An ethnography for fad diets

Two tourists take a package trip to visit the Hadza people in Tanzania and are so jazzed with what they see, they make a podcast about it. What could go wrong?

Image via Twitter.

Americans Anthony Gustin and Paul Saladino recently took a high-end tour to Tanzania, primarily to spend time with a group of Hadza people. The Hadzabe are a small ethnic group who live primarily in and around Tanzania’s Lake Eyasi. Over the past century or so, they have attracted significant attention from researchers and tourists alike due to their language (which employs phonemic click consonants and cannot be closely linked with any other), as well as the fact that a subset of their population practices hunter-gatherer subsistence (killing animals with bows and arrows and harvesting wild berries and tubers from the forests around them).

Gustin and Paladino spent five days hanging out with the Hadzabe, ticking off all of the boxes that would be offered to them as luxury tourists: gathering honey, spending time in a Hadza encampment, and tagging along on a forest walk during which Hadza hunters killed, cooked, and ate a baboon. In the evenings, the two would return to a well-appointed lodge on the shores of Lake Eyasi for a meal, the Internet, and soft beds. Elated with their good time, they immediately sought to share their privileged experience to their wide followings across social media. It is here that I came across Gustin and Saladino’s experiences with the Hadzabe, their prejudicial understandings of them, and the altogether unsavory uses to which they have been put.

I typically don’t engage in Hadza arguments on the Internet. They seem to occur with every Land Cruiser that leaves Lake Eyasi, and involve the Hadzabe being associated with all sorts of colorful claims ranging from their thoughts about life, to how they raise their children, to what’s going on in their digestive tracts. The reason why these “fad ethnographies” are continually inflicted upon the Hadzabe is complex, but, as my colleague Richard Griscom and I point out, one major reason is that much recent academic work on the Hadzabe hinges on their usefulness as proxies for paleolithic peoples. This conception of the Hadzabe as “living fossils,” having remained unchanged from time immemorial, has fed into the popular imagination, and is heavily featured in the way they are framed by tourism companies: a people in Rousseau’s “state of nature,” living timelessly in the Rift Valley.

In his discussion of the East African “Khoisan,” Matthew Knisley establishes that, when a people’s past is reconstructed as timeless, it effectively discourages investigation into their history and how they may have changed. I would take this a step further and suggest that such “timeless” peoples, having been denied their histories, make incredibly convenient targets upon which to project any manner of bias or belief. This is precisely what Gustin and Saladino are doing. What makes their case so particularly despicable is how it seeks to render the Hadza people “others” for these tourists’ own personal benefit.

Anthony Gustin and Paul Saladino are celebrity doctors: Gustin is a chiropractor and Saladino, known as the “Carnivore MD,” is a medical doctor. Both have considerable followings, celebrity connections, and, most importantly, lucrative business interests built around fad diets encouraging eating mainly animal products and minimizing carbohydrates. Gustin peddles a range of low-carb supplements and is coauthor of a popular book on the ketogenic diet. Saladino, meanwhile, is the author of a best-selling book on the carnivore diet and hawks his own range of meat- and organ-based pills, promising everything from better immune function to reinforced sexual health. It is unsurprising, then, that the Hadzabe—happy, healthy, and, according to them, living mainly on meat—are viewed by Gustin and Saladino as living proof that their prescribed lifestyle (and their associated products) work. Denied their history, the Hadza people are a Rorshach test. And to Gustin and Saladino, what they see is an opportunity for profit.

I am not a physician, nor am I particularly interested in the details of Gustin and Saladino’s nutritional arguments. With that said, over the course of the last several years, I have spent a considerable amount of time with the Hadza community: living and working with them in order to document and describe their language. I also care about how my Hadza friends and colleagues are represented to the wider world—especially in venues to which they may not have access. The way in which Gustin and Saladino portray the Hadzabe is one-dimensional, entirely self-serving, and potentially harmful. This is most evident in the two-hour long podcast episode they recorded about their trip.

