The surprisingly sticky tale of the Hazda and the Honeyguide Bird


Image 4A still from the honeyguide scene in "The Hadza: Last of the First" in which a honeyguide enjoys leftover comb. Wood says the scene is "obviously staged." (Screencap: Hadza Movie/YouTube)

Many people and groups of people do make a point of rewarding honeyguides, and Wood knows that these filmed depictions might reflect reality. “I think that there’s likely to be a whole set of different ways that humans and honeyguides relate to one another, in different places and times and different contexts,” he says.

More troubling to him is a recent documentary, called Hadza: Last of the First, shot at the field site where he does his research. In one scene of the film, after a group of Hadza men smokes bees out of a hive, they are shown throwing pieces of the honeycomb, which hit the ground in slow motion. The bird, filmed in close-up on a flattened patch of grass, snaps them up. A narrator explains, “The bird will wait patiently and fly down, and will essentially take the leftovers… it’s the most developed, co-evolved, mutually helpful relationship between any mammal and any bird.”

As Wood soon found out, this story of sharing is not just sweeter, but stickier. Soon after he submitted his article to the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, he received pushback from a reviewer who had come across Hadza: Last of the First. “The reviewer said ‘I know this [paper] can’t be right, because I’ve seen on YouTube that the Hadza repay honeyguides,’” says Wood. (The scene, Wood says, is “obviously staged.”) “I had to bear down, dig in the trenches, and write the world’s longest letter to the editor,” he says. To describe what he saw in the film, Wood invoked a term coined a century ago: “This is naturefaking.”

Image 5A Hadza man brings home some comb. (Photo: Brian Wood)

In 1907, then-President Theodore Roosevelt took a break from the year’s various Immigration Acts and Gentlemen’s Agreements to hold a very different group of people to task: the “Nature Fakers,” who, he said, were filling the country’s books and periodicals with starry-eyed tales of the outdoors. These “yellow journalists of the woods” anthropomorphized animals recklessly, mistook fables for facts, and trusted “irresponsible guides,” wrote Roosevelt in the popular general interest periodicalEverybody’s Magazine. “Much remains to be told about the wolf and the bear, the lynx and the fisher, the moose and the caribou,” he continued. “But he is not a student of nature at all… whose imagination is used not to interpret facts, but to invent them.”

According to historian James Perrin Warren, this was “the first and only time in American history the president acted as a literary and cultural critic.” It worked. The Reprimander-in-Chief’s words marked the beginning of the end of what would eventually become known as the “nature fakers controversy,” during which more sentimental wilderness writers clashed with more scientific ones.

But it was just the beginning of naturefaking as a general practice. With the advent of documentary filmmaking, those seeking to capture particularly outlandish animal behavior could just stage it instead. For Disney’s 1958 “documentary” White Wilderness, a camera crew hoping to film the “suicidal mass migrations” of Arctic lemmings ended up trapping a bunch of wild ones and chasing them off a cliff. As Derek Bousé relates in his book Wildlife Films, this begun the age of “animal cops and robbers shows,” where wild life was tweaked to imitate art: birds scared off branches at dramatically opportune times, carnivores forced into confrontations, megafauna shoehorned into suspiciously human storylines. This tendency has translated well to new media, too. A few years ago, a different centuries-old honeyguide misconception, this one suggesting that they also lead honey badgers to hives, returned in the form of a cleverly edited YouTube video.

Though throwing a bunch of lemmings into the sea is objectively terrible, naturefaking seems pretty low on the world’s hierarchy of bad deeds. But pull off the same type of fake enough times, some experts say, and the consequences can become more virulent. In his influential work “The Trouble With Wilderness,” environmentalist William Cronon argues that the predominant Western idea of nature as a sacred and untouched space is itself an enormous myth, forged from an alliance between European romanticism and the American drive toward the frontier. “We too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires,” he writes. Such mythologizing blinds us to both actual nature and to those desires, and prevents us from engaging properly with either. It encourages environmentalists to seek an impossible future, he says, in the form of a return to a nonexistent past.

According to Susanna Lidström, who researches nature narratives at the University of California, San Diego, this overarching concept has influenced how we think about everything from poetry to politics. “This persistent idea, about indigenous people living in some sort of harmony with nature, reappears in many different contexts,” says Lidström. “It’s a very sweeping narrative that doesn’t allow for much detail or nuance.” Besides, when examined more closely, the concepts within the idea break down, too. “You can’t really describe an ecosystem as being in harmony,” she says. “[The word] is not really relevant in that context.”

