Ruggles-Gates Award – Duncan Stibbard Hawkes

Home Past Awards Ruggles-Gates Award – Duncan Stibbard Hawkes

Award Holder: Duncan Stibbard Hawkes
University: University of Cambridge
Title of Research: Reading the signals: What does Hadza hunting success honestly convey?

Twelve thousand years ago, a drop in the ocean by geological standards, every single human on
the planet subsisted by hunting and gathering their own food. Today, since the appearance and
rapid spread of agriculture, only a handful of hunter-gatherers remain. Although hunters and
gatherers live in different environments and on different continents, they share some common
patterns of organisation and subsistence. One puzzle is the fact that, but for a few notable
exceptions, men generally hunt and women generally gather. Furthermore, male hunting in many
societies appears to be unnecessarily costly and dangerous. This has lead some to hypothesise
that hunting, instead of being simply a means of subsistence, is a way for men to publicly exhibit
their health and vigour.

But are better hunters also healthier and stronger? Or is hunting simply a means of collecting vital
nutrients unavailable elsewhere? Thanks to the support of the Royal Anthropological Institute, I
was able to travel and work with one of the last remaining forager populations, the Hadza of
Tanzania, in order to answer these questions.

My goal was simple, I wanted to collect nineteen measures of health and nutrition from around 60
different hunters. Among other things, I wanted to measure eyesight, disease prevalence, bow aim
as well as several measures of nutrition such as body-fat and blood haemoglobin levels. If hunting
were a means of getting food, better hunters and their families should be better nourished. If
hunting was merely showing off, better hunters should not be better nourished, but should
otherwise be stronger and healthier than their peers.

My fieldwork went generally smoothly, though was not without event. The Hadza have a much
more ‘fluid’ conception of personal property than many societies in Europe. If you have something
they want, they will demand it, often loudly. While I was conducting some of less engaging
measurements such as eyesight, demands for food would become even more vociferous.
Terrain could be difficult during the rainy season and, on several occasions, we had to enlist the
help of local herders to remove our car from the mud. On one occasion the Hadza warned us that
a group of Masai were planning to rob us at spearpoint. We had to beat a hasty retreat without
collecting all our data.

Despite these hiccoughs, my fieldwork went well. I have compiled one of the most comprehensive
peer rankings of hunting ability yet. I also managed to collect data from 72 hunters, a sizeable
proportion of the dwindling number of Hadza men still engaged in full-time hunting. Most Hadza are
proud of their way of life, but the number of full-time foragers grows smaller each year. Forager
research is of vital importance while it is still possible. I have only just started to analyse my data
but hope my results will make a significant contribution to the ‘costly signalling’ debate. For now, I
am sincerely grateful to the RAI for helping me complete my fieldwork and learn the necessary
skills to found a career in forager studies.