Friday, February 20, 2015

The Evolution of Diet: The High Altitude Diet of Afghanistan’s Nomads

The origins of Matthieu Paley’s documentation of food and culture for National Geographic began in the Pamir Mountains: 14,000 feet above sea level in an area known as the Bam-e Dunya, which means “roof of the world.” His work here, photographing the lives of Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz nomads, led to another assignment, the “Evolution of Diet,” in the September 2014 issue.
 See also "We are What we Eat"

Winter-Summer 2012

Being French, all we ever talk about at the family dinner table, through delicious mouthfuls, is what we have eaten, what we are eating, and what we will be eating. For me, food is inseparable from culture, so when I began photographing in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains, including this aspect of life felt important. Granted, this is not a place known for its haute cuisine. But that’s exactly the point. We seem to only care about the high end of the culinary chain, the nicely prepared dishes with fancy titles. What interests me here are the eating habits, developed over centuries.

I have been photographing the Afghan Kyrgyz nomads for fifteen years, though this is my first time for National Geographic. I have been bumping around in a jeep for 5 days, followed by a 7-day hike, so naturally by the time I get there, I am hungry—for pictures, for some kind of intimate shots that would show who these people are. And intimacy takes place foremost in the kitchen; touching with your hands what will go into your body, what will make you grow. Food is primal, undeniable. No food, no life.

This community of Kyrgyz nomads are originally from Siberia, but as their lifestyle is centered around their herds, they are always on the lookout for good pasture land. Food makes you travel, and so over the centuries, they eventually ended up high in the Pamir of Afghanistan. It often snows in summer and temperatures routinely drop below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Their diet is a typical one of high altitude plateaus where nothing much grows apart from grass, artemisia, and some wild onions in summer. It is similar to the diet found amongst other nomadic societies, like the Tibetans and the Mongolians. They raise mainly goats, sheep and yaks, as well as Bactrian camels and horses. Because there is no wood, fuel is mainly dried dung. Kebab probably wouldn’t taste so good if it was barbecued on dried dung, so meat is boiled and sometimes fried in yak butter.

Kyrgyz can drink huge quantities of salty milk tea. I do too. Salt is good for rehydration at that altitude, and unlike sugar, it is a condiment readily available in the form of rock salt. Yak and goat milk is boiled for hours, down to a paste. It is then sun-dried for a few days on top of the family yurt. The dried curd is called kurut—it is hard as stone (you might actually need a real stone to break it!) Kurut is dissolved in hot water and used in soups throughout winter, when there’s no other dairy available.

In the Pamir, they slaughter goats with a knife and the blood spills on the ground. Deep red on the dust. Of course it can be painful to watch, but if you will eat the meat from that animal, I feel it’s almost respectful to see that process. Everything is eaten on the animals. I was offered the eye—a local delicacy—a few times. It tasted a bit chewy, like cartilage. In the yurt, once the meat is consumed, the bones are broken down with a hammer or the back of a knife. The marrow tastes like meaty butter. It’s amazing.

Dogs get to pick the meager meaty bits off the skulls, which then slowly bleach in the sun. They fall asleep beside them, keeping an eye out for wolves. The ground around a Kyrgyz camp is full of horns, some are piled up and used as fence.

The Kyrgyz eat bread as well. Because no vegetable can grow at that altitude, they barter their animals for flour. It takes a Kyrgyz yak caravan over a week to go down to the lower valleys, where they trade their animals in Wakhi villages. In winter, the only way down is over the frozen Wakhan river. Horses sometimes fall through the ice… men sometimes drown. Back home, on an open fire in the middle of the yurt, they cook a flatbread called “non,” or chapatti. Women usually make them in the morning. Water must be fetched out of camp, hard work when it is minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Food in its most basic expression always comes with physical exercise—a lot of it.

Cross-legged, we sit on the dusty floor of a yurt. Our host is making chapatis. I am in a haze after a hard day’s walk, fighting the wind at high altitude. From the yurt next door comes a bucket-full of steaming goat meat. My neighbor slices a piece of fat and hands it over to me. Fat is the pride of the herder, the candy of the steppe. He leers at me with piercing green eyes, wipes his large greasy hands on his leather boots and pushes the felt door wide open as he leaves without a word. The harsh sunlight on the snow inundates the yurt and for a moment, I am blinded.

