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Why They Live to Be 100, Or Even Older, in Abkhasia, by Sula Benet (1971)

This article was first published in The New York Times, in 26 December 1971

By Sula Benet

NOT long ago, in the village of Tarnish in the Soviet Republic of Abkhasia, I raised my glass of wine to toast a man who looked no more than 70. “May you live as long as Moses (120 years),” i said. He was not pleased. He was 119.

For centuries, the Abkhasians and other Caucasian peasants have been mentioned in the chronicles of travelers amazed at their longevity and good health. Even now, on occasion, newspaper reports in the United States and elsewhere (never quite concealing bemusement and skepticism) will tell of an Abkhasian who claims to be 120, sometimes 130. When I returned from Abkhasia to New York displaying photographs and statistics, insisting that the tales are true and preoccupied with the question , of why, my American friends invariably responded with the mocking question that contained its own answer: “Yogurt?” As a matter of fact, no, not yogurt; but the Abkhasians do drink a lot of buttermilk.

Abkhasia is a hard land — the Abkhasians, expressing more pride than resentment. say it was one of God's afterthoughts—but it is a beautiful one; if the Abkhasians are right about its mythical origin, God had a good second thought. It is subtropical on its coast along the Black Sea, alpine if one travels straight back from the sea, through the populated lowlands and valleys, to the main range of the Caucasus Mountains.

THE Abkhasians have been there for at least 1,000 years. For centuries they were herdsmen in the infertile land, but now the valleys and foothills are planted with tea and tobacco, and they draw their living largely from agriculture. There are 100,000 Abkhasians, not quite a fifth of the total population of the autonomous Abkhasian Republic, which is, administratively, part of Georgia, Joseph Stalin's birthplace; the rest are Russians, Greeks and Georgians. However, most of the people in government are Abkhasian, and both the official language and the style of life throughout the region are Abkhasian. The single city, Sukhum, is the seat of government and a port of call for ships carrying foreign tourists. They are often visible in the streets of the city, whose population includes relatively few Abkhasians. Even those who live and work there tend to consider the villages of their families their own real homes. It is in the villages‐575 of them between the mountains and the sea, ranging in population from a few hundred to a few thousand—that most Abkhasians live and work on collective farms,

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IFIRST went there in the summer of 1970 at the invitation of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The Abkhasians were fascinating; I returned last summer and will go again next year. It was while interviewing people who had participated in the early efforts at collectivization that I became aware of the unusually large number of people, ranging in age from 80 to 119, who are still very much a part of the collective life they helped organize.

After spending months with them, I still find it impossible to judge the age of older Abkhasians. Their general appearance does not provide a clue: You know they are old because of their gray hair and the lines on their faces, but are they 70 or 107? I would have guessed “70” for all of the old people that I encountered in Abkhasia, and most of the time I would have been wrong.

It is as if the physical and psychological changes which to us signify the aging process had, in the Abkhasians, simply stopped at a certain point. Most work regularly. They are still blessed with good eyesight, and most have their own teeth. Their posture is unusually erect, even into advanced age; many take walks of more than two miles a day and swim in the mountain streams. They look healthy, and they are a handsome people. Men show a fondness for enormous mustaches, and are slim but not frail. There is an old saying that when a man lies on his side, his waist should be so small that a dog can pass beneath it. The women are darkhaired and also slender, with fair complexions and shy smiles.

THERE are no current figures for the total number of aged in Abkhasia, though in the village of Dzhgerda, which I visited last summer, there were 71 men and 110 women between 81 and 90 and 19 people over 91‐15 per cent of the village population of 1,200. And it is worth noting that this extraordinary percentage is not the result of a migra tion by the young: Abkhasians, young and old, understandably prefer to stay where they are, and rarely travel, let alone migrate. In 1954, the last year for which overall figures are available, 2.58 per cent of the Abkhasians were over 90. The roughly comparable figures for the entire Soviet Union and the United States were 0.1 per cent and 0.4 per cent, respectively.

