In November, 1921, a great English physician, Sir Robert McCarrison (after whom the McCarrison Society for Nutrition and Health is named), visited the USA at the invitation of the University of Pittsburgh, to deliver the annual sixth Mellon Lecture before the Society for Biological Research.
The subject of his paper was “Faulty Food in Relation to Gastro-Intestinal Disorders,” and its salient points centered on the marvelous health and robustness of the Hunzas, who dwell on the northwestern border of what was then British India (now Pakistan).
The sturdy, mountaineer Hunzas are a light-complexioned race of people, much fairer of skin than the natives of the northern plains of India. They claim descent from three soldiers of Alexander the Great who lost their way in one of the precipitous gorges of the Himalayas. They always refer to themselves as Hunzukuts and to their land as Hunza, but ignorant modern writers insist on calling the people Hunzas.
Most of the people of Hunza are Ismaili Muslims, followers of His Highness the Aga Khan. The local language is Brushuski. Urdu and English are also understood by most of people.
The Hunza valley is one of huge glaciers and towering mountains, below which are ice-fields, boulder-strewn torrents and frozen streams. The lower levels are transformed into verdant gardens in summertime. Narrow roads cling to the crumbling sides of forbidding precipices, which present sheer drops of thousands of feet, with many spots subject to dangerously recurrent bombardments of rock fragments from overhanging masses.
The Hunzas live on a seven-mile line at an elevation of five or six hundred feet from the bottom of a deep cleft between two towering mountain ranges. Some of the glaciers in this section of the world are among the largest known outside the Arctic region. The average height of the mountains is 20,000 feet, with some peaks, such as Rakaposhi, which dominates the whole region, soaring as high as 25,000—a spectacle of breath-taking beauty, too steep to hold snow and usually scarfed by clouds.
Because of the scarcity of food, supplies and transport, the region has been closed to the general public and special permission is required to enter it. Travellers to the region have thus been few but those who have seen the wonder of Hunza have returned with glowing tales of the charm and buoyant health of this people.
Snow is a constant factor; long winters keep the entire population more or less housebound for several months at a time. Yet in summer the mercury may climb to 95 degrees in the shade.
For months in the winter the landscape is all one drab, monotonous, monochromatic stretch of grey houses, apricot trees, fields and walls, all are of a uniformly dingy and depressing gray, with lifeless, low-hanging clouds. Then in life miraculously returns and color is reborn in the rich greens and yellows of the crops and trees. Leading the explosion of awakening, the apricot blossoms in spring stud the landscape with a riot of pastel-tinted pink and white, in vast profusion.
However, it’s not all about the landscape and crops; Sir Robert McCarrison and other travelers who have visited the Hunza-land, have all been particularly impressed by its atmosphere of peace and by the splendid health and amiability of its people.
Cancer researchers take note.
So vibrant was the health of those Hunzas with whom McCarrison came into contact that he reported never having seen a case of asthenic dyspepsia, or gastric or duodenal ulcer, of appendicitis, mucous colitis or cancer. Cases of oversensitivity of the abdomen to nerve impressions, fatigue, anxiety or cold were completely unknown. The prime physiological purpose of the abdomen, as related to the sensation of hunger, constituted their only consciousness of this part of their anatomy. McCarrison concluded this part of his lecture by stating, “Indeed, their buoyant abdominal health has, since my return to the West, provided a remarkable contrast with the dyspeptic and colonic lamentations of our highly civilized communities.”
In fact the Hunzas are not perfect: there is one tiny aspect of ill-health. They seem to suffer from eye disorders that are due to the lack of stoves and chimneys. A fire is made in the middle of the floor and the smoke escapes from a small hole in the roof. The gathering smudge in the air is a constant irritant to their eyes.
McCarrison was otherwise amazed at the health and immunity record of the Hunzas, who, though surrounded on all sides by peoples afflicted with all kinds of degenerative and pestilential diseases, still did not contract any of them.
Travelers who have lived and worked with the Hunzas are unanimous in praising their general charm, intelligence, and physical stamina. But the Hunzas were not entirely a benign or benevolent people, by our standards. There is a paradox here.
In his Mellon Lecture McCarrison told us, “They (the Hunzas) are unusually fertile and long-lived, and endowed with nervous systems of notable stability. Their longevity and fertility were, in the case of one of them, matters of such concern to the ruling chief that he took me to task for what he considered to be my ridiculous eagerness to prolong the lives of the ancients of his people, among whom were many of my patients. The operation for senile cataract appeared to him a waste of my economic opportunities, and he tentatively suggested instead the introduction of some form of lethal chamber, designed to remove from his realms those who by reason of their age and infirmity were no longer of use to the community.”
But there is no questioning the physical fitness and stamina of this race of men. One writer, R. C. F. Schomberg, commented, “It is quite the usual thing for a Hunza man to walk sixty miles at one stretch, up and down the face of precipices to do his business and return direct.” This author passed through the Hunza country many times. He describes how his Hunza servant went after a stolen horse “and kept up the pursuit in drenching rain over mountains for nearly two days with bare feet.” Schomberg also tells of seeing a Hunza in mid-winter make two holes in an icepond, repeatedly dive into one and come out at the other, with as much unconcern as a polar bear.
Sir Aurel Stein records a trip of 200 miles made on foot by a Hunza messenger, a journey that imposed the obstacle of crossing a mountain as high as Mont Blanc. The trip was accomplished in seven days and the messenger returned fresh looking and untired, as if it had been a common, everyday occurrence. The word “tired” does not seem to exist in their lexicon.