This is taken from a National Geographic Proof Post.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Evolution of Diet: In the Arctic, It’s All About Meat

December 2013

For four hours, the sun struggles to rise. Eventually, it decides to go back to sleep, as if to say, it’s way too cold to even bother. I would agree, but I am here to work. I plan to visit 6 countries in 4 months. It will be tight, but I like a challenge or two.

After much research—and after considering other destinations, family obligations and myriad other things—I have picked a remote Inuit village in eastern Greenland. It is December. Maybe not the best time to go towards the North Pole, but I have learned that going off season is often a bonus. At least that’s what I tell myself.

In a place of rock and ice, nothing dares to grow except some berries in the brief summer. All food not brought in from elsewhere must come from the animal world. The Inuit are at the pinnacle of this meat-only diet.

Isortoq is a tiny village of 64 inhabitants, huddled in wooden houses scattered like giant dice next to the ice cap. After four different flights and two helicopter rides over a glacial landscape, I have arrived. The nearest settlement is a two-day’s walk through polar bear country.

Bent, my host, opens the frigid guesthouse. I ask if I could stay with his family instead. I want to be with them, to share food and hopefully get good images. I show them an issue of National Geographic with a recent story I shot. Clamoring in Tunu, their local language, they check out the impressive yak caravan deep in Afghanistan’s Pamir mountains. Eventually, I am given a nice corner of the tiny living room, right next to the dinner table, and I lay out my foam pad. I am exhausted. Outside, the dogs are howling. I struggle to find sleep. There is always inner tension at the beginning of a story. I am about to jump in.

When the light finally dawns (at 11am!), it is beautiful and soft. But it won’t last very long, so we hurry. We go out hunting on Bent’s boat. Dina, his wife, stands at the prow, scrutinizing the horizon, gun in hand. Her slanted eyes are partly hidden behind a hand-made fox-skin hat. In the dim blue light, we zigzag between icebergs. BAANG!!! The gunshot clashes with nature. I fantasize about the quiet days of harpoon hunting from a sealskin kayak. They wanted seal, but today we only get ptarmigans and a wild duck and then rush home before dark. It’s 2:30pm.

Inuit boil all their meat. Boiled meat looks like any other boiled meat. Incredibly unexciting. Back in the kitchen, I shrug. I explain to Bent what I would like to see. Maybe my excitement is too apparent. “If you are in such a hurry, why didn’t you arrive yesterday!” he smiles.

He takes me into an unheated room at the entrance of the house. It is freezing cold. The smell of fat hangs heavy, the wooden floor is slippery. But it’s not your average fat smell—more like fat mixed with cold ocean topped with seaweed. Here in a corner is the paw of a seal, there a hardened chunk of skinned killer whale meat. All is frozen, cut-up into pieces, and wrapped in plastic. I wonder about the larger pieces, the ones that wouldn’t fit in here. These, I am hopeful, could tell a story. “Oh, we keep it on the outskirts of the village. Sometimes we go there to get more meat for us and to feed our sled dogs,” Bent says.

We trudge through snow, passing the only general store. A mountain of neatly stacked beer is for sale at the entrance. There are lots of imported goods, processed food, and dried fish. “If you want to close a village, you just need to close the store,” says Bent. Most Inuit nowadays compliment their eating habits with “western” food. Many of the hunting ways have been lost. Diabetes is on the rise.

Leaving the last house behind us, we get to a large wooden box, half covered in snow. Bent removes the heavy stones laying on it. Inside, there is a frozen landscape of animal heads, bones, fins, and other parts I can’t identify—the antipode of the sparkling clean supermarket interior I just saw. This is the real food. This is what I have come to see, what the Inuit have survived on for thousands of years, in this land of the North.

With a crowbar, Bent separates a large whale rib from this frozen mess. “We got that whale last July, during migration, a real battle it was”. And then comes the head of a bearded seal. All lie in the snow, eerily quiet. Grabbing a large ax, Bent swings it at a narwhale part, stacking the pieces on a sledge. In the Arctic, the hunter is also the butcher.

I buzz right and left of him, clicking away. I am getting somewhere here. In my mind, we have just found the Tutankhamun of the Arctic kitchen, leftovers strewn here and there. It’s a small victory on my image front. Here, you finally see and understand where the traditional food comes from. Smiling, I help Bent’s son pull the sledge back up to the house. The chained dogs we pass are yapping excitedly, knowing food is on the way for them too.