Why they live to be 100

Since 1932, the longevity of the Abkhasians has been systematically studied on several occasions by Soviet and Abkhasian investigators, and I was given full access to their findings by the Ethnographic Institute in Sukhum. These studies have shown that, in general, signs of arteriosclerosis, when they occurred at all, were found only in extreme old age. One researcher who examined a group of Abkhasians over 90 found that close to 40 per cent of the men and 30 per cent of the women had vision good enough to read or thread a needle without glasses, and that over 40 per cent had reasonably good hearing. There were no reported cases of either mental illness or cancer in a nine‐year study of 123 people over 100.

In that study, begun in 1960 by Dr. G. N. Sichinava of the Institute of Gerontology in Sukhum, the aged showed extraordinary psychological and neurological stability. Most of them had clear recollection of the distant past, but partially bad recollection for more recent events. Some reversed this pattern, but quite a large number retained a good memory of both the recent and distant past. All correctly oriented themselves in time and place. All showed clear and logical thinking, and most correctly estimated their physical and mental capacities. They showed a lively interest in their families’ affairs, in their collective and in social events. All were agile, neat and clean.

Abkhasians are hospitalized only rarely, except for stomach disorders and childbirth. According to doctors who have inspected their work, they are expert at setting broken arms and legs themselves—their centuries of horsemanship have given them both the need and the practice.

The Abkhasian view of the aging process is clear from their vocabulary. They do not have a phrase for “old people"; those over 100 are called “long living people.” Death, in the Abkhasian view, is not the logical end of life but something irrational. The aged seem to lose strength gradually, wither in size and finally die; when that happens, Abkhasians show their grief fully, even violently.

FOR the rest of the world, disbelief is the response not to Abkhasians’ deaths but to how long they have lived. There really should no longer be any question about their longevity. All of the Soviet medical investigators took great care to cross‐check the information they received in interviews. Some of the men studied had served in the army, and military records invariably supported their own accounts. Extensive documentation is lacking only because the Abkhasians had no functioning writ ten language until after the Russian Revolution.

But why do they live so long? The absence of a written history, and the relatively recent period in which medical and anthropological studies have taken place, preclude a clear answer. Genetic selectivity is an obvious possibility. Constant hand‐tohand combat during many centuries of Abkhasian existence may have eliminated those with poor eyesight, obesity and other physical shortcomings, producing healthier Abkhasians in each succeeding generation. But documentation for such an evolution'ary process is lacking.

When I asked the Abkhasians themselves about their longevity, they told me they live as long as they do because of their Practices in sex, work and diet.

THE Abkhasians, because they expect to live long and healthy lives, feel it is necessary self ‐discipline to conserve their energies, including their sexual energy, instead of grasping what sweetness is available to them at the moment. They say it is the norm that regular sexual relations do not begin before the age of 30 for men, the traditional age of marriage; it was once even considered unmanly for a new husband to exercise his sexual rights on his wedding night. (If they are asked what is done to provide substitute gratifications of normal sexual needs before marriage, Abkhasians smile and say, “Nothing,” but it is not unreasonable to speculate that they, like everyone else, find substitutes for the satisfaction of healthy, heterosexual sex. Today, some young people marry in their mid‐20's instead of waiting for the “proper” age of 30, to the consternation of their elders.)

Postponement of satisfaction may be smiled at, but so is the expectation of prolonged, future enjoyment, perhaps with more reason. One medical team investigating the sex life of the Abkhasians concluded that many men retain their sexual potency long after the age of 70, and 13.6 per cent of the women continue to menstruate after the age of 55.

Tarba Sit, 102, confided to me that he had wafted until he was 60 to marry because while he was in the army “1 had a good time right and left.” At present, he said with some sadness, “I have a desire for my wife but no strength.” One of his relatives had nine children, the youngest horn when he was 100. Doctors obtained sperm from him when he was 119, in 1963, and he still retained his libido and potency. The only occasions on which medical investigators found discrepancies in the claimed ages of Abkhasians was when men insisted they were younger than they actually were. One said he was 95, but his daughter had a birth certificate proving she was 81, and other information indicated he was really 108. When he was confronted with the conflict he became angry and refused to discuss it, since he was about to get married. Makhti Tarkil, 104, with whom I spoke in the village of Durlpsh, said the explanation was obvious in view of the impending marriage: “A man is a man until he is 100, you know what I mean. After that, well, he's getting old.”

