Excerpt from Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Eating to Extinction

The World's Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them

by Dan Saladino

Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino X
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2022, 464 pages

    Jan 2023, 464 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Nichole Brazelton
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Print Excerpt

The collaboration between human and bird was chronicled by Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s, but it took until 2016 for outsiders to understand the conversation more fully. When a team of scientists walked through the savannah playing loops of different recordings, they discovered that the attention of the honeyguide wasn't caught by just any human sound: the birds were listening out for specific phrases. In the case of the Yao people of Mozambique, this was 'brrr-hm…', whereas in northern Tanzania the birds responded to the twists and twirls of the Hadza's whistles. These calls are passed down from one generation of hunter to another and, in each case, the researchers found, repeating the traditional phrases not only doubled the chance of being guided by a bird, but also tripled the chance of finding a bees' nest and honey.

What makes this even more remarkable is that the honeyguide is a brood parasite; it lays its eggs in other birds' nests. More brutal than the cuckoo, the chicks use their sharp-hooked bills to dispatch their rivals as they hatch. How the bird learns the skill of conversing with the Hadza we still don't know. One theory is that, just like the hunters, they are social learners; they watch and listen to their more experienced peers. It's possible this inter-species conversation predates the arrival of Homo sapiens and reaches back a million years or more to our ancestors' first use of fire and smoke. This idea is part of a compelling argument that it was honey and bee larvae, as much as meat, that made the human brain larger and helped us to outcompete all other species. Meat eating gets all the glory, the argument goes, because stone tools used in hunting turn up in the archaeological record, while evidence of eating honey does not. But there are plenty of other clues. Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – all eagerly gorge on honey and bee larvae, nature's most energy-dense food. And in the earliest rock art discovered, inside caves in Spain, India, Australia and South Africa, there are depictions of honey collecting dating back at least 40,000 years.

But perhaps the most persuasive evidence of honey's importance to human evolution is the diets of the world's few remaining hunter-gatherers, including that of the Hadza. One-fifth of all of their calories across a year comes from honey, around half of which is the result of help from the honeyguide bird. The other half the Hadza can find themselves, as it comes from various species of bee that nest closer to the ground. Some are tiny, gnat-like and stingless, and produce a type of honey that is highly perfumed and delicately tangy. The Hadza find these nests by inspecting trees for the needle-sized tubes used by the bees to get inside the trunk. This type of honey, called kanowa or mulangeko in Hadzane (the Hadza's language), comes in modest, snack-like portions, and is gathered by chopping into the colonised section of tree. But on this occasion Sigwazi and the honeyguide wanted more. Together they were going to find the honey and wax of the larger (and more aggressive) Apis mellifera scutellata, the African honeybee.

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.

Excerpted from Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino. Copyright © 2022 by Dan Saladino. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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