In between jolly recollections of how good a time they had “in Africa” and periods of wide-mouthed awe at the beauty of Hadza lifeways, Gustin and Saladino do some considerable work to establish how “natural” and “primitive” the Hadzabe are. We are told that “this tribe has been more-or-less unaffected in their way of life for the last 50,000 years,” and that “they don’t want to transition to a more civilized way of life.” Saladino, for his part, repeatedly states that “the Hadza are the closest thing we have to a time machine.”

After all of this talk, the Hadzabe have been rendered so intrinsically alien that Gustin and Saladino (both doctors, I will remind you) make some astounding statements. “Infant mortality,” says Saladino, “is higher, as it is among other species. Chimpanzee, bonobo mortality, I believe, is higher. I think we just have to accept, though it’s a bit of an uncomfortable notion for me, that ‘wild’ humans may have higher levels of mortality.”

Gustin agrees, telling listeners: “Yeah, this is the truth that nobody likes to talk about . . . that it is normal for mammals to not have 100% of their infants survive into adulthood. And we’ve created an environment where our expectation of that [low infant mortality] is now normal, so when we’re confronted with anything that butts up against that, then . . . we can’t mentally grapple with it.” He later adds, “I don’t know if [the Hadzabe] would trade 100% success to live into adulthood to live a more Western lifestyle.”

To listeners, the message is: The Hadza people are apparently so irreconcilably different to us that the high rates of infant mortality shouldn’t be cause for outrage. In fact, it’s impossible for them to live their lives and have nearby, quality healthcare at the same time.

Later in the podcast, Saladino makes another telling comment. “When I left the tribe,” he says, “they said [to me], ‘When you come back, you’re welcome, but bring us ugali [a staple food made from maize meal].’ And in my mind I thought, ‘I’m not going to bring you ugali. I’ll bring you more arrowheads!’”

Here, the message is: The Hadzabe are deserving of our help insofar as they support our business interests (i.e., as long as they eat virtually only meat). If they request maize meal, I’ll leave them to the luck of the hunt instead.

Do no harm, indeed.

Before the episode reaches its end, Gustin and Saladino assure us that they are already working on ways to ensure the Hadza people will be hunting and gathering into the foreseeable future. This will be accomplished by “creating some sort of fund … [to] protect their natural habitat,” Gustin says. How will it be paid for, you may ask? More tourism, of course. After all, as had been mentioned earlier on, “without tourism, [the Hadzabe] would’ve been wiped out completely by now.”

On the contrary—the toxic effects of unscrupulous tourism on the Hadzabe have been well-documented. In the same breath with which they offer aid, however, Gusin and Saladino raise the prospects for further commercialization, including a TV show and a baobab product. In fact, the webpage hosting their chat is only a couple of clicks away from each of their product lines; any exit from Lake Eyasi will be through the gift shop.

As I said before, I typically don’t engage in Hadza arguments on the Internet. No doubt, before the ink has dried on the sordid example of Gustin and Saladino, a new grifter will be rumbling up the Rift Valley escarpment with a new interpretation, entering into the longstanding tradition of representing the Hadzabe in whatever way they see fit, leaving the fallout to the Hadza people themselves to deal with. If there is one commonality in this forty year scam, it is this: again and again, the value of the Hadzabe has been directly related to how valuable they can be to outsiders—how they entertain us, how they can heal our diseases, even how much carbon their homeland can sequester. When, I wonder, will the Hadzabe simply be allowed to exist by virtue of them being human? Not as stand-ins for ancient humans, but as our contemporaries: full, complex, and coeval?

The answer lies in representation: dispensing with totalizing views of the timeless, click-speaking, hunter-gatherer, and allowing for other histories and realities which may serve the Hadza people better. This kind of representation lies beyond the intervention of outsiders (including me), and can only be created by Hadzabe themselves. The only representation is self-representation. Everything else is a fad.

Further Reading

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In his new book, the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani argues that breaking cycles of violence requires collective action. He finds hope in the unfinished project of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.