- For validated claims please see supercentenarian; for partially-validated and unvalidated claims see longevity claims.
This article concerns the history of the narratives concerning longevity or eternal youth, as well as possible explanations of the longevity-phenomenon. Longevity narratives include the story of Fountain of Youth, the village elder-narrative, the story of Shangri-La, the "Nationalist"-tale, etc. Each myth derives a separate motivation for age exaggeration. The legendary "Fountain of Youth" is based upon the desire of some to live a very long time by taking potions or finding a secret to longevity. The village elder narrative is often based upon a pre-literate societal respect for aging, patriarchy, etc. that leads to age exaggeration of the oldest male (sometimes female) in the village. The "legend of Shangri-La" is the idea that a certain remote mountain village may contain an entire village of long-lived people (such as Vilcacamba or Abkhazia). The "Nationalist"-tale is the fueling of age exaggeration by nationalist pride (such as Stalin promoting longevity in Soviet Georgia, because he was from there). There are, of course, other tales and reasons for age exaggeration. Some are personal (the P. T. Barnum story of longevity); that is, a person claims to be a great age to attract attention to oneself and/or to obtain money (such as Joice Heth, promoted by P. T. Barnum as a 161-year-old woman in the 19th century, who turned out to be 'only' 80).
Stories of longevity have been around for as long as humanity. The first longevity narratives were probably the patriarchal/matriarchal claims. These tended to relate an effort to link humans to the gods or to God. In some cases, the ages of the past were exaggerated to extend a genealogy further back into the past. Such extreme exaggerations were used in Sumer; ages claimed corresponded to calendar cycles and special dates. A later and reduced form was used in Japan, which inflated ages of emperors in an attempt to date Japanese history to 660BC (see Emperor Jimmu for more). The Patriarchs of the Bible are believed to connect man to God (Luke, 3:23-38) and the extreme ages claimed are highest toward the beginning, with Adam reaching the age of 930 and Methuselah reaching 969 (Genesis, chapters 3-11). The Roman author Lucian is the presumed author of Macrobii (long-livers), which is devoted to longevity. He gives some mythical examples like that of Nestor, who allegedly lived three centuries, or Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes, who was claimed to be around for 600 years. But most of the examples are normal lifespans (80-100 years). He tells his readers about the Seres (Chinese people) who supposedly live to be 300 years. He also gives some advice concerning food intake and moderation in general.
Village elder myth
Probably the second longevity narrative, the village elder narrative is a reduction from the patriarchal myth. It is generally assumed that persons today cannot attain the ages of the ancients, but still one's village elder should be honored. This story originally centered around a tribal chieftain, but in places where local power was distributed elderly women began to be substituted. In this devolution, the village elder represented a source of pride, oral tradition and a person to commemorate. Still based on a time of no written records, the ages claimed tended to be limited by one's ability to believe them. Most claims of this type have been less than 200 years old, with ages of 140, 150 and 160 seemingly representing the cusp of believability for the locals. In times when written records came into existence for the upper class (i.e. Ancient Rome), reports from the countryside continued the pattern of myth. These popular tales continue even today, in places such as Bangladesh.
The Fountain of Youth
The more recent Fountain of Youth-narrative seems to have come from a different angle. Many people in Europe feared death (especially after the ravages of the Black Death that began in the 1340s) and sought ways to extend their own life span. Unlike the previous tales, which were rooted in patriarchal, ancient, and communal beliefs, the fountain of youth-narrative is anchored in the individual, medieval and Renaissance. The idea that humans could change their environment (such as alchemy), while not always successful, became popular during the 15th and 16th centuries. Consequently, Spanish conquistadors, already searching for fabulous cities of gold, added the idea of finding the "Fountain of Youth". Juan Ponce de León explored Florida in 1513, looking for this.
This story is connected to longevity in the idea of example-ism. People need an example of success to believe a mineral water, snake oil or potion carries beneficial (magical) properties, bestowing extra-ordinary longevity. To satiate this need, charlatans would often search for a very old person, claiming to have found an example of success. The idea continues today, in reduced form, but was still very prevalent in the 1970s, when claims of extreme longevity from the Caucasus led to Dannon yoghurt endorsements.
