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  • Published: 1 June 2021
  • ISBN: 9780241388426
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $49.99


The Misunderstood Science of Metabolism



The Invisible Hand

The lions woke me up around two in the morning. The sound wasn’t loud so much as big—like the moaning hydraulics of a garbage truck interrupted by the coughs and grunts of an idling Harley-Davidson. My first hazy, sleepy reaction was a kind of grateful joy. Ah, the sounds of wild Africa! I stared up through the gossamer mesh roof of my tent at the stars overhead, felt the night breeze pushing through the dry grass and thorny acacia trees

and up against the tent’s thin nylon walls, carrying the lions’ chorus. I felt fortunate to be there, camped in my little tent in the middle of the vast East African savanna, a place so remote and untrammeled that there were lions just a few hundred yards off. How lucky was I?

Then a pang of adrenaline and fear. This wasn’t a zoo or some tourist safari. Those lions weren’t pretty pictures in a National Geographic magazine or a PBS nature show. This was real life. A gang of heavily muscled 300-pound feline killing machines was a short stroll away, and they sounded . . . anxious. Maybe even . . . hungry? Of course they could smell me. After days of camping I could smell myself. What was my plan when they came for my soft American carcass, the warm triple crème brie of human flesh? I wondered how close they’d get before I heard them in the tall grass, or if the end would come unannounced, an explosion of claws and hot angry teeth crashing through walls of the tent.

I kept thinking it through, trying to be rational. Judging by where the sound was coming from, the lions would have to walk past Dave’s and Brian’s tents first. I was Door Number 3 in this particular game of chance. That meant 1 in 3 odds of being eaten by lions tonight, or, if one was a glass-two-thirds-full kind of person, a 67 percent chance of not being eaten. That was a comforting thought. Plus, we were with the Hadza, on the outskirts of their camp, and nobody messes with the Hadza. Sure, hyenas and leopards would occasionally slink past their grass huts at night looking for scraps or unattended babies, but the lions seemed to keep their distance.

The fear began to dissipate. Drowsiness seeped back in. I’d probably be fine. Besides, if one had to be eaten by lions, it seemed preferable to be asleep at the time, at least until the last possible moment. I fluffed up the pile of dirty clothes I was using for a pillow, adjusted my sleeping pad, and went back to sleep.


It was my first summer working with the Hadza, a generous, resourceful, and badass people who live in small camps scattered about the rugged, semiarid savanna around Lake Eyasi in northern Tanzania. Anthropologists and human biologists like me like to work with the Hadza because of how they make their living. The Hadza are hunter-gatherers: they have no agriculture, no domesticated animals, no machines or guns or electricity. Each day they wrest their food from the wild landscape around them, using nothing but their own hard work and guile. Women gather berries or dig wild tubers from the rocky soil with stout pointed sticks, often with a child on their back in a sling. Men hunt zebra, giraffe, antelope, and other animals, with powerful bows and arrows they fashion themselves from branches and sinew, or chop open trees with small axes to extract wild honey from beehives built in the hollows of limbs and trunks. Kids run and play around the grass huts of camp or head out in groups to get firewood and water. Elders either head out foraging with the other adults (they are remarkably spry even into their seventies) or stay back at camp to keep an eye on things.

This way of life was the norm worldwide for over two million years, from the evolutionary dawn of our genus, Homo, through the invention of farming just twelve thousand years ago. As farming spread and brought towns, urbanization, and eventually industrialization in its wake, most cultures traded in their bows and digging sticks for crops and brick houses. Some, like the Hadza, held on proudly to their traditions even as the world around them changed and began to encroach. Today, these few populations are the last living windows into humanity’s shared hunter-gatherer past.

Along with my good friends and fellow researchers Dave Raichlen and Brian Wood and our research assistant, Fides, I was in Hadzaland (as we casually refer to their homeland) in northern Tanzania to learn how the Hadza lifestyle is reflected in their metabolism—the way their bodies burn energy. It’s a simple but incredibly important question. Everything our bodies do—growing, moving, healing, reproducing—requires energy, and so understanding how our energy is spent is the first foundational step in understanding how our bodies work. We wanted to know how the human body functions in a hunting and gathering society like the Hadza, where people were still an integral part of a functioning ecosystem, with a lifestyle still similar in important ways to that of our deep past. No one had ever measured daily energy expenditure, the total number of calories burned per day, in a hunter-gatherer population. We were eager to be the first.

In the modernized world, far removed from the daily work of acquiring our food with our bare hands, we pay little attention to energy expenditure. If we think about it at all, we think of the latest diet, our workout plan, whether we’ve earned that donut we crave. Calories are a hobby, a nugget of data on our smartwatches. The Hadza know better. They understand intuitively that food and the energy it holds are the fundamental stuff of life. Each day they confront an ancient and unforgiving arithmetic: acquire more energy than you burn or go hungry.


We woke up with the sun still orange and weak on the eastern horizon, the colors of the trees and grass washed out in the diluted morning light. Brian started a cooking fire in our small, Hadzastyle three-stone hearth and set a pot of water on to boil. Dave and I milled around bleary-eyed, needing caffeine. Soon enough we were all drinking hot mugs of Africafe instant coffee and spooning up plastic bowlfuls of instant oatmeal and jelly. We discussed research plans for the day. We had all heard the lions during the night and joked nervously about how close they sounded.

Then, sauntering through the tall dry grass, came four Hadza men. They weren’t coming from camp, but from the opposite direction, from the bush. They were each carrying large, misshapen loads over their shoulders, and it took me a moment to recognize what it was: legs, haunches, and other blood-matted parts of a big, freshly killed antelope. The men knew we liked to keep track of the foods they brought back to camp, and they wanted to give us a chance to record this kill before splitting it up among the families in camp.

Brian snaps to it, clears off the weigh scale, and locates the Foraging Returns notebook, striking up a conversation in Swahili, our common language with the Hadza.

“Thanks for bringing these by,” says Brian, “but where the hell did you get a huge antelope at six in the morning?”

“It’s a kudu,” say the Hadza guys, grinning, “and we took it.”

“Took it?” asks Brian.

“You guys heard the lions last night, right?” say the Hadza guys. “Well, we figured they were up to something, so we went and checked it out. Turns out they had just killed this kudu . . . so we took it.”

And that was it. Another day in Hadzaland—a banner day in fact, starting off with the rare prize of big game in all of its fatty and proteinaceous glory. In camp later that morning, gnawing on roasted strips of kudu, hearing the story of how Dad and his buddies chased

off a pride of hungry lions in the dark to bring home food, the Hadza kids would understand an important and timeless lesson. Energy is everything, and it’s worth risking everything to get it.

Even if you have to steal breakfast from the lions’ jaws.

Burn Herman Pontzer

One of the foremost researchers in human metabolism reveals the hidden foundations of biological life and health

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