Longevity myths

:"For validated claims, see supercentenarian; for partially-validated and unvalidated claims, see longevity claims."Longevity myths are cultural narratives that speak of exceptional, improbable or impossible longevity, with or without eternal youth. These stories include age exaggeration of various kinds.

They include the legend of the Fountain of Youth, the "village elder" narrative, the story of Shangri-La, the Nationalist tale, etc. Each category of myth is based on a different motivation for age exaggeration.

The legendary Fountain of Youth is based upon a fantasy of living a very long time by taking potions, or finding some other secret that results in longevity combined with a youthful healthiness.

The "village elder" narrative is often based upon a pre-literate societal respect for aging, patriarchy, etc., which leads to a venerating age exaggeration of the oldest male (or sometimes female) in the village.

The "legend of Shangri-La" is the idea that a certain remote mountain area may contain an entire village of long-lived (or eternally lived) people (such as Vilcabamba or Abkhazia).

The "Nationalist tale" is an age exaggeration story motivated by nationalist pride (such as Stalin proclaiming special longevity in Soviet Georgia, because he was from that part of the country.)

There are, of course, other stories 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 in the 19th century by P. T. Barnum, she was claimed to be a 161-year-old woman, but she turned out to be only 80).

Patriarchal longevity

Stories of exaggerated longevity have been around since the earliest civilizations. The first longevity narratives were probably the patriarchal/matriarchal claims, which are often an attempt to link humans to the gods or to God. In many cases, the ages of ancestors were exaggerated, in order 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. One ancient Sumerian genealogy contains three kings who are recorded as having reigned 72,000 years each. [Zondervan NIV Study Bible notes on Genesis 5:5. 2002.]

A later and reduced form was used in Japan, which inflated the ages of emperors, in an attempt to date Japanese history to 660 BC (see Emperor Jimmu).

The early Patriarchs of the Bible are given extreme ages that are highest toward the beginning, with Adam reaching the age of 930, and Methuselah reaching 969 (Genesis 5). Some writers have attempted to explain these extreme ages as ancient mistranslations, which converted the word "month" to "year". If this were true, it would turn the claimed 969 "years" of Methuselah into 969 months, or a more reasonable 80 years. ["Making Sense of the Numbers of Genesis", Carol A. Hill, "Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith", volume 55, December 4, 2003, p. 239.] However this theory if applied to other verses would make Kenan and Mahalalel only 5 years old when they fathered their sons. Other writers have suggested that "years" was translated correctly, but the numbers were an ancient mistranslation. ["Noah's Ark and the Ziusudra Epic", chapter 7, R. M. Best, 1999.] Other Biblical scholars believe that some of the numbers have a symbolic meaning: Enoch is said to have 365 years which, being the number of days in a year, would indicate his having lived "a full life". Still others point out that there are only 10 names in this genealogical list, so that the list may contain generational gaps, which are covered by the lengthy lifetimes attributed to the patriarchs. [Zondervan NIV Study Bible notes on Genesis 5:5. 2002.]

The ancient 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 alive for 600 years. But most of the examples Lucien gives are what we would regard as normal long lifespans (80-100 years). He also wrote about the "Seres" (Chinese people), who he claimed live for 300 years.

Village elder myth

The second longevity narrative, that of the village elder, is probably a reduced version of patriarchal myth. According to these myths, it is generally assumed that persons today cannot attain the ages of the ancients, but nonetheless one's village elder should be honored.

This kind of story originally centered on a tribal chieftain, but in places where local power was distributed, elderly women began to be substituted. The village elder represented a source of pride, oral tradition and a person to commemorate. The ages claimed tended to be limited by one's ability to believe them. Most claims of this type have been for ages of 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 same pattern of overestimation of age.These popular tales continue to exist even today in places such as Bangladesh.

Fountain of Youth

The more recent Fountain of Youth narrative seems to have evolved differently. Many people in Europe feared death (especially after the ravages of the Black Death, which 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 an individual's wishes for a longer and healthier life, and dates from medieval and Renaissance times. The idea that humans could transform their own substance, using techniques such as alchemy) 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, in hopes of finding such a magical source.

This need was exploited by charlatans and snake oil salesmen who tried to sell potions for longevity. They would search out a very old person, and then claim that person as an example of successful use of the potion. The idea continues today, in reduced form, but was still very prevalent in the 1970s, when claims of extreme longevity for yoghurt eaters in the Caucasus led to the use of some of these people in Dannon yoghurt advertising. Recently, we saw this myth invoked to explain Cuba's longevity. [ [http://www.lexisnexis.com/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T4498749968&format=GNBFI&sort=RELEVANCE&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T4498749971&cisb=22_T4498749970&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=7955&docNo=11] ]


An extension and adaptation of the Fountain of Youth myth is the idea that a particular place, rather than a substance, carries what is needed to attain extreme age; a person seeking extreme longevity needs to move to a special district, a "Shangri-La." This story differs from the Fountain of Youth in that it focuses on an entire village or mountain region (see beforementioned regions of Caucasus and Vilcabamba, plus Goust 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)Fact|date=July 2008, indicating the age was a guess, not a real measurement.

In Roman times, Pliny wrote 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.

