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Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People

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"...a magnificent achievement, and a landmark in at least three distinct fields: anthropological demography, human evolutionary ecology, and hunter-gatherer studies...." -- Evolutionary Anthropology The Ache, whose life history the authors recounts, are a small indigenous population of hunters and gatherers living in the neotropical rainforest of eastern Paraguay. This is part exemplary ethnography of the Ache and in larger part uses this population to make a signal contribution to human evolutionary ecology.

561 pages, Hardcover

First published December 31, 1996

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A. Magdalena Hurtado

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Profile Image for Aaron Gertler.
194 reviews69 followers
July 18, 2023
In Sapiens, Yuval Harari is troubled by the fact that, though we are healthier and wealthier than any generation before us, we have no way of knowing whether we are happier than our ancestors.

Aché Life History doesn’t answer Harari’s question, but it does present some fascinating and disturbing evidence: The Aché (ah-chay) people of Paraguay, hunter-gatherers who live in prehistoric scarcity, are cheerful and content, even as they spend their lives in a state of near-starvation and bury their own children alive to save resources.

This went on for centuries: A few hundred people living in the forest, in contact with no one aside from themselves, creating nothing that lasted more than a generation or two, and suffering constantly in ways we can scarcely imagine. When encountered by the modern world, they seem almost like refugees, eager to take up reservation life and abandon their old habits — if it means reliable food and the absence of poisonous snakes. They’ve spent their cultural history living outside the grand human story of change and progress, and this book can’t help but make the reader wonder…

…was it worth it? Would it have been better if the Aché Adam and Eve had been childless?

But of course, your ancestors and mine, if we go back far enough, lived in the same state of suffering. What can we, their children, do — what will we do — to make their tribulations worthwhile?

The book itself avoids these philosophical questions, but does speak openly about every aspect of Aché culture, from sexuality and domestic life to sickness and death. The authors spent seventeen years in Paraguay writing an exhaustive history of a people, gathering data on the lives of every Aché within living memory, and they keep an even, objective tone throughout. The result is a collection of deep observations on the human condition — completely unmissable if you want to learn about our species and our story.

I’ll give a quote here, to let the Aché share their own thoughts (in this case, on the topic of an ideal husband):

“A strong man. One who would walk far to hunt, one who would carry heavy loads. I mean a man who would work hard when everyone was tired, or build a hut when it was cold and rainy, a man who would carry his children and get firewood at night. I mean a man who was strong. A man who could endure and not get tired.”

This is a book about people who endured and did not get tired. People very much like them are the reason we are all alive today. This is good to remember.
Profile Image for Ames.
5 reviews
October 28, 2007
Basically life history parameters observed and expected, as well as ethnography, in an indegenous Paraguayan tribe. If you're interested in why humans have the life history parameters they do, you must read this book, as it is the best done and widest ranging study to date. If you're interested in ethnography, this might be good for you too. Otherwise, steer clear.
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