“What is the most important thing in life?”

This was asked of some men of a Hadaza or Hadzabe tribe in Tanzania (from a video on Mike Corey’s Fearless & Far Youtube channel). The answer, according to one hunter-gatherer: 

  • “Meat.”
  • “Honey.”
  • “Corn porridge.”

That is the order he gave them in. He paused between stating each. But the first answer came without any pause. And the last one would’ve been introduced during colonialism.

To emphasize his point, he later said, “If we have meat, honey, and water, then we are happy. Thank you, friend.” He didn’t bother to add the corn porridge in the second answer. Corn porridge is probably only what they eat when they have nothing else.

Then further on, the interviewer asked, “What is your biggest struggle?” Guess what the hunter-gatherer’s answer was. “Meat.” It really does all go back to meat, although they did explain the importance of water as well. Honey is a nice treat, but they kept coming back to meat.

This hunter-gatherer was really obsessed with the baboons they were going to hunt that night. He was quite excited about it. Those baboons on the rock in the distant meant meat.

Meat makes the world go around, including the fear of becoming meat. The first answer to their greatest fear was, “Lion.” Eat or be eaten. The hunter-gatherer’s whole live is obsessed over the next kill and avoiding being killed.

Honey is pleasurable and good quick energy. Plant foods can be eaten in a pinch or for variety. But, for humans, lack of meat in the wild means death.

9 thoughts on ““What is the most important thing in life?”

    • Your answer demonstrates the difference between oral and literate cultures. The former speak in concrete terms. Many preliterate languages don’t have words for such notions. An idea like ‘love’ is an abstraction. Traditional oral people, instead, would more likely speak of concrete things, relationships, and actions. The sense of caring, obligation, duty, loyalty, etc involved in relationships would be inseparable (i.e., not abstracted) from the specific relationship itself with its culturally-determined social norms and roles. That would differ according to the relationship.

      But it’s interesting that even in concrete terms, these hunter-gatherers didn’t even include relationships at the top of the list of what is most important in life. Maybe that is because one can survive long periods without relationships, if one has to. But one can’t survive for long without food or water. Hunter-gatherers are forced to be concretely hyper-focused on immediate concerns and practical realities of survival that are ever present. In fact, traditional societies often include the ability to procure, provide, and prepare food as a key defining feature of close relationships.

    • By the way, the point I was making was partly based on the work of Alexander Luria. He was the father of Soviet psychology. Early in the 20th century, there were still communities in areas of the Soviet Union that essentially were still operating as feudal peasantry. They lacked all formal education and literacy.

      When he tested them, he discovered their thinking was almost entirely concrete. For example, they’d pair a gun with a deer, as opposed to pairing a gun with a hammer (manmade objects) and a deer with a dog (mammals). This observation has been applied to intelligence research, as IQ tests partly measure abstract thinking.

      Such abstract thinking is an aspect of fluid intelligence. The Flynn effect has noted that IQ has increased over the past century, from one generation to the next, although it has finally stalled in some of the most advanced countries. What is interesting is that it’s mainly fluid intelligence that has risen.

      We moderns in WEIRD cultures have extremely high levels of abstract thinking and fluid intelligence (WEIRD = Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). We take this as normal and don’t realize how bizarre it is or how bizarre are so many other traits of WEIRD cultures. To speak in abstractions like ‘love’ was not normal for most people until mass literacy, not even in the West.

      That said, I totally understand why you gave that answer. Like you, I was raised not only in an extremely WEIRD culture overall but in a WEIRD family and in WEIRD communities. Specifically, having grown up in a WEIRD hyper-liberal and new agey church, I was taught that love was the most important thing in life.

      I wouldn’t even say that answer is wrong. But there is an immense cost when we get lost in abstractions. Traditional people would sacrifice to protect their farm, hunting grounds, house, village, family, neighbors, etc. But everything in their life would’ve been concrete and direct. Even nationalism is a recent invention.

      I’ve been trying to become more aware of abstractions and the hold they have over our minds, particularly when they become reified as ideological realism. I also see it as related to linguistic recursion where abstractions get built upon abstractions, until ideologies become totalizing and self-contained worldviews. I sense this is what underlies what I call symbolic conflation, what replaces or stands in for the concrete issues we don’t talk about.

