In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea lies a small, remote rocky island which for millennia has been the battleground for the competing empires of the Phoenicians, the Cartheginians, the Romans, Catalans, and the Ottoman Turks.
Today, Sardinia is best known as a peaceful sun-drenched holiday destination where in summer new invading hordes of Northern Europeans descend to enjoy the lobster, the lazy lifestyle and the sandy coves of the Costa Smeralda, the Aga Khan’s billionaires’ resort. But there is another reason why this magical place has attracted attention from the world’s leading scientists: the people of Sardinia are among the longest-lived on earth – three times as likely to reach the remarkable milestone of 100 as the English, Americans, Australians or almost anyone else on earth.
When the conversation turns to longevity, as it often does now that the first of the baby-boomers has passed 60, what are the first places that come to mind? Lost valleys in the Himalayas, where the happy Hunzas have no word for retirement, and work long past 100 on a diet of apricot kernels and ‘glacier milk’? The hard-luck republics of what used to be the Soviet Caucasus – remember those folk-dancing Cossack ‘centenarians’ in the old TV ads for Danone yoghurt? Japan’s tropical island of Okinawa where twin sisters Kin and Gin were wheeled out to celebrate their 107th birthdays, just two of nearly 1000 centenarians in a place with a smaller population than South Australia?
Well, actually, it’s none of these–although the Okinawans, until now, have had the best claim to have found, if not the fountain of eternal youth the key to routinely living 20 or 30 years longer than the three score years and ten which the Bible tells us is all we can expect. The Hunzas, on closer examination, were found to have vivid imaginations and a total lack of reliable documentation; the naughty Cossacks were exposed for having assumed the identities of their fathers or grandfathers to avoid being called up for military service by the Czar.
No, it turns out that Sardinia – or, more precisely, a cluster of 16 villages, scattered among the forbidding peaks and gorges of the Gennargentu mountains in the island’s east – is the real Holy Grail. Here, in what scientists have named the Blue Zone, instead of ‘G’day’ the standard greeting is a kent’annos – ‘may you live to be 100.’ At one stage, five of the world’s 40 oldest people lived there, including the world’s oldest man, Antonio Todde, aged 112.
I must admit I was a bit skeptical of these claims when I first read about them in a magazine. The longevity industry is infested with quacks and charlatans and outright crooks – there are billions of dollars to be made from anti-wrinkle creams and anti-oxidants, Tibetan goji berries and ‘Okinawan’ diet books – and billions more to be fleeced from investors in bio-tech floats to fund the so-far futile search for the genetic key to living longer. So, with the artist/photographer Mayu Kanamori, I decided to go to Sardinia to find out for myself.
What we discovered blew us away. We drank purple Cannonau wine with the world’s oldest wine-maker, Antonio Argiolas (that’s him on the cover of the book), and watched a folk-dancing display by a white-bearded bicycle-riding centenarian named Salvatore Spano who insisted on demonstrating his fitness by standing on his head. We went to the 109th birthday of one of the world’s oldest women, Raffaela Monne, matriarch of the tiny village of Arzana, an open-air retirement home which boasted three other centenarians, 49 people aged over 90 and 100 over 85. We called on bustling Anna Mattu – one of the few centenarians living in a retirement home – and accompanied her to the local bar for a coffee with her ‘toy boy,’ a sprightly 67-year-old. All these anziani, or ancients, as they are called are beautifully photographed by Mayu Kanamori.
Our quest took us two months and more than 1000 kilometres around some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe – the labyrinthine alleys of the ancient capital of Cagliari and the golden beaches of the Costa Smeralda, or course; but also the most rugged and inaccessible parts of the hinterland. Here there are mysterious populations of blonde-haired green-eyed Vikings living in fortified hill-towns which have fought off invading armies and raiding corsairs for centuries; on hilltops, hundreds of stone forts called nuraghi still stand sentinel, and ancestral spirits call from the dark pits of the domus de janus, ‘fairies’ homes.’
The book takes you on a magical mystery tour of the island and its secret places. And it introduces you to some of the more exotic treats of the Sardinian diet – suckling pigs roasting on bonfires in the mountains, pasta sprinkled with the dried roe of the grey mullet, and the dreaded casu marzu, the infamous rotten cheese which literally leaps with live maggots. But our mission was more than a tourist expedition-we were here to ask these ancient people why they believed they had lived so long. And what secrets they were prepared to share with the rest of us mere mortals hoping, if not to live to 100, at least to gain a few extra years of active life. In all, we tracked down 24 people aged 99 and over, and we talked to them for hours about their lives, their lifestyles and their families – anything which may give us a clue to their extraordinary longevity.
We also reviewed the latest scientific evidence about factors affecting longevity, and interviewed Sardinia’s leading scientists on what they had discovered from deciphering the secrets of the quinqui libri, the dusty, worm-eaten church archives which document the genealogies of the centenarians of the Blue Zone going back to the 16th century. At least one of them believes that within a year or two they will have unraveled the genetic codes involved, opening the way to an unimaginable world in which we may all live to 120 or 130. Others are convinced the key to their longevity lies in their diet and their lifestyle.
But we were more interested in asking the centenarians themselves what they believed was the secret. Was it where they lived, some magic in the air, or the water, or perhaps the wild herbs they harvest from the pharmacopeia of the fields, such as the yellow-flowering elicriso shrub? Was it the lifestyle, austere and hard-working, with a frugal, organic diet rich in fibre and wine dark with antioxidants? Was it some strange gene they inherited from their ancestors, that ancient, in-bred ‘founder population’? Was it their attitude to life, their deep family roots in a caring community, their belief in God? Or all of these? Or none of the above?
Well, you wouldn’t want me to give everything away here, would you – it’s all in the book.
The Island of the Ancients is published by Pier 9, an imprint of Murdoch Books, in Australia and the United Kingdom.
A ilha dos anciãos is published by Editora Prumo in Brazil (2009).