I could tell you many more stories about this small Arctic settlement. Some are sad, reflecting the all too common story of people losing their lives to the glitter of the Western world. Others are glorious, steeped in knowledge of the land, blood spilling in the ocean, and the northern lights above.

This is taken from a National Geographic Proof Post.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Evolution of Diet: Foraging in the Amazon Rainforest

January 2014

Carefully, I push muddy clay into a suspicious looking crack in the bow of our large dugout canoe. The water leak slowly stops and I smile at our guide, “Looking good!”
We have been going up the Maniqui river for two days now. Huddled together in the center of the canoe under a tarp to escape the intense sun and occasional rain shower are Asher and Kelly Rosinger, both research scientists, Ann Gibbons, the writer of the magazine story, our guide Dino, and myself. The river is swollen, and Dino carefully navigates floating pieces of wooden debris. I have some wilderness experience, but not in a jungle environment. I always felt closer to a high altitude yak than to a rhesus monkey. The heat is getting me. Sometimes on assignment, you have to fight to get yourself physically afloat, to carefully channel the energy you have left toward picture making. I have a feeling this is going to be one of those assignments.

Rounding the bend, Asher calls it: we have reached our goal, the tiny settlement of Anachere deep inside Tsimane territory. We settle into a bamboo house next to a Tsimane family. No phone reception, no electricity, no running water—the real definition of heaven for some. Except for the incredible heat, the ridiculous humidity, and the gazillion mosquitoes. You can shower yourself with DEET mosquito spray strong enough to melt your skin but it doesn’t matter. These mosquitoes will find a way to get you.

That night, a massive tropical storm decides to settle on top of us. Rain is blowing sideways through the cracks in the bamboo walls and an ingenious squadron of mosquitos has found its way into my net. Sweating—or am I wet from the rain?—I itch myself senseless. I will soon learn to worship antihistamine cream. I step out of my “bed”—a wooden plank propped up on stumps. My right flip-flop gets ripped off my foot. My room has turned into a muddy suction swamp.

On the mosquito front, I have pretty much decided to give up. Same with doing the laundry. The river water is so muddy, it almost defies the purpose. That and the fact that after 2 minutes walking in the jungle, I am sweating down to my knees. I feel heavy and inadequate. We walk through the jungle to the next dwelling—to my surprise people from this tribe don’t live together in a village, but rather in single family units spread out from one another, sometimes as far as a half hour apart. A couple sits under an open bamboo hut, looking content, biting on a couple of guavas. I feel like I am somewhere in South East Asia—in Laos or a remote part of Chinese Yunnan. Tsimane have very Asian features. The Bering Strait is a long way from here, but I am certain this is the way they came down, a long long time ago.

I spend two days running around behind Julio, a strong young man. He doesn’t sweat much and looks right at home hunting for monkeys with his dogs and bow and arrow. The heavy rains have pushed the wildlife up to the hills, so we don’t find anything. It is, however, the best weight-watcher program. I am slowly feeling a bit more “adequate.” I pay a visit to our next door neighbors, the Deonicio family. I come here often and sit by the open fire. They are very much at ease with me and my camera. Daydreaming, a young boy scratches a mosquito bite off my arm, using a wooden needle. I am used to it by now. He manages to pop a small blood bubble, and then another. I start grooming others around me too. It seems like the appropriate thing to do. I watch the young kids playing with knives, something that would be frowned upon in Western society. This is better than watching a soap opera.

What about other entertainment you might ask? Well, there is a mildly alcoholic drink, called chicha, made out of fermented manioc. It’s better to try it first before seeing how it’s made. Enzymes in saliva help start the fermentation process, so whoever is making the drink will chew pieces of manioc and spit it back into the main bowl. And repeat. Not a very elegant act to watch, but it does the job. Am I forgetting something? Oh yes … food! Right. Well, I eat a lot of plantain: baked plantain thrown straight into the fire—skin on or skin off—grated green plantain boiled in salty water, plantain in the morning, plantain in the evening. I come to like it very much. The Tsimane used to be solely hunter-gatherers but since the 18th century, they have also been practicing slash and burn agriculture—a “gift” from the missionaries. There is always a small patch of maize or plantains growing near a camp, usually half encroached by the invading jungle.