      So, when we say ‘love’, we would be wise to stop and consider what we really mean. What would we specifically know ‘love’? It’s a friend giving us a hug, a loved one cooking a meal for the family, a confidant who will listen to your troubles with sympathy, and on and on. Love is not a vague feeling but has to do with concrete relating.

      Even for those hunter-gatherers, when they are talking about meat and survival, in a sense they too are referring to love. The only difference is that they are speaking concretely. That meat they catch will be brought back home to feed their loved ones and friends. It will be a joyous feast. Hunting is an act of love in taking care of others. Hunter-gatherers typically prioritize food sharing, particularly meat sharing.

      • Perhaps they dont need to say it or have a term for it, it is their standard operating mode, they apply love as socially appropriate to their families and communities, whereas we might pick and choose who we are nice to, we apply love selectively to those we choose.

        I have the choice of smiling at the security guard or ignore his existence, the former would be a practical demonstration of love, since the security guard is not my immediate family or « tribe » im not obliged to stop everything and chat for a few minutes, but he sure would appreciate it if I did. In my opinion this would classify as love since I do it without expecting anything in return i.e., selfless. It is illogical because the two minutes I spent with that person could’ve been spent in some self serving egoic activity that might theoretically bring me more joy than listening to how the security guys weekend went, if you say its common courtesy to chit chat with the security guard, and you feel its more like an obligation than premeditated volitional action, then I would say that you inherited the crust of culture from your forefathers without inheriting the love at the center of it all.

        This is different from the intimacy of courtship that is oversold in the media as the generic brand love. Love is an every day activity.

        • There is much truth to what you say. We can’t dismiss something simply because it’s unstated. There is more to human reality than words can convey. Yet I have immense respect for the power of language, what formally is called linguistic relativity. There is research that shows language can alter our perception and behavior.

          Cultures that have no words for blue show no evidence of being able to differentiate blue from either green or black. Similar results have been found with cultural experience of time and direction. Philologists take such understandings in their study of ancient texts. It does seem that language isn’t a mere superficial overlay but is a creative force in our sense of reality and identity.

          To not have abstract words like ‘love’ probably does profoundly alter one’s sense of the world and of one’s relationships. This would be particularly true for tribal people whose identity is framed by non-literate language, animistic culture, bundled mind, and 4E cognition (Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, Extended). To modern WEIRD individuality, that other worldview is completely alien and almost unimaginable.

          You write that, “In my opinion this would classify as love since I do it without expecting anything in return i.e., selfless. It is illogical because the two minutes I spent with that person could’ve been spent in some self serving egoic activity…” This demonstrates an important distinction. The non-Weird relational kindness and intimacy would not be selfless in this sense, but rather would be part of a self that is extended and distributed.

          Traditional hunter-gatherers lack the clear egoic boundaries that we Westerners take for granted, that we assume is reality itself. Their personal space and perception of identity extends into the world around them, including not only the tribe but the landscape and non-human species. It’s also more amorphous where they might take on multiple identities in their lifetime, such that there names and personalities can change.

          Their experience of reality is much more open and fluid. So, if meat is in some sense an expression of ‘love’, it’s not an expression we likely can fully comprehend. They don’t bring meat back to family and other tribal members out of self-sacrifice, since they could never imagine themselves separate in the first place. There is no choice involved. It’s simply their entire worldview and way of being.

          Meat is the most important thing because there whole world revolves around it. This might make more sense in terms of the writings of someone like Paul Shepard who proposed human identity developed in relationship to animals. Hunter-gatherers had an intimate relationship with the prey they hunted, sometimes to the point of considering them separate tribes or collective beings.

          The Piraha would sometimes raise the orphaned baby animals of the mothers they killed, even to the extent of breasteeding them next to their own babies, only to eat them when they matured. Interestingly, theory of mind and empathy are centrally important to hunting, in order to enter into the minds of animals. Many tribal peoples have practices of spiritually becoming an animal before hunting it.

          Chatting with strangers, security guards or otherwise, is a perfectly fine thing to do. And I fully understand why you bring it up. There is something that feels good about connecting with another person, especially in our isolated modern society. And, at times, it can feel like a sacrifice in that we tend to live hurried lives and, besides, dense urbanization can feel oppressive in causing us to cut ourselves off in seeking time alone.

          Living in a tribe surrounded by wilderness, though, is a radically different experience. Ecstatically entering the spirit-being of another species is of an entirely different order to taking a moment to have a friendly conversation with another human. Such communing with the completely ‘other’ is an experience few of us have now. But it is an experience that used to be common among traditional hunters.