An extension and adaptation of the Fountain of Youth-narratives is the idea that a particular place, rather than a substance, carries what is needed to attain extreme age. It is not enough to take a potion from a bottle in Merry Olde England; a person seeking extreme longevity instead needs to move to "Shangri-La." This story differs from the Fountain of Youth in that it focuses on an entire village or mountain region (see Caucasus, Vilcabamba and Hunza Valley). Thus, the Caucasus did not merely claim to have a 168-year-old, but to have hundreds of people aged 120+. Instead of one village elder, the entire village is a "village of centenarians." In some cases, apparent age heaping showed how unreliable the age claims were: in places like the Hunza Valley, the oldest ages reported often ended in 0 or 5 (140, 135, 130, 125, 120), indicating the age was a guess, not a real measurement.
In Roman times, Pliny writes about longevity records from the census carried out in 74 A.D. under Vespasian. In one region of Italy many people lived past 100. Four were 130, others were even older. Ascribing unique longevity to a particular 'village of centenarians' is common across many cultures; Japan had such myths until written records eventually did away with them.
The next extension of the Shangri-La idea is the "nationalist" longevity narrative. This idea was rooted in the rise of nationalism in the 20th century. As people's ideas became focused on their "one nation" versus another, extreme age claims became a source of pride. In the U.S., in the 1970 Census, 106,000 people claimed to be 100 years old or older (some 130+) as the U.S. sought to counter Soviet claims that the Soviet communist "lifestyle" resulted in extreme longevity. The Soviets merely borrowed the localist traditions of the Caucasus, and adapted them to a Marxist ideology. The U.S. did not go as far, but to stem the tide even publications such as Time Magazine in 1967 featured Sylvester Magee, allegedly "126", and Charlie Smith, allegedly "125". Both of these claims may have been put forth by publicity-seeking individuals, but the national media chose to elevate these unsubstantiated claims in the context of ideology (not surprisingly, they were a counterfoil to the USSR claim that Shirali Mislimov was in his 160s). Longevity narratives lost their vogue in the late 1970s, as both US and USSR experts came forward to debunk both sides. However, in Cuba, local nationalism still fueled unverified claims recently such that the "world's oldest man" was Benito Martínez. Still within the context of Marxist ideology but perhaps motivated more by Nationalism, we have seen claims such as Du Pinhua's of China (a claim used to counter Japan's Kamato Hongo as the world's oldest person at the time).
Aside from previously mentioned patriarchal claims, these religious tales are ideas that if one follows a certain philosophy or practice, a person can live to an extreme age (some Taoists claimed to have lived to over 200 years; these were related to practice, not genealogy). The Swami Bua claims to be a different age each time he is interviewed, but generally claims birth around 1889. Offering no evidence, the message seems to be that meditation leads to extreme longevity. While scientific evidence does show some benefit from meditation, spiritualism, and faith, measurable longevity tends to fall within scientific proof (e.g. ages 109 and 110 in Iowa); there is no evidence that religion, philosophy, practice, meditation, etc. has extended the human life span.
One story from the British Isles is that of Saint Kentigern (patron saint of Glasgow), who died shortly after 600 at the alleged age of 185. Today his age is given as 85 rather than 185. In Europe, Saint Severin, bishop of Tongeren, was consecrated at the alleged age of 297, and is said to have lived for 375 years.
Other longevity narratives
Other longevity narratives include racist and familial. Some people believe that a certain race (theirs) tends to live longer than others, despite no scientific evidence. On the smallest scale, many families tend to believe that their own family members live a very long time, and the further back in the past they go, the easier it is to insert a family member aged 108, 111, 120, etc. in, usually despite no evidence.
Many people in the 1950s falsely claimed to be Confederate veterans, in a tale of Southern longevity. Walter Williams claimed to be "117" in 1959; in 1973 a woman claimed to be a Confederate widow at 117. Research in 1959 indicated that Walter Williams was really 105, not 117, years old.
As the Guinness Book of World Records stated in numerous editions from the 1960s to the 1980s, "No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood, and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity." At the time, Guinness had never acknowledged anyone as having reached the age of 114, but verifiable records have become more common. The first three people to be acknowledged by Guinness as reaching 114 have all had their claims disputed. The first two people Guinness accepted as reaching 113, both of whom were male, have now been discredited. (It has since been determined that some 90% of persons who have reached the age of 113 have been female.)
- Only approximately seventy people in human history have been documented as reaching the age of 114.
- Only about twenty people reached the age of 115.
- Of the ten people regarded by the Guinness Book or significant scholars to have reached 116, three are subject to substantial doubt.
- Calment is the only person absolutely undisputed to have lived to be over 120.
Yet in the face of the ages that can be validated by investigation, we are still confronted with claims that the observed extremes have been far exceeded — "longevity myths".
