THE HUNZA VALLEY in north PAKISTAN is noted for two features: Burushaski, a language that appears to be unrelated to any other language in the world, and secondly, the myth of the health and longevity of its inhabitants, the Hunzakuts. This valley was the reputed location of novelist James Hilton’s Shangri-La.
The valley is located north of Gilgit, the major town in mountainous north Pakistan sandwiched in between the eastern end of the HINDU KUSH mountains, the western end of the HIMALAYA MOUNTAINS, and the Karakorum range to the north. In ancient times, it provided a very difficult footpath for Buddhist pilgrims journeying from the Chinese Pamirs in the 7th century down to the famous Buddhist monasteries in the Swat valley and neighboring Taxila.
The valley, 25 mi (40 km) long, has settlements on both banks of the Hunza river, one properly called Nager populated by “Twelver” (Shia) Muslims on the left bank with paths leading to the Hispar glacier to the east and Braldu in neighboring Baltistan, and the right bank occupied by the dispersed settlement around Karamabad, a name derived from Karim, the son of the 49th imam, the Aga Khan, of the “Sevener” Isma’ili branch of Islam.
In the upper reaches of the Hunza valley, in Gujal, Hunzakuts gained superiority over the Wakhi ethnic group that is indigenous to the high Pamir. The British conquered Hunza in 1891, bringing it under control of the Gilgit Agency, nominally under Kashmiri domain, but the British Resident in Gilgit had suzerainty over all Gilgit. The British supported a local despot, the Thum (later Mir), a hereditary chieftain who, with the aid of a wazir (prominent adviser), ruled his subjects from Baltit.
In 1936, a British nutritionist published a book on diet and nutrition and featured Hunzakuts as possessing longevity because of their diet. To date there is no credible evidence that determines that the Hunzakut diet of old, not to mention the current diet of the past four decades, contributes to longevity. Nevertheless, modern-day Western pilgrims converge on Hunza seeking the secrets of longevity through consuming the mythical Hunza diet that is vegetarian in origin.
In the 1930s Nazi era, the Swiss-German vegetarian, Dr. Ralph Bircher, conducted research about the Hunza diet. Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader, and Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi SS commander, both vegetarians, had sponsored several plant gathering and physiological research expeditions to Hunza seeking “Aryan” plants suitable for transplanting to Nazi-conquered lands. They promoted the consumption of a diet replicating the Hunza diet, later to be popularized as breakfast muesli.
The Hunzakut vegetarian diet was not by choice; in the steep landlocked mountain valley they lacked access to high-altitude pastures for ruminants. Almost all vegetation in the valley is anthropogenic and field crops were focused on grain because the local chieftain demanded grain as tax revenue. Prior to World War II, the Hunza diet was estimated to be 50 percent derived from apricots. It is true that apricots have substantial antioxidant qualities, but any reason for longevity has to be found elsewhere.
The stunted stature of some of the residents reveal extreme malnutrition when young and recollections of elderly resident tell of spring starvation when food stocks were depleted. Many elderly women tell of children dying during periods of minimal dietary intake. Alexander Leaf, a noted gerentologist who has studied the Hunzakuts, has suggested that many other factors contribute to longevity, such as vigorous physical activity, status granted long-lived persons, and modest caloric intake.
In the early 1950s, German scientists (including a well known Nazi) who made an early foray into Hunza after the jeep track was constructed, recall that the major food product that was conveyed to Hunza at great expense was British canned corned beef produced in Argentina. Goats are kept in Hunza, but their husbandry is traditionally governed by social taboos found throughout that region of northern Pakistan and AFGHANISTAN. The Neolithic goat cult bars women from goat husbandry; it is limited to male work because of the relation of the domestic goat to the wild ibex goat found in the high mountains.