Living Past 100 Years: Perspectives from Anthropology of Longevity1

By Chun, Kyung-soo | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Living Past 100 Years: Perspectives from Anthropology of Longevity1


Chun, Kyung-soo, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


As an anthropologist, I have spent almost 10 years attempting to understand human longevity and aging processes. I make my observations by living with my subjects over a period of time, because systematic observation is the primary tool used by anthropologists. The goal of this chapter is to share my observations, case studies, and conclusions about the nature of human longevity.

Human longevity can surely be recognized as both a biological and a cultural phenomenon, because genetic and cultural features are intermingled throughout the life of an individual. Coevolution (Durham, 1991) of genetic and cultural features could be an important process determining the duration of a humans life span. In this sense, an anthropologist will discuss human longevity from a cultural perspective.

Historically, the field of anthropology has long shown a tendency to look at lifestyles. This emphasis produced the "rites of passage" model by which the anthropologist focused on a critical phase of life crisis as a cultural pattern and studied the ceremonial processes related to it. For example, ceremonies related to birth, marriage, and death have always been dealt with by anthropologists. However, anthropologists have been looking at the life crisis rites instead of at life itself, and finally they have ritualized the life as a form of rites of passage.

As a result, in the framework of anthropology, the processes of aging and dying have been omitted from the realm of human life. Death could and should be considered a critical part of the pattern of life. Most anthropologists look not at the process of death itself but at the rituals and ceremonies related to death. This is a culturally biased framework embedded in the Western science of anthropology.

To date, it is possible to identify only a couple of anthropologists in the entire 150-year history of the discipline who have been interested in longevity and centenarians. One case on Japanese longevity was raised by Murdoch (1891). He quoted data accumulated by Halifax that had been published in an article in the Journal of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society:

The census on Japanese dated March 1890 shows us 199,074 octogenarians, 7,507 nonagenarians, 9 males and 21 females of 101 years old, 9 females of 102 years old, 1 male and 2 females of 103 years old, 4 males and 18 females of 104 years old, 3 males and 6 females of 105 years old, 1 male and 1 female of 106 years old, and finally 1 female of 107 years old. Interestingly enough, interpretation of the reason of the longevity pointed at inhaling customs of the smokes of tobacco and charcoals. Japanese have custom of sitting around a fire-jar keeping charcoals in it and of tendency of approaching toward to the fire-jar. Therefore the Japanese can easily inhale the smoke from the fire-jar. This could be a striking custom for the westerners. If the Europeans inhale the smoke like Japanese, Europeans must be suffocated to death for the inappropriate oxygen intake. (Murdoch, 1891, p. 300)

An interesting aspect of the report is that there were 76 centenarians (18 men and 58 women) in 1890 in Japan. Remarkably, Murdoch was simply trying to explain the reason for the Japanese longevity by employing the idea of culture.

In relatively recent times, a New York-based Polish anthropologist became interested in the Abkhazians (in Caucasus) and introduced their longevity data, which have astonishingly caught the public interest. Since that time, the Caucasus area as well as Georgia, including Abkhazia, have widely been famous as a "longevity area." Sula Benet successfully interviewed healthy centenarians there and explained the Abkhazian centenarians' longevity in terms of everyday lifestyle, including food and work patterns. In other words, she tried to point to a relationship between human longevity and culture. The report did not provide explanations sufficient to satisfy the scholars and academics even among colleagues in anthropology (Benet, 1974), but it did generate interest in longevity among the public (Benet, 1976).

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