But watching them gather food is the exciting part. It’s raining heavily. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Albania and Emiliana, two teenagers, walk into the jungle that surrounds their hut. I throw on my poncho and catch up with them. I feel like a walking sweat lodge. My camera is fogging up and I skip over streams, trying not to fall in. They pick fruits on the ground and in the trees. These are sweet. When I suggest some other little red fruit, they chuckle. This one would probably kill me, I deduce. In the developed world, we would go for a walk around the block, one eye fixed on the latest Facebook update, the other on the oncoming traffic. These girls literally float through the jungle, their eyes everywhere, their senses in full alert. I am spellbound. Back at the fire, I am drenched and I count my bites—80 on my right elbow—but also my blessings, for having been so happily swallowed by the jungle.

This is taken from a National Geographic Proof Post.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Evolution of Diet: Diving for Dinner With the Sea Gypsies

February 2014

Water, water everywhere, lapping at your house. Your house is your boat. The ocean is your food source, and it’s the bluest kind of blue. You are a true Bajau.

I am on a search to find people who live almost exclusively of the food they get in the ocean. And after much debate, I have set my eyes on the Bajau, also known as Sea Gypsies. I am a real water baby, so this assignment is really exciting for me. I fell in love with the ocean early on. As a teenager living in rainy Normandy, my room was plastered with Hawaiian windsurfing posters; Robby Naish was my living god. Nowadays, whenever I am home in my adopted Turkish village on the Aegean Sea, I am glued to my WindGuru app—checking the wind forecast for ideal kitesurfing conditions. The feeling of freedom, far out in the ocean, is addictive. I always felt that my heart is out at sea and my head lost somewhere on a cold pass up in the Himalaya—due west of Nanga Parbat, to be precise.

By now, my editor Pamela Chen and I are getting a better grasp at what we are aiming at, as far as images go. Color themes are becoming apparent, emerging as a way to tie the images together. But I am also striving to photograph the human body in connection to the food that sustains it. I like this concept. Photographing the act of eating is not always very appetizing, and it’s almost too expected. I want something else …

It’s a strange bit of theatre. Tarumpit’s body is lying across his dugout canoe. One of his feet is tucked into a cool orange handmade fin which is slowly propelling him. His left arm, stretched out into the water, helps him to keep his balance. He is wearing an old diving mask. He pushes forward slowly, head half submerged, gauging the depth and scanning the bottom of the sea. He is on a hunt. He takes a breath, and I wonder if he has seen something. I am almost as bare as he is, trying to catch up in the water next to him.
My camera is heavily dressed though, snugly fitted into an underwater housing. It’s the first time I am doing underwater photography and I have borrowed my seven year-old son’s mask, much to his pride. I love mixing a physical exercise—swimming—with photography. Tarumpit leans up, takes off his shirt and grabs his spear. I check my camera settings nervously, holding on to his canoe. This is it … the first dive. He steps out and keeps his eyes firmly on the bottom. There he goes. I take a deep breath and follow behind.

His jeans, rippling in the water with every kick, match the blue landscape. Out of a hole glides an octopus. Suddenly, it is lifted off the bottom, a spear in its lower body. The tentacles touch Tarumpit’s feet. There is the connection I was looking for. I am shooting frantically, enveloped in a cloud of black ink. We swim back up for air. Tarumpit climbs in his canoe and decompresses his ears, leaning his head back, looking up.
On the way home, we pass a larger boat, a lepa-lepa. This is the original Bajau dwelling, the real deal I am told. Women give birth on the boat. Boys become men. They cook coral fish at the stern, over an open fire. They freedive to hunt fish and get scallops or sea cucumbers. At low tide on the full moon, they collect sea urchins. Their entire lives play out on their boats. I get on board and sit at the prow. Two teenagers, Alpaida and Asmania, join me. They have brought a tiny vanity case and giggle while I photograph them studying themselves in the mirror.
Most Bajau living on lepa-lepa are stateless. They navigate on the Sulu Sea, doing coastal sailing between islands of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Because of this lifestyle, they cannot get proper identification papers. If they get sick, hospitals on land won’t treat them and they might get arrested.

