming around the honey thief and stinging as he scooped his hand into the nest and pulled out chunks of honeycomb. These rained down on the other Hadza hunters as Sigwazi tossed them below. They cupped their hands to their mouths and started to feast, spitting out pieces of wax as they ate, leaving behind warm melting liquid that tasted both sweet and sour, bright and acidic like citrus. As I joined them I could feel writhing larvae inside my mouth and the crunch of dead bees. The honeyguide bird perched silently nearby, waiting for its share of the raid once the crowd of hunters had gone.