The scenes of carnage in Haiti, following the earthquake of last week and the estimated 200,000 dead, is horribly reminiscent of The Road. Scenes of looting, fighting with knives over loaves of bread, and police shooting to kill as a way of re-establishing civil order, showed just how quickly society can collapse. A photograph showing several hundred men swarming up through a thinly-wooded slope to the top of a hill where a helicopter was attempting to deliver a load of fresh water, begged the all-besetting question… once relief gets to where it is needed how can it be equitably distributed, for hoarding becomes the all-consuming response of an urban people fighting for their lives.
Haiti is almost entirely populated by people whose ancestors were stolen from their homelands in Africa and sold into slavery to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. In last month’s National Geographic Magazine there was an article on a small group of hunter/gatherers still to be found around Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. The Hadza are what anthropologists call a ‘relict’ population – an isolated group that has somehow survived socially and genetically unchanged over something like a hundred thousand years. They still live as did all our ancestors for probably 99% of human time. Their numbers have been draining away for centuries as individuals have married into other tribes and lost their naturally evolved survival skills that once enabled them to survive in some of the world’s least hospitable places.
Some of those Haitians fighting to survive carry Hadza blood in their veins but history – in the form of industrial farming operated by slaves – has all but obliterated the memories of their tribal behaviours that made them such great survivors. The Hadza traditionally own no land, grow no crops, herd no cattle and build no houses; they have no concept of time and no thought of hoarding to protect crops for when they might be short of food. Their lives are forever dependent on sharing. In killing a large Wildebeest, an Antelope or Gazelle, the hunter and his immediate family share the meat with anyone else who is around. Having no means of storing any excess that might see them through future ‘starving times’ the Hadza invest in goodwill – if you help me when I am down on my luck then surely you will help me if my luck changes? And it nearly always works, providing no one breaks the rules. In such societies there is no fighting over disputed food, and probably there is little chance for any one person to grow too fat. It is a society dependent on trust.
I, too, visited the Hadza five years ago. That visit made a deeper impression on me than anything that I read in the National Geographic which seemed too ‘politically correct’, for example I did not see the women overdressed in cheap western dresses, nor could I ‘smell’ the fear that grips you when, through the cotton walls of your tent, you hear a lion roaring close by in the dark. At one stage I noted a half-hearted attempt to grow what looked like maze on a clearing near one of the huts, and I asked the elder what this meant. His face immediately clouded as he explained that some visiting missionaries who tried to persuade some of the Hadza women to become settled agriculturalists. Even though in most years there is insufficient grain to grow crops, the women had been given seeds and spades and encouraged to grow maze. “This is foolish, for in most years the crops fail”, said the elder, “but the worst of planting crops is that when people do so and the crops flourish, those who planted them won’t share out the harvest with other people. They say it is theirs because they planted it, and because the spirit of their ancestors let it grow. What they don’t eat in one year they want to save for a bad harvest. They become selfish and hold it back. It is breaking our way of live. We believe that what people find belongs to everybody. Planting crops makes some people more powerful than others because they can bargain with things that had previously been owned by everyone.”
That moment five years ago was a truly thought-provoking time. Anthropologists have long speculated that there was a shift from a communal sharing ethic, the root of social conventions for 98% of human history when all our ancestors were hunter/gatherers, to the time some ten thousand years ago when our ancestors started to settled down and stake out their own turf.
For too many generations the descendants of those hunter/gatherers have had no turf of their own, nor have they been able to build a society based on trust. To see them fighting their way up that hill to get water shows just how broken human society could become.