ABKHASIAN culture provides a dependent and secondary role for women; when they are young, their appearance is stressed, and when they are married, their service in the household is their major role. (As with other aspects of Abkhasian life, the period since the revolution has brought changes, and some women now work in the professions; but in the main, the traditions are still in force.) In the upbringing of a young woman, great care is taken to make her as beautiful as possible according to Abkhasian standards. In order to narrow her waist and keep her breasts small, she wears a leather corset around her chest and waist; the corset is permanently removed on her wedding night. Her complexion should be fair, her eyebrows thin; because a high forehead is also desirable, the hair over the brow is shaved and further growth is prevented through the application of bleaches and herbs. She should also be a good dancer.

Virginity is an absolute requirement for marriage. If a woman proves to have been previously deflowered, the groom has a perfect right to take her back to her family and have his marriage gifts returned. He always exercises that right, returning the bride and announcing to the family, “Take your dead one.” And to him, as well as all other eligible men, she is dead: in Abkhasian society, she has been so dishonored by his rejection that it would be next to impossible to find a man to marry her. (Later on, however, she may be married off to an elderly widower or some other less desirable male from a distant village. When she is discovered, she is expected to name the guilty party. She usually picks the name of a man who has recently died, in order to prevent her family from taking revenge and beginning a blood feud.)

For both married and unmarried Abkhasians, extreme modesty is required at all times. There is an overwhelming feeling of uneasiness and shame over any public manifestation of sex, or even affection. A man may not touch his wife, sit down next to her or even talk to her in the presence of strangers. A woman's armpits are considered an erogenous zone and are never exposed, except to her husband.

A woman is a stranger, although a fully accepted one, in her husband's household. Her presence always carries the threat that her husband's loyalty to his family may be eroded by his passion for her. In the Abkhasian tradition, a woman may never change her dress nor bathe in the presence of her mother‐in‐law, and when an Abkhasian couple are alone in a room, they keep their voices low so that the husband's mother will not overhear them.

Despite the elaborate rules—perhaps, in part, because they are universally accepted—sex in Abkhasia is considered a good and pleasurable thing when it is strictly private. And, as difficult as it may be for the American mind to grasp, it is guiltless. It is not repressed or sublimated into work, art or religious‐mystical passion. It is not an evil to be driven from one's thoughts. It is a pleasure to be regulated for the sake of one's health—like a good wine.

AN Abkhasian is never “retired,’ a status unknown in Abkhasian thinking. From the beginning of life until its end, he does what he is capable of doing because both he and those around him consider work vital to life. Ile makes the demands on himself that he can meet, and as those demands diminish with age, his status in the community nevertheless increases.

In his nine ‐year study of aged Abkhasians, Dr. Sichinava made a detailed examination of their work habits. One group included 82 men, most of whom had been working as peasants from the age of 11, and 45 women who, from the time of adolescence, had worked in the home and helped care for farm animals. Sichinava found that the work load had decreased considerably between the ages of 80 and 90 for 48 men, and between 90 and 100 for the rest. Among the women, 27 started doing less work between 80 and 90, and the others slowed down after 90. The few men who had been shepherds stopped following the herds up to the mountain meadows in spring, and instead began tending farm animals, after the age of 90. The farmers began to work less land; many stopped plowing and lifting heavy loads, but continued weeding (despite the bending involved) and doing other tasks. Most of the women stopped helping in the fields and some began to do less housework. Instead of serving the entire family — an Abkhasian family, extended through marriage, may include 50 or more people—they served only themselves and their children. But they also fed the chickens and knitted.

