Lost cultures

In his most recent book, Healthy at 100 (2006), John Robbins reviews four isolated cultures whose members showed great health and longevity: the Abkhasia of th Caucasus mountains, the Vilcabamba of the Andes, the Hunza of the Himalayas, and pre-WW II Okinawans of Japan. These idyllic lands and societies have been studied before. They were living exemplars of proverbial utopias. I remember reading about the Hunza in the 1970’s, about their simple life in the mountains– and about the enormous apricots they cultivated!

It is not until after ranging over a variety of diet and health topics and nearly at the end of the 350+ page book that we are told that none of these societies is the same today, all fallen victim to war, technology, development, and globalization.

One might have expected this fate. These isolated lands and cultures were the true “hermit” lands, not the politically ostrasized countries of current news. Positive solitude or negative alienation would have not been in evidence in these lands, at least in theory. This would be due to their close relationship to the land, and to what must be called the universal Way, however a particular culture conceives it. We would almost be watching early Chinese or early Celtic culture recreated from millennia ago, where the first hermits would be shamans.

These cultures will especially remind a reader of the Tao te ching of Lao-tzu’s depiction of the ideal society:

A small country of few people.
Machines are not needed.
People take life and death meaningfully.
No one travels far.
They do not use their boats or carriages.
They do not display armor or weapons.
They knot rope rather than write.
Their food is plain and wholesome.
Their clothes are fit but simple.
Their homes are secure.
The people are happy in their ways.
Though they live in sight of their neighbors
and hear crowing cocks and barking dogs,
Yet they live in peace with each other
as they grow old and die. (80)