A National Geographic article in 1973 treated with respect some claims subsequently disproven, including the notorious Vilcabamba valley in Ecuador, where locals claimed ancestors' baptismal records as their own. That article also reported of very aged people, the Hunza in a mountain region of Pakistan, without documentary evidence being cited.
It is typical that extreme longevity claims come from remote areas where recordkeeping is poor, but generally observed life expectancy is rather lower than in the areas where undisputed claims are typically found. The Caribbean nation of Dominica was lately promoting the allegedly 128-year-old Elizabeth Israel (1875?-2003), but has a smaller population and lower life expectancy than Iceland, where the documentation is very good and life expectancy is very high, yet the longevity record is a mere 109.
The Caucasus mountain region of Azerbaijan was the subject of extreme claims for decades, inspired by the desire of Stalin to believe that he would live a very long time, the most extreme claim there being that of Shirali Mislimov (1805?-1973).
In Rajasthan, Jaipur, India, Mr. Habib Miyan claims that he was born in 1878, 1872 and 1869. Actually, his age is unknown, because he does not have any birth certificate with him. However, according to a state issued pension book that he claims as his (even with a different name, Rahim Khan), it was stated that Rahim Khan was born on May 20, 1878, but independent researchers have not verified Miyan's age.
In 2003, health officials in Chechnya declared that Zabani Khakimova was at least 124 years old, but her age was never authenticated; she died in 2003. In 2004, The Moscow (Russia) Times reported on Pasikhat Dzhukalayeva, also of Chechnya, who claims to have been born in 1881. But, as with Mrs. Khakimova, Mrs. Dzhukalayeva's age has not been authenticated.
Brazil has made several unsubstantiated claims, starting with Maria do Carmo Geronimo (1871?-2000). On March 3, 2005, the Associated Press reported that Maria Olivia da Silva, who claims to have been born on February 28, 1880, had been recognized by RankBrasil as the oldest-living woman in Brazil. Guinness has been unable to verify her date of birth. RankBrasil, a competitor of Guinness, had previously promoted the claim of Ana Martins da Silva (1880?-2004) and that records were sent to Guinness , but the claim was never validated.
An earlier claim from South America was for Javier Pereira (said to have been determined to be 167 years old by a dentist looking at his teeth). There have likewise been a scattering of extreme claims from Africa, the most recent being Namibia's Anna Visser, who died in January 2004 at an alleged 125 or 126, and Moloko Temo of South Africa, who was said to be 130 when she voted in the April 2004 election.
The most extreme claim in the 20th century was a wire story announcing in 1933 that China's Li Chung Yun, born in 1680, had died at age 256 (if it were true, he actually would have been 252 or 253).
In prior centuries there have been other claims, one of the best-known being Thomas Parr, introduced to London in 1635 with the claim that he was 152 years old, who promptly died and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Greater English claims include those of the allegedly 169-year-old Henry Jenkins (apparently concocted to support testimony in a court case about events a century before) and the supposedly 207-year-old Thomas Carn (died in 1588 by most reports). Sir Walter Raleigh, amongst others, claimed that the Irish countess, Katherine Fitzgerald, lived to the age of 140 years (and died on falling from a tree as she picked cherries for breakfast).
Longevity narratives did not come in for serious scrutiny until the work of W.J. Thoms in 1873, and the odd wire correspondent looking for a captivating filler reports extreme undocumented claims to this day: in early 2000 a Nepalese man claimed to have been born in 1832, citing as evidence a card issued in 1988. In December 2003, a Chinese news service claimed incorrectly that Guinness had recognized a woman in Saudi Arabia as being 131.
Responsible validation of longevity claims involves investigation of records following the claimant from birth to the present, and claims far outside the demonstrated records regularly fail such scrutiny. The United States Social Security Administration has public death records of over 100 people said to have died in their 160s to 190s.
Examples of longevity myths: individual cases
Listed below are some individually-famous longevity myths that are either considered discredited, disproven, or simply not believable:
(note: please, expand into a chart, there are over 100 cases that could be listed here, thanks)
- Boia, Lucian. Forever Young: A Cultural History of Longevity from Antiquity to the Present (2004). ISBN 1861891547
- Thoms, William J. The Longevity of Man. Its Facts and Its Fictions. With a prefatory letter to Prof. Owen, C.B., F.R.S. on the limits and frequency of exceptional cases. London: F. Norgate, 1879.
- Validation of Exceptional Longevity