Dr. Sichinava also observed 21 men and 7 womcn over 100 years old and found that, on the average, they worked a four‐hour day on the collective farm—the men weeding and helping with the corn crop, the women stringing tobacco leaves. Under the collective system, members of the community are free to work in their own gardens, but they get paid in what are, in effect, piecework rates for the woe,: they do for the collective. Dr. Sichinava's group of villagers over 100, when they worked for the collective, maintained an hourly output that was not quite a fifth that of the norm for younger workers. But in maintaining their own pace, they worked more evenly and without waste motion, stopping on occasion to rest. By contrast, the younger men worked rapidly, but competitively and tensely. Competitiveness in work is not indigenous to Abkhasian culture but it is encouraged by the Soviet. Government for the sake of increased production; pictures of the best workers are posted in the offices of the village collectives. It is too soon to predict whether this seemingly fundamental change in work habits will affect Abkhasian longevity.

The persistent Abkhasians have their own workers’ heroes: Kelkiliana Khesa, a woman of 109 in the village of Otapi. was paid for 49 workdays (a collective's workday is eight hours) during one summer; Bozba Pash, a man of 94 on the same collective, worked 155 days one year; Minosyan Grigorii of Aragich, often held up as an example to the young, worked 230 days in a year at the age of 90. (Most Americans, with a two‐week vacation and several holidays, work between 240 and 250 days, some of them less than eight hours, in a year.)

Both the Soviet medical profession and the Abkhasians agree that their work habits have a great deal to do with their longevity. The doctors say that the way Abkhasians work helps the vital organs function optimally. The Abkhasians say, “Without rest, a man cannot work; without work, the rest does not give you any benefit.”

That attitude, though it is not susceptible to medical Measurements, may be as important as the work itself. It is part of a consistent life pattern: When they are children, they do what they are capable of doing, progressing from the easiest to the most strenuous tasks, and when they age, the curve descends, but it is unbroken. The aged are never seen sitting in chairs for long periods, passive, like vegetables. They do what they can, and while some consider the piecework system of the collectives a form of exploitation, it does permit them to function at their own pace.

OVEREATING is considered dangerous in Abkhasia, and fat people are regarded as ill. When the aged see a younger Abkhasian who is even a little overweight, they inquire about his health. “An Abkhasian cannot get fat,” they say. “Can you imagine the ridiculous figure one would cut on horseback?” But to the dismay of the elders, the young eat much more than their fathers and grandfathers do; light, muscular and agile horsemen are no longer needed as a first line of defense.

The Abkhasian diet, like the rest of life, is stable: investigators have found that people 100 years and older eat the same foods throughout their lives. They show few idiosyncratic preferences, and they do not significantly change their diet when their economic status improves. Their caloric intake is 23 per cent lower than that of the industrial workers in Abkhasia, though they consume twice as much vitamin C; the industrial workers have a much higher rate of coronary insufficiency and a higher level of cholesterol in the blood.

The Abkhasians eat without haste and with decorum. When guests are present, each person in turn is toasted with praise of his real or imaginary virtues. Such meals may last several hours, but nobody minds, since they prefer their food served lukewarm in any case. The food is cut into small pieces, served on platters, and eaten with the fingers. No matter what the occasion, Abkhasians take only small bites of food and chew those very slowly—a habit that stimulates the flow of ptyalin and maltase, insuring proper digestion of the carbohydrates which form the bulk of the diet. And, traditionally, there are no leftovers in Abkhasia; even the poor dispose of uneaten food by giving it to the animals, and no one would think of serving warmedover food to a guest—even if it had been cooked only two hours earlier. Though some young people, perhaps influenced by Western ideas, consider the practice wasteful, most Abkhasians shun day‐old food as unhealthful.

The Abkhasians eat relatively little meat—perhaps once or twice a week — and prefer chicken, beef, young goat and, in the winter, pork. They do not like fish and, despite its availability, rarely eat it. The meat is always freshly slaughtered and either broiled or boiled to the absolute minimum—until the blood stops running freely or, in the case of chicken, until the meat turns white. It is, not surprisingly, tough in the mouth of a non‐Abkhasian, but they have no trouble with it.

At all three meals, the Abkhasians eat abista, a corn meal mash cooked in water without salt. which takes the place of bread. Abista is eaten warm with pieces of homemade goat cheese tucked into it. They eat cheese daily, and also consume about two glasses of buttermilk a day. When eggs are eaten, which is not very often, they are boiled or fried with pieces of cheese.

