Are Humans "Born to Move"?
What can we learn from the Hadza hunter gatherers of Tanzania?
Posted Nov 30, 2016
A recent study of the Hadza people, hunter-gatherers living in Tanzania, caught the attention of the New York Times wellness writer, Gretchen Reynolds. This study found that the nomadic Hadza enjoy excellent cardiovascular health. In her article, "Born to Move," Reynolds asks: “Are we fighting thousands of years of evolutionary history and the best interests of our bodies when we sit all day?”
Her question, familiar to many, references a raft of recent studies concerning diet and physical activity. In these studies, researchers gather evidence that human beings are ill-suited to the screen-focused, sedentary lifestyle enjoyed by many in westernized societies, where high-fat, high-calorie food is readily available 24/7. Reynold asks whether there is “a fundamental mismatch between the conditions that molded our bodies and those that we inhabit,” one “whose health consequences are well established: we easily gain weight and develop related health problems.”
Authors of the study that Reynolds cites seek to bring “high-tech” rigor to this debate: researchers strapped heart-rate monitors around the chests of 46 Hadza volunteers for two-week intervals during each season of the year. These monitors measure intensity, considered by many as an optimal gauge of heart health. Researchers found that the Hadza, regardless of age or season, engaged in moderate to vigorous activity for more than two hours each day (a marked contrast to the 150 minutes per week of moderate activity recommended for all Americans by the President’s Council on Fitness). As David Raichlen, an anthropologist and exercise scientist at the University of Arizona who led the study, concludes: “human bodies likely evolved to need and respond to the kind of physiological demands” that the Hadza still undergo on most days.
As Reynolds’ query suggests, this “fundamental mismatch” can feel downright depressing. Westernized humans are not at home in the society we have created for ourselves. We are like alien creatures in a foreign land who must fight tenaciously, constantly vigilant, in order to maintain our health in the face of societal pressures that conspire against us.
However, these interpretations of the study's results presume concepts of “the body” and “the environment” in which a body is a material object with defined capacities and limitations that evolved to fit into a pre-existing context.
Read through the perspective of bodily becoming (as developed in Why We Dance), a different interpretation emerges.
A human body is not a thing. Humans are bodies; and bodies are movement. A body is a rhythm of its own becoming – a constant process of creating and becoming the patterns of movement that relate it to sources of ongoing sustenance in life-enabling ways. Nor is an environment a static scene. An environment too is movement – a nexus of intercrossing, mutually enabling patterns of movement potential that exist and function to make more movement.
From this point of view, human bodies did not evolve to fit into an environment that no longer exists. Rather, a human bodily self is a dynamic ability to create life-enabling relationships with other-than-human forces in situations that may be decidedly hostile.
As Speth confirms, what is most remarkable about hunter-gatherers around the world is less their similarity than their difference. As he writes: “Hunter-gatherers successfully colonized virtually every corner of the globe, from arctic tundras to equatorial rainforests, from humid coasts to interior deserts, from lowlands to extremes of altitude… some [hunter-gatherers were] almost totally carnivorous, others bordering on vegetarian, and just about every possible permutation and combination in between” (20).
Contrary to popular belief, there is no one paleolithic diet. Nor is there an ideal human environment. Rather, the diversity of hunter-gatherer diets and environments testifies to something else about human bodily selves – they are uniquely adaptable. And they are so not because they are autonomous entities with big brains that can make due with what is given; but because humans exist as potentials for creating and becoming patterns of movement that establish relationships with sources of sustenance, whatever and wherever they may be.
Moreover, the patterns of movement humans invent to find, secure, prepare, store, and share resources do not represent applications of precast human movement abilities; these patterns of relational movement represent acts of kinetic creativity. They represent movement potentials that humans discovered and became as they moved in and were moved by forces around them. They represent the movement patterns that trained people's senses to perceive and respond to the world around them in life-enabling ways.
In this regard, it is not surprising, that the Hadza dance. While they are a radically egalitarian nomadic people, with few positions, no authority figures, and minimal social rules, they do practice a sacred dance ritual, the epeme, that they consider essential for their well being. As Lee and Daly report, “The most important Hadza ritual, the Epeme Dance, is a solemn affair carried out in total darkness on moonless nights. The men become sacred beings and dance, one by one, communicating with the women, who sing sacred accompaniment in a special whistling language reserved for this context” (202). The men take turns dancing before a group of women who rise and join them in spontaneous performances of largely improvised movement that peak and ebb in intensity. As Lee and Daly confirm, the epeme dance serves as “a recurring ceremonial reconciliation of men and women, and indeed all Hadza. Attendance is obligatory for all the camp’s dwellers” (202). On occasion, Hadza men and women also engage in circle dances, where each person holds onto the person in front of him or her, and all move around in a “snakelike, sinuous path” (Marlowe 68).
Perhaps the two-week intervals captured by the researchers did not include moonless nights. Or perhaps the researchers did not consider occasional dancing a significant form of physical activity. Nevertheless, from the perspective of bodily becoming, the regular repetition of the epeme as well as other circle dances cultivates within Hadza a sensory awareness of their own movement making – a sensory awareness that alters their experience of their own movement as well as the movement of others, not only during the dance, but in other activities as well. Dancing trains the senses of the Hadza to perceive bodily movement as effective in producing healthy relationships with themselves, with one another, and with other sacred or natural beings.
In other words, Hadza dancing serves a purpose beyond raising one’s heart rate that is essential to understanding why Hadza movement patterns are so effective in enabling their health. By dancing, the Hadza exercise and enhance their kinetic creativity – that is, their ability to create and become patterns of life-enabling, relational movement in all realms. The dancing catalyzes a human ability to receive and follow through with impulses to move that transform pain, hunger, or want (LaMothe, chapter 6).
From this perspective, what the study of Hadza activity illuminates is not just a mismatch between contemporary human bodies and their environmental challenges. What it illuminates is the degree to which humans in more "developed" worlds are engaging in patterns of movement that dull their kinetic creativity – movements that extinguish the capacity that defines humans: an ability to create and become life-enabling patterns of relational movement.
When humans do not engage in practices of rhythmic bodily movement that strengthen their sensory awareness – when they do not dance – they disable their ability to know how to navigate this contemporary world in ways that will nourish their health.
Yes, human bodily selves are born to move, but they are not born to move in one particular way, pattern, or environment. Humans are a capacity to sense and respond to the movements that move them in ways that promote their own ongoing movement. Exercising this kinetic creativity is not only exceptionally useful, it generates feelings of well-being.
Thus, in order to live healthily in this world, we don’t need to exercise more, per se. We need to cultivate the sensory awareness – the attentiveness to our own movement making – that can guide us in participating consciously in all actions and areas of our lives in ways that keep us moving. Just like the Hadza do.
What we should learn from this study is what people living in western, industrialized societies learn to forget: that dancing is vital to our humanity.
----------. 2009. What A Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire. Changemakers.
Lee, Richard B. and Richard Daly. 2004. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge University Press.
Marlowe, Frank. 2010. Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. University of California Press.
Pontzer H, Raichlen DA, Wood BM, Mabulla AZ, Racette SB, Marlowe FW. Hunter-gatherer energetics and human obesity. PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e40503. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040503. Epub 2012 Jul 25.
Speth, John D. 2010. The Paleoanthropology and Archaeology of Big Game Hunting: Protein, Fat, or Politics? Springer.