          If this is some form of ‘love’, both for the hunted animal and for one’s tribe, it is far different from modern love. That is my main point. There is something fundamentally different, a difference that makes a difference. But that isn’t to dismiss modern ideals and expressions of love. I’m just not sure that most uninfluenced hunter-gatherers would understand what we mean by the word ‘love’, as they may have no equivalent word or concept.


        • There was something else I meant to comment about. I’ve long been fascinated by the effect of foods and other natural substances have over the human mind and culture. Actually, not limited to only that but also how parasitism (e.g., toxoplasmosis) and parasite load can alter personality and social behavior, also including culture. There is a lot of interesting research on this kind of thing.

          In some of my posts, I’ve written about how Galenic humoral theory was Christianized in the Middle Ages. It was believed that certain foods altered substances in the body and had an impact on the individual. For example, meat and red meat in particular was considered to increase the blood in making people more strong, vigorous, aggressive, and fertile.

          There was fear that this would burn up the individual and lead to early death. But there was also fear from the ruling elite that, if the peasants got their blood up too much, they might revolt. And it was true that revolts often happened during Carnival and such when people were celebrating and probably eating meat. So, the ruling elite banned red meat before and during Carnival.

          This also was seen in the ban of meat on certain days, a ban that excluded fish. Fish, by the way, was considered poverty food and not labeled as ‘meat’. This is interesting as humans evolved eating mostly ruminant meat. It’s probably true that eating red meat makes one more energetic. For Medieval Christians, health of the body was seen as a bad thing. The body must be starved to save the soul that was considered separate.

          Vegetarianism wasn’t invented until the late 19th century. Even Hindus traditionally allow and recommend people eat meat when sick, pregnant, or seeking to get pregnant. Long-term strict vegetarianism has been extremely rare in history and long-term strict veganism non-existent until quite recently. Even monks on vegetarian diets would still tend to eat some animal foods such as eggs, dairy, and often fish; but they did tend to avoid what was perceived as the earthy meats from four-legged animals, particularly ruminants.

          That is interesting since it is precisely ruminants that humans depended upon for survival over hundreds of thousands of years. The favorite ruminants were the blubbery megafauna, of course, at least until they died out. After the megafauna die off, human health did decline a bit, if not as dramatically as came with agriculture. Humanity wouldn’t be here today without meat. Many scientists argue it was the cause of the evolution of a larger brain (expensive tissue hypothesis) and the need for running capacity (persistence hunting).

          I’ve wondered about how agricultural foods replacing animal foods may have altered brain development, neurocognition, social behavior, identity, and culture — particularly with the rise of addiction and the addictive mindset, as it relates to egoic individualism, self-consciousness, dualism, and Platonic/Cartesian anxiety. I was reminded of all of this in reading Morris Berman’s “Coming to Our Senses”, a really great book.

          In talking about Cathar monks, he described their religious practices. Along with something akin to yoga and mantras, they also followed dietary regimes: “Fasting, a tried-and-true method of generating visionary or altered states, was a major activity of the Perfect, and it was interspersed with a vegetarian diet [that sometimes included fish]. Three days a week, the Perfect at only bread and water; they also engaged in three forty-day-long fasts of this kind each year. All this was bound to have mental, or spiritual effects.”

          They were trying to detach themselves from their bodies. Eating an animal-based diet, particularly from ruminants, has the opposite effect of grounding people in their bodies. Might this also have something to do with the increase of abstract thought over concrete thought? According to my theory, carbs and sugar, especially grains, have contributed to the addictive mentality that was necessary for constructing and maintaining disconnected and isolated individuality.

          Anyway, it does seem to change social behavior. Weston A. Price studied many traditional societies. In general, they were lower-carb than the extremes of the standard American diet. But they weren’t typically ketogenic, such as some of the rural farming communities he visited. What their diet definitely consisted of was a lot of fatty animal foods full of fat-soluble vitamins. In some European rural villages, the highly prized yellow spring butter from cows grazing on fresh green grass was used as a sacrament in churches where it was burned in lamps.

          I bring this up because Price wasn’t only looking at physical health but also mental health and what he called moral health. He found that people in these communities following traditional diets of fatty animal foods exhibited high rates of pro-social behavior. They were happy, friendly, and helpful. Whether they were farmers or hunter-gatherers, much of their life revolved around ensuring regular intake of fatty animal foods. Price didn’t think this was a mere coincidence and neither do I.