The other staples in the Abkhasian diet—staple in Abkhasia means daily or almost so include fresh fruits, especially grapes; fresh vegetables, including green onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage; a wide variety of pickled vegetables, and baby lima beans, cooked slowly for hours, mashed and served flavored with a sauce of onions, peppers, garlic, pomegranate juice and pepper. That hot sauce, or a variant of it, is set on the table in a separate dish for anyone who wants it. Large quantities of garlic are also always at hand.

Although they are the main suppliers of tobacco for the Soviet Union few Abkhasians smoke. (I did meet one, a woman over 100, who smoked constantly.) They drink neither coffee nor tea. But they do consume a locally produced, dry, red wine of low alcoholic content. Everyone drinks it. almost always in small quantities, at lunch and supper, and the Abkhasians call it “life giving.” Absent from their diet is sugar, though honey, a local product, is used. Toothaches are rare.

Soviet medical authorities who have examined the Abkhasians and their diet feel it may well add years to their lives: the buttermilk and pickled vegetables, and probably the wine, help destroy certain bacteria and, indirectly, prevent the development of arteriosclerosis, the doctors think. In 1970, a team of Soviet doctors and Dr. Samuel Rosen of New York, a prominent ear surgeon, compared the hearing of Muscovites and Abkhasians, and concluded that the Abkhasians’ diet—very little saturated fat, a great deal of fruit and vegetables—also accounted for their markedly better hearing. The hot sauce is the only item most doctors would probably say “no” to, and apparently some Abkhasians feel the same way.

ALTHOUGH the Abkhasians themselves attribute their longevity to their work, sex and dietary habits, there is another, broader aspect of their culture that impresses an outsider in their midst: the high degrce of integration in their lives, the sense of group identity that gives each individual an unshaken feeling of personal security and continuity, and permits the Abkhasians as a people to adapt themselves — yet preserve themselves—to the changing conditions imposed by the larger society in which they live. That sense of continuity in both their personal and national lives is what anthropologists would call their spatial and temporal integration.

Their spatial integration is in their kinship structure. It is, literally, the Abkhasians’ all‐encompassing design for living: It regulates relationships between families, determines where they live, defines the position of women and marriage rules. Through centuries of nonexistent or ineffective centralized authority, kinship was life's frame of reference, and still is.

KINSHIP in Abkhasia is an elaborate, complex set of relationships based on patrilineage. At its center is the family, extended through marriage by the sons; it also includes all those families which can be traced to a single progenitor; and, finally, to all persons with the same surname, whether the progenitor can be traced or not. As a result, an Abkhasian may be “kin” to several thousand people, many of whom he does not know. I first discovered the pervasiveness of kinship rules when my friend Omar, an Abkhasian who had accompanied me from Sukhum to the village of Duripsh, introduced me to a number of people he called his brothers and sisters. When I had met more than 20 “siblings” I asked, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

“In this village, 30,” he said. “Abkhasian reckoning is different from Russian. These people all carry my father's name.”

I took his explanation less seriously than I should have. Later, when I expressed admiration for a recording of Abkhasian epic poetry I had heard in the home of one of Omar's “brothers,” Omar, without a word, gave the record to me as a gift.

“Omar, it Isn't yours,” I said.

“Oh yes it is. This is the home of my brother,” he said. When I appealed to the “brother,” he said, “Of course he can give it to you. He is my brother.”

The consanguineal and affinal relationships that make up the foundation of the kinship structure are supplemented by a variety of ritual relationships that involve lifetime obligations—and serve to broaden the human environment from which Abkhasians derive their extraordinary sense of security. Although there are no alternative life styles towards which the rebellious may flee, the Abkhasians are ready to absorb others into their own culture. During my visit, for instance, a Christian man was asked to be the godfather of a Moslem child; both prospective godfather and child were Abkhasians. When I expressed surprise, I was told, “It doesn't matter. We want to enlarge our circle of relatives.”

