National Geographic : 1973 Jan
¥.<* VILCABAMBA FERTILE GARDEN of tobacco, tea, and citrus, Abkhazia lies in the wettest region of the Soviet Union. CLIFFSIDE REALM of Hunza, once a princely state, today is part of Pakistani controlled Kashmir. . BASTIONS OF LONGEVITY, Vilcabamba, Abkhazia, and Hunza contain unusually high numbers of elderly, vigorous people- a phenomenon that excites the curiosity of gerontologists. A primary question plagues all who take to the field to study longevity: How can you be sure of the ages of those who claim to be centenarians? There is no way to "date" a living human being. In Vilcabamba the community was Catholic, and church baptismal records confirmed some of the ages claimed there. Some could also be supported by the number of generations of offspring, and by testimony from friends and relatives of similar age. A census taken in 1971 showed that Vilcabamba, with a popu lation of only 819, had nine individuals above the age of 100. In the United States, by comparison, the figure is about three centenarians per 100,000 population. Memories Constitute Hunza's Records In Hunza (population 40,000) the dating problem was particularly difficult. Hunzukuts live in high val leys near the China and Afghanistan borders, so remote that their language, Burushaski, bears no rela tionship to any other language on earth. There is no written form, so no records exist. In some instances, however, the Mir (ruler) of Hunza could, from per sonal knowledge of his state's history, verify ages. In short, I was not able to confirm exact ages in Hunza. Yet I had the definite impression of an unusual number of very vigorous old folk clambering over the steep slopes that make up this mountainous land. It was the fitness of many of the elderly rather than their extreme ages that impressed me. The largest number of people above 100 years old, and the best documented, exists in the Caucasus. The documentation is due in large part to the work of Professor G. E. Pitzkhelauri, head of the gerontologi cal center in Tbilisi, Georgia, who told me of the meth ods he uses to validate ages. First, documents of dates of birth hold highest Wearing his 102 years lightly, Tandel Tchopia of Abkhazia dances nimbly as his neighbors clap. RUGGED ANDEAN TERRAIN and a near ly impassable road keep Ecuador's tiny Vilcabamba isolated.