Tarumpit’s family home is a bamboo hut on stilts, a three-minute canoe ride from shore. There are 15 or so huts, scattered evenly. In the background, a volcano, covered in lush vegetation, stands proudly. At low tide, you can walk between these huts, the water up to your neck. There is a ballet of canoes going between houses, children chattering aboard—canoes parked in front of the houses, some half filled with water; canoes with men returning from morning hunts. We “park” and climb up the ladder.
In the quiet breeze, this house is a charming haven: the whispering waves, the creaking of the poles, the baby sleeping in a hammock hanging from the ceiling and Tarumpit, cleaning the octopus. The cracks in the wooden floor create lines of fluorescent blue. Sitting cross-legged, a boy drops a line through one of them. The lure is made out of a piece of flounder skin. He hooks an eel that twists around like a snake and somehow gets away, sliding back to freedom, into the ocean.
Next, Matthieu’s travels take him to the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, where he joins a group of women gathering firewood.

This is taken from a National Geographic Proof Post.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Evolution of Diet: Chai, Chapatis and the Taste of Home

Late February 2014

Five a.m. and it’s mayhem in the Islamabad airport. Melancholy and excitement fight for attention. I am going back to northern Pakistan, my second home. I have been there so many times over the last 15 years, I have stopped counting the trips. Everything about this region has woken me up to the world, shaped me into a different person, more than any other place I have been to. The mountains are gigantic and treacherous, the people warm and touching.

The plane takes flight and we are off to the north, to the mountains. I sweet talk my way into the cockpit, chatting about camera equipment with the pilots while we graze by Nanga Parbat, which stands at over 26,000 feet. Suddenly, I recognize it—the wide valley with the sand dunes, below the high peaks, the town of Skardu in the distance.
It seems like yesterday I first lived here. 1999. I was just out of photography school, involved in a trekking company and trying to take meaningful pictures while working for an NGO. I see friends from way back then in the bazaar and hug them. Drinking chai after chai, we reunite. It’s like riding a bike—impossible to forget.

Eight hours in a jeep ride and we are in the Hunza valley. In the late 90’s, it was a hot destination for American and European trekkers. But September 11 pretty much eradicated tourism from this blessed land. Imagine high snowy peaks in the summer with lush green valleys below, endless fruit orchards, and a people whose hospitality is second nature. Yes, I mean blessed.

I am in the village of Hussaini. It’s winter. The icy Hunza River snakes its way slowly to a gigantic amphitheater of rock and gravel. Shades of gray are everywhere. It’s the color we wanted for that part of the assignment: a balance to the aquamarine waters of Borneo, the lush green of the Bolivian jungle, the ice blue of Greenland’s frozen tundra, the crimson red of the Kyrgyz costumes. Tupopdan, the “sun-drenched mountain,” edges its teeth to the sky. It’s Wakhi country, and I speak the local language. I feel right at home. Women come down to the river to bring water, hiking the steep path back up to the village. Some are back from fetching wood across the river. No wood, no cooking…I should check this out.

When I ask, the two women laugh out loud. “You want to join us? It’s so windy today! Ok, let’s get going then!” I am on a wood gathering mission with women that must be my grandmother’s age—Zamrad Begum and Nasib Sultan. This is going to be a workout alright—and these two are fit as hell! For 15 minutes, we walk atop the wide, dry riverbed, alongside the skeleton of a suspended bridge usually used in summer, when the melting glaciers turn the river into a swollen beast.

Last year, a gigantic landslide blocked the river down below, forming a lake that swallowed the bridge and the roads. “The lake cut us off from the rest of the world really. No food trucks could come up to us. But we are mostly self-sufficient, so that was ok. The real problem was getting to schools and hospitals.”

We climb up to the other side reaching Zor Abad, a quiet orchard in its winter slumber. There are sea buckthorn bushes around, ready to be cut, but Zamrad explains the rotational system: “You can’t cut here, this needs to rest for a year. Let’s get higher. Come on my brother!”
A couple of chukar birds cackle away above us. Nasib spits in her hand and grabs her axe, swinging at the thorny brush while talking in Wakhi. “There it is, nice wood for my home! That’s some nice wood for my home!” Zamrad grabs the thorny branches with her bare hands and piles them up high, tying them with a rope. Nasib laughs, “Dear Zamrad, such a beautiful thing you are doing, a nice bundle, a real jewel, like a bead of your necklace!” Another 30 minutes of hard work, they run down the mountain, loaded with wood, meeting up with other women, daughters and granddaughters. All the way home they chat between bouts of laughter, making fun of the village men, singing songs about “Bulbul”, the famous nightingale. I puff along behind, eating their dust.