The temporal integration of Abkhasian life is expressed in its general continuity, in the absence of limiting, defining conditions of existence like “unemployed,” “adolescent,” “alienated.” Abkhasians are a life‐loving, optimistic people, and unlike so many very old “dependent” people in the United States—who feel they are a burden to themselves and their families—they enjoy the prospect of continued life. One 99‐year‐old Abkhasian, Akhba Suleiman of the village of Achandara, told his doctor, “It isn't time to die yet. I am needed by my children and grandchildren, and it isn't bad in this world — except that I can't turn the earth over and it has become difficult to climb trees.”

The old are always active. “It is better to move without purpose than to sit still,” they say. Before breakfast, they walk through the homestead's courtyard and orchard, taking care of small tasks that come to their attention. They look for fences and equipment in need of repair and check on the family's animals. At breakfast, their early morning survey completed, they report what has to be done.

Until evening, the old spend their time alternating work and rest. A man may pick up wind‐fallen apples, then sit down on a bench, telling stories or making toys for his grand children or great‐grandchildren. Another chore which is largely attended to by the old is weeding the courtyard, a large green belonging to the homestead, which serves as a center of activity for the kin group. Keeping it in shape requires considerable labor, yet I never saw a courtyard that was not tidy and welltrimmed.

DURING the summer, many old men spend two or three months high in the mountains, living in shepherds’ huts, helping to herd or hunting for themselves and the shepherds (with their arrested aging process, many are excellent marksmen despite their age). They obviously are not fearful of losing their authority during their absence; their time in the mountains is useful and pleasurable.

The extraordinary attitude of the Abkhasians—to feel needed at 99 or 110—is not an artificial, self‐protective one; it is the natural expression, in old age, of a consistent outlook that begins in childhood. The stoic upbringing of an Abkhasian child, in which parents and senior relatives participate, instills respect, obedience and endurance. At an early age, children participate in household tasks; when they are not at school, they work in the fields or at home.

There are no separate “facts of life” for children and adults: The values given children are the ones adults live by, and there is no hypocritical disparity (as in so many other societies) between adult words and deeds. Since what they are taught is considered important, and the work they are given is considered necessary, children are neither restless nor rebellious. As they mature, there are easy transitions from one status in life to another: a bride, for instance, will stay for a time with her husband's relatives, gradually becoming part of a new clan, before moving into his home.

From the beginning, there is no gap between expectation and experience. Abkhasians expect a long and useful life and look forward to old age with good reason: in a culture which so highly values continuity in its traditions, the old are indispensable in their transmission. The elders preside at important ceremonial occasions, they mediate disputes and their knowledge of farming is sought. They feel needed because, in their own minds and everyone else's, they are. They are the opposite of burdens; they are highly valued resources.

The Abkhasians themselves are obviously right in citing their diet and their work habits as contributing factors in their longevity; in my opinion, their postponed, and later prolonged, sex life probably has nothing to do with it. Their climate is exemplary, the air (especially to a New Yorker) refreshing, but it is not significantly different from many other areas of the world, where life spans are shorter. And while some kind of genetic selectivity may well have been at work, there simply is not enough information to evaluate the genetic factor in Abkhasian longevity.

MY own view is that Abkhasians live as long as they do primarily because of the extraordinary cultural factors that structure their existence: the uniformity and certainty of both individual and group behavior, the unbroken continuum of life's activities—the same games, the same work, the same food, the same self ‐imposed and socially perceived. needs. And the increasing prestige that comes with increasing age.

There is no better way to comprehend the importance of these cultural factors than to consider for a moment some of the prevalent characteristics of American society. Children are sometimes given chores to keep them occupied, but they and their parents know there is no need for the work they do; even as adults, only a small percentage of Americans have the privilege of feeling that their work is essential and important. The old, when they do not simply vegetate, out of view and out of mind, keep themselves “busy” with bingo and shuffleboard. Americans are mobile, sometimes frantically so, searching for signs of permanence that will indicate their lives are meaningful.

Can Americans learn something from the Abkhasian view of “long living” people? I think so.

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