        • I’ve been reading more of Morris Berman’s book, Coming to Our Senses. It’s a great read. It does help put into context why a hunter-gatherer would perceive meat as being not only so important to the diet but the most important thing overall. For hunter-gatherers, meat isn’t a packaged food but comes from a living creature. And that is part of a totemic mindset and worldview. Animals are collective spirit-beings in a world that is vitally and animistically alive with the presence of voices. And meat was a part of that living world. Consuming an animal was to incorporate its spirit, powers, and abilities into oneself.

          It’s hard for us to imagine such an experience. Animals core to the animistic sense of reality. So, the meaning it holds goes so far beyond any resemblance to any typical modern concepts of love. But it’s not only a difference between hunter-gatherers and agricultural societies. In the past, even farming communities had a much stronger connection animals, both domesticated and wild. Even into the early industrial cities, animals were everywhere: horses, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, etc — all roaming about. That has drastically changed in a short period of time.

          Berman writes about this: “The fact that relationships with domestic animals, even in terms of their individual personalities, had been going on for such a long time, and then collapsed in the space of a few generations, made the change nothing less than a psychic bombshell. This might have been fine if it had meant a return to the sacred otherness of hunter-gatherer society, but of course it was just the reverse. Animals became, literally and conceptually, nonexistent.” Further on in the same chapter, he writes, “Ours is the first civilization in the history of the human race not to possess a nonhuman model of Otherness.”

  1. Nice essay, I agree. A remark. Modern hunter gatherers are not practicing the hunter-gathering humanity evolved with. Civilization has long been everywhere, even the Amazon before the Conquistadores. In their original state, hunter gatherers probably worried most about being killed by other men.

    • Sure. There is no population, however remote, that is frozen in time. It is always more complex, of course, than a simple post could portray. And to be fair, this question was asked of a younger male hunting party. The women, children, and old men back at the village might give a different answer… or maybe they’d give the same answer, in waiting for the meat to arrive. A major fresh kill is always reason to feast and celebrate.

      We have to keep in mind the larger context as well. As you said, their lifestyle isn’t what it used to be. Encroachment of others on their territory, not to mention ecological destruction, has interfered with their traditional diet. During this particular hunt, they had to look a long time. The reason is that herders had scared away most of the prey, and this was becoming a problem. The excitement about spotting the baboons was understandable.

      This could even play into why they feared lions so much. If prey is scarce for humans, it’s also probably scarce for the nearby lions. And a hungry lion is a much more dangerous creature. As far as that goes, a hungry human is more dangerous as well. So, it always depends on the surrounding environmental conditions. And obviously, that can vary greatly from one population to another.

      These particular Hadza hunters are competing for scarce resources with the lions. But I’ve read about other tribes elsewhere who don’t fear the lions at all, likely because prey is more bountiful for whatever reason. Resource competition (food, water, etc) would also increase conflict with other humans, assuming the populations are too large and/or too close (hunter-gatherers tend to be careful about not having more children than they can feed and support).

      Many factors could create resource scarcity and competition. Besides overpopulation, there is drought, famine, blight, and pestilence. But the data shows that, generally speaking, hunter-gatherers experience less violent conflict than herders and farmers; and that violence increases when hunter-gatherers adopt horticulture. That is because hunter-gatherers can more easily pick up and move elsewhere, at least that was true until the modern era.

      They usually have less to defend. Besides, they have small populations and can’t afford to lose too many individuals in fighting. Hunter-gatherers have much more incentive to avoid violence whenever possible. And they often have plenty of resource opportunities elsewhere. This is probably why the data shows hunter-gatherers experience less famine than agriculturalists. They can simply leave bad conditions behind.

      Nonetheless, what you said could be true. I’ve never seen data comparing the percentage of premodern hunter-gatherers who died by various means, specifically in terms of warfare and predation. It would be interesting to know what most Hadza died in centuries past, excluding those caused by the common childhood infections prior to modern vaccinations and healthcare.

      There has been a lot of debate on the issue of gathering and interpreting violence data. And I’ve written about it on a number of occasions. But the first one below is a research paper on famine.


      Percentages of Suffering and Death

      State and Non-State Violence Compared

      Noble or savage?

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