Meat in Twentieth-Century Paraguay

Settlement of South America

Chapter 3 and the previous section mentioned that migrants from northeastern Asia entered northwestern North America around 15,000years ago. Population pressure and pursuit of game may have driven the first Americans south and east. Some hugged the Pacific coast as they moved south, crossing the isthmus of Panama—sometimes designated the isthmus of Darien—into what is today Colombia in north-westernmost South America.144 Stone tools, animal bones, and plant debris in Peru are nearly 15,000years old, implying rapid migration from arctic to South America.145

From Peru, Amerindians moved southeast through Bolivia and into Paraguay. South of the equator and mostly within the Tropic of Capricorn, Paraguay experiences less annual temperature variation than temperate countries. Rainfall supported dense forests w'ith insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, all feeding humans. During the last 10,000years, people settled near the Parana River, which flows south from Brazil through Paraguay and Argentina and into the Atlantic Ocean. Among them were eastern Paraguay’s Ache, sometimes named the Guayaki. They may have combined hunting, collecting plants, and farming, but conflicts with the Guarani and other neighbors during the last millennium drove them into Paraguay’s hills and away from agriculture.

The Ache in Paraguay

In the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries were the first Europeans to encounter the Ache. Spain’s enslavement of the Guarani in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries removed a threat, allowing Ache numbers to increase. Four groups, each w'ith a unique language, persisted into the twentieth century, w'hen anthropologists studied them. Interest stemmed from reports of cannibalism, infanticide, bellicosity, polyandry, and promiscuity. Some anthropologists depicted them as throwbacks to humanity’s original primitivism. Such thinking defined their value as illuminating our earliest behaviors.

Ache Diets

Our concerns, however, are diet, nutrition, and health. American anthropologists Kim R. Hill (b. 1953) and Ana Magdalena Hurtado estimated that as hunter-gatherers, the Ache got 2,106 calories (78 percent) of the daily 2,700 from meat.146 This percentage is within the range, cited earlier, of Plains hunters’ two-thirds to 85 percent of calories from meat. Transition to reservations after 1963 did not drop Ache meat intake below about 55 percent of calories.147 As hunters, they derived roughly nine-tenths of meat in order of importance from the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), capuchin monkey (Cebus species), white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pec- carу), раса (Cuniculus раса), coati (Nasua nasua), brocket deer (Mazama species), and collared peccary (Pecari tajacu).m

Another 8 percent of calories came from honey—a sweetener discussed in Chapters 2 and 11— and the rest from palm (Acrocomia aculeata) starch and hearts, insect larvae, and fruits. Hunters shared the kill with kin and nonrelatives. Honey was likewise shared widely, though the Ache tended to keep insect larvae within families. Hunting occupied men about seven hours per day.149 Women gathered plants two hours daily, relocated camp another two hours, and cared for children. Ubiquitous insects, spiders, ticks, and snakes prevented mothers from leaving children alone. Ache hunter-gatherers seldom traded with sedentary neighbors for foods, notably cassava (Manihot escu- lenta), corn, and yams (Dioscorea species).

Ache Health

Ache suffered high mortality from violence, accidents, and pathogens and parasites from insects and arachnids.150 Additionally, they had almost no possessions and lived in rudimentary circumstances by Western standards.151 The rest of this section argues that they were vigorous despite hazards and penury. Because their healthiness cannot be ascribed to material conditions, diet must have played a large—and possibly primary—role. Being preponderant, meat must have been crucial.

Twenty-year-olds could expect another forty years if women and another thirty-four years if men.152 The mean between these numbers, thirty-seven, was life expectancy at age twenty (e20). Skeletons from nine locations in Ecuador indicate that native Ecuadorians did not match this longevity. Between roughly 3400 and 1500 BCE farmers in Real Alto did best, with an average e20 of twenty-one years.153 The other sites lagged, with e20 in the low teens in two locations.