By now, I am famished. My stomach tells me to follow this gang of women into the village. A man greets me and joins our crowd. He is in his early 40’s and just too cool for school, a local hipster it seems: blue jeans, moccasins, a down jacket, Ray Bans, and a row of blinding white teeth directly out of a Colgate commercial. “My name is Sher Aziz, I am the religious leader here. The women are asking if you are hungry,” he says. “Please be kind enough to join us. Let’s have chai and eat!”
That’s one thing I haven’t been worried about: getting invited into people’s homes. A dusty trail leads us through agricultural fields. Everything is at rest, waiting for spring. “Next week, we will start to put manure”, Sher Aziz goes on. We follow frozen irrigation channels. “Our ancestors! They did all this—leveled the fields, removed the stones, built these walls. And water … they channeled it all the way up from that glacier, no machines! It’s hard work but we live to be old and happy.”

We walk into Zamrad’s home, passing a sleepy donkey. People gather around the dildung, the central fireplace, and I am asked to sit by the loop raj, the honorific place near the fire, away from the door. Fading light falls gently on the women from an opening in the roof. With the rasp of a match striking and a couple of gentle blows, the first flames light up the house.
“See, fire is where it all starts, it’s the way to the stomach.” Zamrad sits on the floor, next to me. “In this season, we eat a lot of shhikerkutz hoi (potatoes mixed with fenugreek.) And no meal goes without chapati, our daily bread.”

“And where do all these vegetables come from?” I ask. Zamrad points to a side of the house. “Behind that wall, from our field, where else?” I’ve heard it said the enemy of food is miles. Here, proximity is the key to survival.

This is taken from a National Geographic Proof Post.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Evolution of Diet: Spring in Crete Means a Feast of Wild Greens

April 2014

She lies against the slope, framed in green. In her blue apron, black knee socks, and long hair tied in bun, she is beautiful. With some effort, she twists around to reach for a tuft of leaves just above her head. She grabs her stick and leans on it. Very slowly, she gets up. She turns to me and giggles as if to say, “Am I old or what!” She takes off her knitted vest and lays it flat on the ground under an olive tree. There is a large pocket in the front of her apron and it’s overflowing with wild plants: fennel, chicory, dandelion. Taking them out one bundle at a time, she methodically cuts the dirty roots off and wraps them inside the vest. They will be easy to carry home… and they look very snug.

Vangelio is in her 80s. She is foraging for wild herbs the same as she has done since she was a little girl. Above us is the small village of Meronas. Across from the wild valley stands Mount Psiloritis, its round peak still covered in snow. Olive groves are everywhere.
The largest island in Greece, Crete is a world in itself, very much favored by the gods. Indeed, the food is abundant. The Cretan eating habits are what define the Mediterranean diet, one of the oldest diets still popular today. I have my work cut out for me this week.

I meet some of Vangelio’s extended family. Everyone was out in the fields this afternoon, so there is a nice pile of freshly cleaned wild greens lying on the tablecloth. The conversation is loud and lively—a stream of friendly banter punctuated by hearty laughter, hand gestures, and much raising of the eyebrows. Everyone is incredibly welcoming. I am at the Moschonas for their Saturday family gathering. There is a kind of buzz that makes me feel right at home–we argue a lot in my family and I too like to express myself with my eyebrows.

“Now, we make kalitsounia!” boasts Stella. These are small pies filled with hand-picked wild herbs described collectively as horta. It is April, which has been horta time in Crete since the Neolithic age.
Stella is preparing dough on the table, rolling it out then cutting it into small squares. A couple of men are eating nuts and olives. They wash all this down with raki—a clear brandy made from grapes. Once neatly wrapped in dough, the little horta packages go back to the kitchen to get fried in olive oil.

Meanwhile, a large bucket of snails has emerged from the freezer. “We eat snails all year round. Once we catch them, we sprinkle them with flour so they disgorge.” My mom still cooks escargot when I come back home to France. Sea snails, land snails … think of it … this must be some of the oldest food eaten by humans. Let’s just say the hunting skills required are not too sophisticated and they are an easy catch. No need for an elaborate bow and arrow or setting traps at dawn—simply go for a stroll in a patch of grass, turn over a few small rocks, and there they are.

“And they are full of Omega 3, no fat on that meat either!” Stella continues proudly, noticing my excitement. These little creatures will end up in a casserole, in a thick sauce made of onions, grated tomatoes, parsley, and bulgur.