Even if this idea of balance and harmony has little bearing on reality, it has influenced how we order the natural world in our heads, Lidström says. For instance, the idea that invasive species are intrinsically harmful has been so successful, it has overgrown the science that originally inspired it, she says. The narrative abstracts complex relationships into less subtle talking points, with “very linear definitions of perpetrators and villains.” Though a number of introduced species do wreak havoc on their environments, those that don’t get swallowed up in this story, which also makes such categorizations look “as if they happen outside of human decision-making and values.” Suddenly, California eucalyptus becomes an enemy of the state, and George W. Bush beings spending his vacation time waging war on tamarisk trees. Or a particularly nasty-looking weed like kudzu—which, as naturalist Bill Finch detailed in Smithsonian last fall, is more metaphorically than botanically meddlesome—becomes The Vine That Ate The South.

It’s the magnetic pull of such narratives, Wood fears, that feeds into smaller-scale mythologizing–like that of the honeyguides and the Hadza, who, as hunter-gatherers, are frequent targets of romantic generalizations. “People try to use it as a kind of ‘just-so’ moral tale: that this can give you a glimpse of the moral dimension of hunting and gathering, and could unlock some kind of deeper truth about human nature,” he says. “There’s been a lot of resistance to recognizing that there’s a utilitarian explanation for this.”

Or, as Wood puts it, if you expect hunter-gatherers to achieve, or even to want, a particular sort of harmony, “you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

Image 6Gemu, a Hadza forager, smokes the bees out of a baobab tree. (Photo: Brian Wood)

Wood got his paper published. But since encountering that initial pushback, he has developed a keen eye for this particular brand of naturefaking. He keeps a file of all the depictions of honeyguides he has ever come across, going back to 1777, when a Swedish naturalist named Anders Sparrman sent a dispatch from the Cape of Good Hope describing a “curious species of Cuckow” known for “discovering wild-honey to travellers.” (“The bee-hunters never fail to leave a small portion for their conductor, but commonly take care not to leave so much as would satisfy its hunger,” Sparrman continues, equivocally. “The bird’s appetite being only whetted by this parsimony, it is obliged to commit a second treason, by discovering another bee’s-nest, in hopes of a better salary.”)

Rampant anthropomorphizing aside, “whoever [Sparrman] was talking to gave him the straight dope,” Wood says. (Sparrman also gave the greater honeyguide its fitting scientific name: Indicator indicator.) But things went downhill after that. “Throughout the 20th century there is this growing mythologization of this relationship,” he says–Laurens van der Post citing the “magic and religious revelation” of the Bushmen-honeyguide alliance, for instance, or William Swainson’s specimen “patiently waiting for that portion that is always left by the African hunters as a reward.” And after that, of course, come the excitable, authoritative narrators of YouTube. 

From all of this, Wood has gleaned a sort of perpendicular message from the Hadza. “I propose that the moral conundrum that the Hadza might be facing is totally different than what we in the West might be imagining,” he says, one centered not on being fair to honeyguides, but on making sure fellow foragers get fed.

Other sources take different lessons from the honeyguide chronicles. Clapperton Mavhunga, an associate professor of Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, comes to the situation with a distinct frame of reference. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Mavhunga spent much of his childhood raiding bee’s nest after bee’s nest with the help of the honeyguide. “In my own culture, the saying is that it can either lead to you honey, or it can lead you to an Egyptian cobra,” he says.

Though he trusts Wood's observations, Edmound Dounias, an ethnobiologist who studies honeyguides in the Congo, says that this sharing framework is, in his experience, more common. “To my knowledge, the Hadza are the only honeyguide partners who try to cheat the partnership,” he writes in an email. “In the societies I’ve worked with, rewarding the bird is a recognition of its crucial role and an expression of respect.”

Such a stark cultural difference raises important questions, Mavhunga says. The Hadza are coming under increased pressure from governments and NGOs that seek fast development. It’s worth considering that they may have adapted their honeyguide strategy more recently as a result of these changes, he says. (Wood says that, after speaking to a number of Hadza and a number of fellow researchers, he has seen no evidence that the Hadza have ever repaid honeyguides.)

Even if they did not, it’s vital to understand the Hadza’s decisions within the contexts in which they arose, especially when such decisions can be twisted to encourage particular outcomes, says Mavhunga. This is another, even more insidious part of naturefaking’s legacy: groups whose practices don’t jibe with harmonious narratives can be left out of conservation decisions, or even forced off of their land.  

Centuries of colonialism have given us particular grids–the scientific method included–on which indigenous ideas and experiences are not always easily plotted. “For one to have a relationship with a bird like a honeyguide, one has to have thoroughly studied and understood its ways,” Mavhunga says.

Even that is just a small portion of a larger understanding, one that must take into account Hadza faith, ethics, philosophy, and current events. “Be very careful, because what you are looking for here are not your reasons,” he says. “It’s the Hadza’s reasons.”