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

When the rest of the honey was taken back to the camp, women gathered armfuls of baobab pods, each one the size of two cupped hands. With bare feet, they brought their heels down to open the pods with a crunch. Inside were clusters of kidney-shaped seeds coated in a white powdery pulp which tasted like effervescent vitamin C tablets. The seeds, pulp, water and a little honey were placed into a bucket and stirred into a whirlpool with a stick. When everything settled, it looked like a thick creamy soup. Each sip fizzed in the mouth. This, I was told, is a food Hadza babies are weaned on.

* * *

Someone who had watched this exact scene long before me, as a 23-year-old Cambridge student, was James Woodburn. In 1957, to complete his PhD, he travelled to Tanzania in search of Africa's last hunter-gatherers. He followed two Italian ivory hunters tracking an elephant herd. Near Lake Eyasi, after the animals were killed and the tusks removed, Woodburn watched as Hadza hunters appeared out of the scrubland and into the clearing to take away the mountain of meat (elephants are the only big game that Hadza don't hunt – they say their poison is not strong enough to kill them). Woodburn followed the hunters back to their camp and spent the next two years living alongside them. To survive Hadza country without Hadza skills, he brought in supplies of rice and lentils to add to the small amounts of wild food he managed to forage for himself.

Woodburn learned to speak Hadzane (his language skills had been honed as a military interpreter), and gained new insights that brought the Hadza to wider attention in the 1960s. This included work carried out with paediatricians, which showed how exceptionally well nourished Hadza children were compared with their contemporaries in nearby farming communities. During the six decades that have followed, Woodburn has returned to Hadza country on a regular basis, staying with the tribe, studying their way of life and recording how it has changed over time. Luckily for me, my visit to Hadza country coincided with one of his.

'They have stayed as hunter-gatherers because it is a life that makes sense to them,' Woodburn said as we sat by a campfire, the last of Sigwazi's porcupine crackling as it cooked, 'they regard it as a wonderful life.' It's a way of life that's endured, he believes, largely because of the autonomy it brings; no Hadza has control over another, a fact made possible because of the abundance of wild food around them. Apart from the very young and the very old, everyone in the camp is self-sufficient, each skilled enough to feed themselves, even children as young as six. 'Once this way of life stops making sense to them,' Woodburn said, 'it finally comes to an end.'

When Woodburn first met the Hadza, the outside world had stood at a distance. The foragers still didn't know which country they lived in and their knowledge of what lay beyond Hadza country came largely from encounters with neighbouring tribes – the Iraqw, the Datoga and the Isanzu. With these pastoralists and farmers, the Hadza traded meat, skins and honey for millet, maize, marijuana and metal (to make axes and arrowheads). Other things they knew about the outside world had been passed down the generations, including stories of abductions of their forebears. Tanzania was at the centre of the East African slave trade until the middle of the nineteenth century, which was why the Hadza, until recently, always ran from strangers who appeared in the bush. But in the mid-1960s, there was no avoiding the world outside. Following independence from Britain, the Tanzanian government, encouraged by American missionaries, attempted to settle the Hadza in villages by force. Hunter-gatherers from remote bush camps were taken away in trucks to purpose-built villages, escorted by armed guards. Many became ill from infections and died. Within two years, most of those who had survived returned to their camps and to foraging. Efforts to settle and convert the Hadza, not only to Christianity but also to agriculture, have continued. And yet, against the odds, their hunter-gatherer way of life – the life that makes sense to them – has persisted. Now, though, a new set of forces is bearing down on the Hadza. Agriculture is spilling over into their land and products made by the global food industry have reached the camps. Woodburn said he hadn't forseen the scale of these pressures on the Hadza. No one had.

* * *

One-third of the Earth's land surface is now dedicated to food production – a quarter of this for crops, three-quarters for grazing animals – and farming's expansion into the wild is continuing (nearly 4 million hectares of tropical rainforest are lost each year). Agriculture is reaching into parts of the world once thought impossible to be farmed. Among them, Hadza country. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, tens of thousands of hectares of land used by the Hadza was converted by outsiders into pasture for livestock or to grow crops each year. Along with it went some of the Hadza's access to wild foods, including giant baobab trees that take hundreds of years to grow. Supplies of nutritious baobab pods were depleted, and so were sources of honey. In 2012, after years of campaigning, the Hadza were awarded rights of occupancy over 150,000 hectares of land, but this still didn't stop the problem. Neighbouring tribes faced with water shortages caused by irrigation and climate change moved cattle closer to the Hadza's camps and waterholes. The cattle ate the vegetation that brought in game and disrupted migration routes which meant there was less for the Hadza to hunt. Across the whole of Africa, two-thirds of the continent's productive land is now at risk of becoming degraded, half of this severe enough to lead to desertification. The biggest cause is overgrazing of livestock.

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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