I am offered a kalitsounia, hot out of the pan:

“Tell me about the horta,” I ask. “What did you pick today?”
Leaning over the table, Stella says with a smirk,”Oh, there are over 20 types out there, if you know where to find them.”
“That many?” I am amazed. “Come on… don’t tell me you can recognize all of them?”
“The hell I do!” Stella replies. “And I know them by name!”

I dare her to name them all and off she goes, eyes closed in concentration, “Golden thistle, black nightshade, mallow, sorrel, amaranth, brighteye, nettle, dandelions, purslane, hartwort, shepherd’s needles, vetch, spiny chicory, bitter dock, wild fennel, king’s spear…”

The list goes on and on. I am not quick enough to write all these down. Most of us are happy to tell chives from parsley. She, like all the other women sitting there—some whispering the names of a few herbs she forgot—is a born botanist. I am duly impressed.

The men are serving me wine. My plate is overflowing with escargots. A man starts playing the lyra. Fava beans and small fried sardines show up on the table along with another dish of what looks like tiny asparagus. Manolis sits next to me. He rolls a cigarette and points at the dish. “This one is medicament. Medicine!” He says with the gravelly laugh of a smoker, “Eat a ton of it!” I try a taste. It is a bit bitter—the kind of bitter you intuitively feel is good for you. I get his point. “We call these avronies… only in this season… you are a lucky man!”

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” Aristotle wisely said. I feel I could live here for a long time, surely long enough to differentiate my wild fennel from my spiny chicory.

This is taken from a National Geographic Proof Post.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Evolution of Diet: Hunting the Hadza Way With Bows, Arrows, and Ingenuity

April 2014

I felt like a headless chicken. All along the course of this story—while photographing the Tsimane, the Inuit, the Bajau—my editor Pamela Chen and I had been constantly researching the next stop, changing course as needed. Africa, however, was proving to be especially challenging. It seemed this part of this story could be told both everywhere and nowhere. The continent was so vast, so many tribes!

I “just” needed to photograph a community whose diet was completely free of food from outside sources. Self-sufficiency was a must: everything they ate must either be foraged, hunted, grown or herded. No influence of foreign aid.

I contacted university professors, fellow National Geographic photographers, writers, NGO workers, and local guides for their advice: There were the Aka, the Konso who still grew an ancient grain (“They have a king, a colorful character”), the Ganjule who lived near a very large lake (“But be very careful if they go hunt hippo!”), the Maasai where I could get a taste of milk and blood from the same animal, the Surmas near Tungit (how do they eat with those massive lip plugs?)

“Hold on,” an eager guide e-mailed me one morning, “I think the Suri people are more related to your profession, go there!” The Ovatue (as noted on a piece of scrap paper: four days round trip, weather depending) must be way better than the overrated Humba. And I should seriously consider the Berbers in northern Mali and go to northern Ghana and Malawi too, but most definitely forget about the northern Omo valley—way too many tourists there! Wait, Pam and I had to ask each other, did we need pastoralists or 100% foragers?

I couldn’t make head nor tails of any of this. I felt lost in my ocean of tribes with cool names. Of course there were the Hadza. The many PhDs and world-class anthropologists had all been pointing me in this direction: the Hadzas, nicely tucked away in Tanzania, have probably the most ancient diet on earth.

The Hadza were perfect. Except that National Geographic had put them on the cover just few years back, and it was understood the images were still too fresh in the reader’s mind. I had to look elsewhere—hence my headache and all these scribbled notes piling up on my desk.

But then it came, on that fine evening of February 5th, at 11:48 p.m., a magical e-mail from Pamela: “Good news! I spoke with Sarah Leen [the Director of Photography] today to get her advice on revisiting the Hadza. If you shoot it differently, she thinks it shouldn’t be a problem!” The thorn in my side was gone. The Hadza would have me.


Flash forward a few weeks and I have arrived in the Yaeda valley. Now I have never liked hunting, especially the modern version—the loud bang, the bright orange jackets, the oozing testosterone. It’s way too much like modern warfare. When you hunt, I think you should do it by fair means, with respect for the life you are taking and without greed.

Hadza only hunt with bow and arrow, and as it turns out, I quite like the experience. It’s more like a long, silent trek (and yes, lions are around) with the chance of an adrenaline rush followed by a gamey snack. In Hadzaland, the incredible challenge of hunting is self-limiting—more often than not, you bring nothing back to camp. In this pristine savannah, wildlife doesn’t deplete as long as agriculturalists or pastoralists leave the place untouched, which so far, they more or less have.

