The Abkhasians had a way of life that is out of reach for modern man, or so it seems! One of the arguments that is often used to promote modern medical technology (vaccinations etc) is that we are living to be much older than we used to. I must point out that even with all of our advanced medical technology, we still haven’t managed to extend our lives, with most of our faculties (including sexual vigor!) still intact, as long as the Abkhasians or other long-living peoples (110-130 yrs) managed to do without any of our medical intervention.
This book (Abkhasians The Long-Living People of the Caucasus), by Sula Benet, who was born in Warsaw, Poland and later got her PhD at Columbia, is a very comprehensive anthropological study of the Abkhasians culture. I’ve been curious about centenarians ever since I wrote my first paper in Culinary School years ago.
Diet, culture and community are obviously all factors in the Abkhasian’s long life, the altitude, amount of exercise and harsh conditions may also play a role. The Abkhasian’s diet fits into what Dr. Weston A. Price found with traditional cultures, although it is interesting to find that they prefer to eat salad for breakfast. Perhaps this is a way to provide enzymes. They also love to drink their matzoni (like yogurt). In line with the GAPS diet or even with a more paleo type diet, the Abkhasians also used nuts quite extensively in their meals, their carbohydrates were mostly from chestnuts, lima beans or cornmeal (which would have been a later addition). They didn’t eat refined flour, oils or sugar. (Image of Abkhasian woman harvesting tea from Sula Benet’s book)
Milk was a very sacred substance for them, and milk-siblings were children who nursed from the same woman. In fact the milk-bond was as powerful as the blood-bond. The Abkhasian society was carefully set up to minimize fighting and to promote community and support within families and tribes. Perhaps our modern world could learn a lot from the way they raise their children, with the whole family supporting and encouraging them and without punishment.
The following are some of my favorite sections from Sula Benet’s book, although there are some really interesting passages that include legends and kinship rituals that I can’t include here. A dry but interesting read.
Abkhasians The Long-Living People of the Caucasus by Sula Benet 1974
Milk Siblings (Atalyk):
The term atalyk is used in ethnographic literature to describe a custom once practised in the Caucasus. A boy or girl, shortly after birth, was usually given by a family of greater and social standing to one of a lesser position. However, families of equal standing could do so as well.
The child and his milk siblings (that is the children who were nursed by the same woman) were taught the same customs, skills, and manners, so that an Abkhasian peasant knew as much as a prince.
The link established between two families, one of which received the child of another, was considered sacred and even stronger than the bond of blood. Inter-marriage between the two families, their relatives, and any people of the same surname was immediately forbidden.
When the child came of age, his return home to his natural parents was celebrated by a great feast. His duty to his milk siblings and family continued for life. He protected them from any danger, and came to their assistance in time of need. In fact, all blood and ritual relationships involve lifetime obligations, and ritual kinship is not established lightly. By contrast, merely a sexual relationship, can be dissolved.
This system of milk-siblings served to cement ties between different families, to reduce the distance between social classes, to ensure uniformity of culture, and to make peace between feuding families. In the past, when a family was engaged in a feud and feared retaliation, they would sometimes kidnap a child and declare that they were going to raise it, thus automatically ending the hostilities. The parents of the child could not reclaim it and continue the feud, since the child in all probability had already been nursed, and milk is considered a sacred substance. (p57-58)
Abkhasians are known to perform the ritual with wild animals which have been annoying their homes and livestock in order to gain the goodwill of the animal. I was told that in the community of Khlou, in the region of Khodor, a wolf often attacked the cows and lambs of a shepherd in the village. In desperation, the shepherd when to search for his enemy. It turned out to be a she-wolf with a litter of cubs. He killed the she-wolf but took the little ones to his house, and when they grew up he let them go free, hoping that as their milk-father, he would be immune to wolves and that they could not possibly harm him.
It is said that the shepherd even performed the ritual, his wife sitting on a chair and permitting the cubs to touch her breasts, giving them the status of sons. Since then, the story goes, the wolves never touched his cattle and the shepherd never killed wolves. Mindful of his forest family, he always left some food in the forest for them.
The theme to milk relatives appears frequently in Abkhasian folklore. People felt that it was quite possible to make anyone a milk relative, from a wolf to a god. -p61…”