Critics might reject these comparisons because the Ecuadorians lived over 3,000years before twentieth-century Ache. This criticism relies on the premise that longevity improved during these millennia. Even if an argument may be made to support this assumption—which Chapter 3 doubted—its application here would be inappropriate. Ache impoverishment and technological crudity imply that they enjoyed no material advantages over prehistoric Ecuadorians. Moreover, Real Alto’s inhabitants farmed whereas the Ache hunted and gathered. The fact that demographers calculated greater longevity for farmers than hunter-gatherers implies that Real Alto’s residents should have outlived the Ache, not the reverse.154

Enlarging this insight, hunter-gatherers died youngest compared with farmers and people who grew crops to supplement wild foods.155 This trend should have condemned Ache to the earliest deaths. Longevity in defiance of this trend intimated a healthful diet, especially because they appear to have had no other advantages.

Moreover, in a study of five hunter-gatherers—Ache, Tanzania’s Hadza, Colombia and Venezuela’s Hiwi, Namibia, Angola, and Botswana’s IKung (sometimes designated Ju/’hoansi), and the Philippines’ Agta—Ache had the least youth mortalities at about half the others’ rates.156

Between ages fifteen and forty, Ache mortality was around l percent annually, roughly the rate of the others, hunter-gathers or sedentary, and only one-quarter IKung mortality.157 But meat, if the principal cause of Ache success, may not extend absolute lifespan. The largest number (mode) of Ache died at age seventy-one.158 Both IKung and Hadza lived longer as measured by mode whereas the Hiwi died sooner. Data were absent for the Agta.

Enlarging these comparisons, in 1993 about 12 percent of Ache newborns died in their first year, whereas first year mortality was around 10 percent in the United States in 1900.159 This outcome is unsurprising because the average American was worth over $4,000 in 1900 in contrast to just $12 for an entire Ache family in 1993.160 Despite the wealth chasm, just 2 percent separated Ache and Americans.

Interpretation of menarche (menses’ onset) may be less straightforward than longevity. Age of first menstruation correlates with calories, protein, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin B9.161 Calories alone may be decisive such that junk, fatty, and sugary foods may hasten menarche. Although overweight and obesity may precipitate menarche, junk foods were unavailable to the Ache, leaving high-quality diet to initiate puberty. On average, Ache girls began menstruation at age thirteen.162 By contrast, IKung girls typically began at seventeen.

Diet, however, is not the lone variable because poverty correlates w'ith early menarche.163 Ache girls may have experienced their first period at thirteen because of penury, though this rationale does not explain late onset among IKung. More generally, as a group, poor nations exhibited later onset than Ache. In 2001, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Nepal, Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Kenya, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania, and Yemen averaged first menstruation at least a full year later than Ache girls.164 If diseases delay menarche, then Ache, beset by pathogens and parasites, should have bloomed late.165 Meat must have countered this effect.

Other signs of Ache health included rarity of heart disease, stroke, cancers, and obesity.166 Blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides—all discussed in Chapter 2—were low and dementia absent. These attributes are common among hunter-gatherers, who share lifestyle even when diets diverge. Lifestyle more than meat, therefore, may explain Ache freedom from Western maladies. Even so, meat must have enhanced vitality.

Meat in Perspective

That Egyptian elites, Plains Indians, and Ache ate much meat invites comparison with Americans, who trailed only Luxembourgers as meat consumers, as noted. Ancient Egypt best approximated the United States given inactivity and derivation of meat from livestock rather than game. Both suffered heart disease, to which meat contributes, as mentioned. Yet Ache, who consumed 78 percent of calories from meat, exhibited neither coronary conditions nor other chronic maladies common in the United States and the developed world in general. Ache health implies that meat is far from being the chief impetus for these problems.

Instead, bad habits—for example sloth and smoking—may do more harm than inordinate meat intake. This conclusion undermines belief that “nutrition is the master key to human health.”167 In addition to diet and lifestyle, genes influence health, but because they are fixed at conception, contemplation of inadequacies benefits no one. Until gene therapy is possible, those who want vitality should emulate twenty-sixth U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s (1858-1919) “strenuous life,” referenced in Chapter l.168 To the extent that diet is the problem, meat appears to deserve little blame. Fault lies at least partly with developed countries’ dietary superabundance. Unlike past peoples, we experience no seasonal shortages. Famines are now so unusual in Europe, Australia, and North America that historians—perhaps no longer mindful of food insecurity—omit them from textbooks. Supermarkets always have plenty, especially the dead animals that constitute our meals.

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