Nationalist longevity

An outgrowth 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 nation versus another, extreme age claims became a source of national 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 fell somewhat out of vogue in the late 1970s, when both US and USSR experts came forward to debunk both sides. However, in Cuba, local nationalism still fueled unverified claims quite recently, such that the world's oldest man was claimed to be Benito Martínez. Still within the context of Marxist ideology but perhaps motivated more by nationalism, we have also 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).


In some religious traditions there are claims 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, as is the case of Li Ching-Yuen).

Swami Bua claims to be a different age each time he is interviewed, but generally claims to have been born around 1889. Offering no actual 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 the normal span (e.g. ages 109 and 110 in Iowa), and there is no evidence that religion, philosophy, practice, meditation, etc. has actually extended the human life span.

One story from Britain 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 Continental Europe, Saint Servatius, 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 ones that are race based or family based. Some people believe that a certain race (theirs) tends to live longer than others, despite no scientific evidence. On a smaller scale, many families tend to believe that their own family members live a very long time. The further back in the past the story goes, the easier it is to insert a family member aged 108, 111, 120, etc., usually with no supporting evidence.

Many people in the 1950s falsely claimed to be Confederate veterans, in a narrative 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 Williams was really 105, not 117, years old.

Annibal Camoux died in 1759 in Marseilles (France) at the alleged age of 121.

Current status

As the Guinness Book of World Records states 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 recently. 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. See list of the verified oldest people.

Even as of 2008, with recordholder Jeanne Calment having died at the undisputed age of 122, the following is true:
*Only approximately seventy people in human history have been documented as reaching the age of 114.
*Only about twenty-five 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 with absolutely undisputed evidence to have lived to be over 120.

Yet despite these facts, stories still surface claiming that these extremes have been exceeded. A "National Geographic" article in 1973 treated with respect some claims that have subsequently been disproven, including the notorious Vilcabamba valley in Ecuador, where locals claimed ancestors' baptismal records as their own. That article also reported a very aged people, the Hunza in a mountain region of Pakistan, without any documentary evidence being cited.

It is typical that extreme longevity claims come from remote areas where recordkeeping is poor. However, generally speaking, the life expectancy is rather lower in these areas 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 Dominica has a smaller population and a lower life expectancy than Iceland, where documentation is very good and life expectancy is very high, and yet the longevity record in Iceland 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 Muslimov (1805?-1973).

In Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, Habib Miyan claimed that he was born in 1878, 1872 and 1869. Actually, his age is unknown, because he does not have a birth certificate. However, according to a state issued pension book that he claimed was his (even though it is issued in a different name, Rahim Khan), it says that Rahim Khan was born on May 20, 1878. However, independent researchers have not been able to verify 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 the country. 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 her records were sent to Guinness [http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_555946.html] , 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 Ching-Yuen, 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 allegedly died by 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:

ee also

* Hayflick limit
* Human nature
* Methuselah's age
* William Thoms


External links

* 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.
* [http://longevity-science.org/PDR-00.pdf Validation of Exceptional Longevity]
* http://www.demogr.mpg.de/
* http://www.grg.org/Adams/G.HTM
* http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,908667-1,00.html

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Longevity claims — are claims to extreme longevity (usually 110 or older) that either cannot be verified or for whom only some evidence is available. Longevity claims differ from existing verified supercentenarian cases, and also from longevity myths in that either …   Wikipedia

  • Longevity — The word longevity is sometimes used as a synonym for life expectancy in demography. However, this is not the most popular or accepted definition. [ [http://www.answers.com/topic/longevity?cat=health. longevity: Definition and Much More from… …   Wikipedia

  • National longevity recordholders — are those individuals who have survived to the oldest age in a given country. Such records can only be determined to the extent that the given country s records are reliable. Comprehensive birth registration largely came into being in the 20th… …   Wikipedia

  • Living national longevity recordholders — In supplement to the national longevity recordholders page, which is for the oldest people ever in a certain country, this page is for the oldest people currently still alive in a certain country. As comprehensive birth registration largely came… …   Wikipedia

  • Extreme longevity tracking — is the tracing and recording of claims of exceptionally long human lives (longevity), as a branch of demography. Persons have been noted for tracking supercentenarians (those aged 110+) for hundreds of years; some included quite famous persons… …   Wikipedia

  • Ageing — This article is about human ageing. For other uses, see Ageing (disambiguation). A human face showing signs of ageing Ageing (British English) or aging (American English) is the accumulation of changes in a person over time.[1] Ageing in humans… …   Wikipedia

  • William Thoms — William John Thoms (1803 ndash; 1885) was a British writer credited with coining the term folklore in the 1840s. Thoms s investigation of folklore and myth led to a later career of debunking longevity myths. Hence, he is the father of age… …   Wikipedia

  • Maximum life span — is a measure of the maximum amount of time one or more members of a population has been observed to survive between birth and death. Most living species have at least one upper limit on the number of times cells can divide. For humans, this is… …   Wikipedia

  • Life expectancy — This article is about the measure of remaining life. For the Dean Koontz novel, see Life Expectancy (novel). For List of countries by life expectancy, see List of countries by life expectancy. Life expectancy is the expected (in the statistical… …   Wikipedia

  • List of British supercentenarians — This is a list of verified British supercentenarians (people from the United Kingdom who have attained the age of at least 110 years). There have been 118 verified supercentenarians from the United Kingdom.[1][2] The oldest person ever from the… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.