In the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts for January 2, 1925, Sir Robert McCarrison wrote: “The powers of endurance of these people are extraordinary; to see a man of this race throw off his scanty garments, revealing a figure which would delight the eye of a Rodin, and plunge into a glacier-fed river in the middle of the winter, as easily as most of us would take a tepid bath, is to realize that perfection of physique and great physical endurance are attainable on the simplest of foods, provided these be of the right kind.”
Now we are getting down to the real message.
McCarrison postulated four main reasons in explanation of their fabulous health. I think it both interesting and advisable to give them all in his own words. He said:
” (1) Infants are reared as Nature intended them to be reared–at the breast. If this source of nourishment fails, they die; and at least they are spared the future gastro-intestinal miseries, which so often have their origin in the first bottle.
McCarrison is absolutely in tune with (or rather modern holistic and food experts like me are in tune with HIM!), in saying that if anything other than Mother’s colostrum is put in the infant’s mouth at birth, disastrous food intolerances follow, as night follows day.
” (2) The people live on the unsophisticated foods of Nature: milk, eggs, grains, fruits and vegetables. I don’t suppose that one in every thousand of them has ever seen a tinned salmon, a chocolate or a patent infant food, nor that as much sugar is imported into their country in a year as is used in a moderately sized hotel of this city in a single day.
I’m surprised at the dairy but raw milk fans will make a lot of this. But the number one here is, without question, NO SUGAR and not the apricots!
No manufactured food is also crucial. Never never eat anything that doesn’t look the way Nature created it (and never never eat anything that Monsanto and similar biotech companies have had their dirty hands on).
” (3) Their religion (Islam) prohibits alcohol, and although they do not always lead in this respect a strictly religious life, nevertheless they are eminently a teetotalling race.
(Colonel Lorimer says that the Hunzas occasionally drink a little wine at festivals. Alcohol is not forbidden to Maulai Mohammedans, but in Hunza the distilling of alcohol has been prohibited in recent years, since McCarrison’s time). So a little quiet wine drinking seems to be no big hazard, if everything else is in place.
” (4) Their manner of life requires the vigorous exercise of their bodies.”
No surprise here; we know that staying active is an essential part of health and definitely does protect from cancer.
I’m going to add number #5, which McCarrison missed. Surprisingly, he seems to have overlooked the mineral rich, nutrient dense mountain water which poured down from the mountains. As Joel Wallach (“Dead Doctors Don’t Lie”) pointed out for us, almost all the super long-lived centenarian peoples live in high mountain plateaus and enjoy water to drink and irrigate their crops which is so dense in minerals they are opaque and referred to as “mountain milk”.
McCarrison places the factor of vital food before all others when he says in his book Nutrition and National Health: “I know of nothing so potent in maintaining good health in laboratory animals as perfectly constituted food: I know of nothing so potent in producing ill health as improperly constituted food. This, too, is the experience of stockbreeders. Is man an exception to a rule so universally applicable to the higher animals?”
To make his point, McCarrison carried out an ingenious series of experiments with albino rats at Coonoor in 1927, somewhat reminiscent of Frances Pottenger, of Pottenger’s Cats fame.
He decided to find out if rats could be endowed with health equal to that enjoyed by the Hunzas through feeding the rodents on a similar diet. One group was, consequently, fed the diet upon which the Hunzukuts and other healthy peoples of Northern India, such as the Sikhs, Pathans and Mahrattas, subsist.
On the other hand, another group of rats were fed the poor diet of the Southern India rice-eaters, the Bengali and Madrassi. In his aforementioned book, McCarrison referred to a nutritional authority, McCay, who twenty-five years before had written “As we pass from the Northwest region of the Punjab down the Gangetic Plain to the coast of Bengal, there is a gradual fall in the stature, body weight, stamina and efficiency of the people. In accordance with this decline in manly characteristics it is of the utmost significance that there is an accompanying gradual fall in the nutritive value of the dietaries.”
And so McCarrison found it.
A third group of rats was subjected to the diet of the lower classes of England, containing white bread, margarine, sweetened tea, a little boiled milk, cabbage and potatoes, tinned meats and jam.
The results were startling, if predictable. McCarrison described the first group as being hunzarized. “During the past two and a quarter years,” he stated, “there has been no case of illness in this ‘universe’ of albino rats, no death from natural causes in the adult stock, and but-for a few accidental deaths, no infantile mortality. Both clinically and at post-mortem examination this stock has been shown to be remarkably free from disease.
The Bengali group of rats on the other hand suffered from a wide variety of diseases which involved every organ of the body such as the nose, eyes, ears, heart, stomach, lungs, bladder, kidneys, intestines, the blood, glands, nerves and reproductive organs. In addition, they suffered from loss of hair, malformed and crooked spines, poor teeth, ulcers, boils and became vicious and irritable.”
The “English” rats also developed most of these troubles. They were nervous and apt to bite their attendants; they lived unhappily together and by the sixtieth day of the experiment they began to kill and eat the weaker ones amongst them.
The fact that disease and antisocial behavior could be completely eliminated by “correct” diet should have electrified the doctors present in the Pittsburgh lectures. It was shown again in Francis Pottenger’s work; the cats fed the feline equivalent of junk food were sick, vicious and some turned homosexual, which is unknown for cats. What was scary is that it took three whole generations to get these acts well again (see my book Diet Wise for more details).
There is an echo of all this in the famous Appleton school experiment, in Wisconsin, in which one of the USA’s most violent and uncontrollable educational establishments was transformed into a calm, harmonious environment, simply by replacing junk food in the canteen with real nutrition wholesome foods. No more armed guards were needed to patrol classrooms.
This prompts me to want to comment on the nonsense surrounding apricot kernels and so-called “vitamin B17. Read my take on it here.