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Modern Hunter Gatherers


TUCSON, Ariz. — In a remote area of north-central Tanzania, men leave
their huts on foot, armed with bows and poison-tipped arrows, to hunt
for their next meal. Dinner could come in the form of a small bird, a
towering giraffe, or something in between. Meanwhile, women gather
tubers, berries, and other fruits.

This is everyday life for the Hadza, an indigenous ethnic group living
around Lake Eyasi in East Africa and one of the last hunter-gatherer
populations on Earth.

The Hadza live a very different kind of lifestyle — and a very active
one, engaging in significantly more physical activity than what is
recommended by U.S. government standards. They also have extremely low
risk of cardiovascular disease.

University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen and his
collaborators, Brian Wood of Yale University and Herman Pontzer of
Hunter College, have spent several years studying the lifestyle of the
Hadza, which they say provides a glimpse into how our ancestors lived
tens of thousands of years ago, and how that way of life may have
impacted human evolution, especially with regard to exercise and health.

“Our overall research program is trying to understand why physical
activity and exercise improve health today, and one arm of that research
program aims to reconstruct what physical activity patterns were like
during the evolution of our physiology,” said Raichlen, UA associate
professor of anthropology. “The overarching hypothesis is that our
bodies evolved within a highly active context, and that explains why
physical activity seems to improve physiological health today.”

A new paper authored by Raichlen and his collaborators and published in
the American Journal of Human Biology details how much time the Hadza
spend engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, or MVPA, which
is a strong predictor of cardiovascular health.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people
engage in 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity — about 30
minutes a day, five times a week — or about 75 minutes per week of
vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination of the two.
However, few Americans achieve those levels.

The Hadza, on the other hand, meet those weekly recommendations in a
mere two days, engaging in about 75 minutes per day of MVPA, researchers

Furthermore, and consistent with the literature identifying aerobic
activity as a key element necessary to a healthy lifestyle, researchers’
health screenings of Hadza people have shown that the population has
extremely low risk for heart disease.

“They have very low levels of hypertension,” Raichlen said. “In the
U.S., the majority of our population over the age of 60 has

In the Hadza, it’s 20 to 25 percent, and in terms of blood lipid levels,
there’s virtually no evidence that the Hadza people have any kind of
blood lipid levels that would put them at risk for cardiovascular

While physical activity may not be entirely responsible for the low risk
levels — diet and other factors may also play a role — exercise does
seem to be important, Raichlen said, which is significant because
humans’ physical activity levels have drastically declined as we have
transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming to the Industrial
Revolution to where we are today.

“Over the last couple of centuries, we’ve become more and more
sedentary, and the big shift seems to have occurred in the middle of the
last century, when people’s work lives became more sedentary,” Raichlen

While other studies on hunter-gatherer populations have relied on
observational data, Raichlen and his colleagues gathered quantitative
data using chest-strap heart rate monitors and GPS trackers to record
how far and how fast the Hadza people travel on a daily basis.

Hadza study participants put on the monitors at the beginning of the day
and handed them over each night to the researchers, who lived amid the
Hadza during the study period.

“This is the first study that’s looked at their cardiovascular intensity
throughout the day, so it helps us understand a little bit more about
what cardiovascular intensity levels are like in this lifestyle,”
Raichlen said.

Notably, Raichlen said, Hadza adults’ activity levels don’t seem to fluctuate much over their lifespan.

“In the U.S., we tend to see big drop-offs in physical activity levels
when people age,” Raichlen said. “In the Hadza, we don’t see that. We
see pretty static physical activity levels with age.”

Of the fewer than 1,000 Hadza left, an estimated 300 to 400 of them are
full-time hunter-gatherers. They live a nomadic lifestyle, moving around
every month or two but staying in the Lake Eyasi region. Although there
have been attempts by the Tanzanian government and foreign missionaries
to settle the Hadza with the introduction of agriculture and
Christianity, those efforts largely have failed, with the Hadza choosing
to maintain their traditional lifestyle.

For anthropologists such as Raichlen, working with the population
provides a unique opportunity to learn about a lifestyle that is more
similar — although not identical — to that of our ancestors. Study
participants take part in the research voluntarily and communicate with
researchers mainly in Swahili.

“This gives us a window into what physical activity levels were we like
for quite a while during our evolutionary history, and, not
surprisingly, it’s more than we do now,” Raichlen said. “Perhaps
surprisingly, it’s a whole lot more than we do now.

“Going forward, this helps us model the types of physical activity we
want to be looking at when we explore our physiological evolution.

When we ask what kinds of physical activity levels would have driven the
evolution of our cardiovascular system, and the evolution of our
neurobiology, and our musculoskeletal system, the answer is not likely
30 minutes a day of walking on a treadmill. It’s more like 75-plus
minutes a day.”

Contact:David RaichlenUA School of Anthropology520-626-4543raichlen@email.arizona.edu

Alexis BlueUniversity Communications520-626-4386ablue@email.arizona.edu

Established in 1885, the University of Arizona, the state’s super
land-grant university with two medical schools, produces graduates who
are real-world ready through its 100 Percent Engagement initiative.
Recognized as a global leader and ranked 16th for the employability of
its graduates, the UA is also a leader in research, bringing more than
$606 million in research investment each year, and ranking 19th among
all public universities. The UA is advancing the frontiers of
interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurial partnerships, and is a
member of the Association of American Universities, the 62 leading
public and private research universities. It benefits the state with an
estimated economic impact of $8.3 billion annually.