Apart from larvae in honeycomb—eaten together with the honey it tastes salty, sweet, sour, delicious—most of the Hadza’s protein intake comes from hunting. Kauda and January (like the month) are some of the best hunters and trackers. And they better be; because with me as an added member of the hunting party, the challenge has just been increased. My exotic smells act like a well-tuned alarm system, generously aired to the surrounding wildlife.

Kauda makes sure to remind me of that on a regular basis. They nickname me “pompom”—meaning something like “thick guy.” I have a way to go before being fat, but compared to the average Hadza body—most of them have a fabulous six-pack and could easily pose for the cover of Men’s Fitness—I am definitely “pompom.”

We walk for three days, seeing cute dik-diks bobbing around (too far to even aim at) and a family of warthog (the poisoned arrow bounced off its head, and left the arrow completely bent). We hear the hiccup-like braying sounds of zebras.

And then, the guaranteed highlight of my past and future hunting experience—we get so close to a giraffe that January actually has a shot at it. That is: he takes off his sandals to avoid breaking twigs, looks deep into my eyes and asks me to be extra quiet, walks half-bent for half-a-mile, picks a poisoned arrow, aims and shoots. Not for fun, and not because I am there, but in the hope of getting some extra protein for himself and quite a large number of his people.

Hadza can hunt that kind of wildlife, off-limits to you and me. With the amount of meat to be had from large animals like these, the whole camp (between 20 and 30 people) would actually move next to the carcass.

The arrow goes in near the flank of the giraffe. In the silence, I can actually hear the sound of it penetrating the flesh. A cycle is completed—from arrow to target. Compare that to a gunshot, when all you hear is the explosion, ears ringing in the aftermath.

We track the wounded giraffe for over an hour. The track starts to get “drunk” as the poison takes effect. I am tense. January says we should return to camp before it gets dark; we will continue tracking in the morning. I am ready to push on, my head filling with grand ideas of award-winning shots. And that is where they will remain—in my head.

The next day, after another hour of speed walking, Kaunda starts going around in circle. The track has grown faint. The giraffe had overcome the poison and apparently slept here before moving on. No drama of a silent giraffe drawing her last breath in a clearing of long brown grass. No Matthieu shooting an overhead shot hanging from a nearby tree, with the mist rising all around. I am truly happy that the giraffe survived—but I would have liked that shot too.

On the return, Kaunda hunts a hyrax sunbathing on a rock and some blood splatters on my camera. The poor thing looks—and tastes—like a large rodent, far from my majestic giraffe. I’ve read it is related to the elephant. That was the end of my hunting story: a rodent whose long lost father was an elephant, being cooked whole on a fire.

The Hadza were the most intense experience I had while working on this story on the evolution of the human diet. They do not practice agriculture, herd animals, or even store any food. There is nothing to eat at camp in the morning. They walk in the surrounding savannah for a few hours and gather what they need: berries, honey (there is even a bird who sometimes guides them on that venture), tubers and tangy baobab-fruits. And yes, sometimes animals fall, hit by their arrows, but not out of greed.

Our ancestors all had that lifestyle at some point in history. Your ancestors too. Hadzas have the oldest mitochondrial DNA ever tested in a human population; they might in fact be among the “oldest” lineages on earth. Some anthropologists argue that the Hadza ancestors may have been where they are for 50,000 years.

The Hadza are nomads and live in camps made of twigs covered with grass, like upside-down nests. When they leave a camp behind, the twigs and grass fall off and eventually go back into the soil. There are no cemeteries, no traces left behind. Thousands of years and it can be argued that they have left no impact on their environment.

Most of all though, what marks my time with the Hadza is how happy they seem. In their language, there is no word for “worry”. The concept of “worrying” is something that is related to either the future or to the past. In their ancestral ways, the Hadza truly live in the moment. When focusing on daily survival is the most natural thing to do, there is no need for chakra alignment to get yourself centered, or mindfulness courses to experience the here and now. The Hadza, without overthinking it, have kept their focus unchanged, and that is admirable.

This is taken from a National Geographic Proof Post.

From here Paley headed straight to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. to share with his editors the best of his photographs from all of the places he visited. The final story, “The Evolution of Diet,” was published in the September issue, as part of National Geographic’s special “Future of Food” series.