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Carmelo Flores Laura. (PHOTO: EPA)

World’s Oldest Living Human Found, Not in the Usual Place

• August 15, 2013 • 9:03 AM

Carmelo Flores Laura. (PHOTO: EPA)

Are freak longevity cases more about record-keeping than genetics, diet, or exercise?

Bolivian officials have found the oldest person ever recorded, Carmelo Flores Laura, believed to be 123. He lives in a farm town five hours from the capital La Paz and two hours from the nearest road, according to this BBC video report and this newspaper article (Spanish) from Bolivia’s La Razon. Details of his life are scarce so far, except that he was born in 1890. No clear explanation for his longevity has come to light—most of the story is about verifying his age, which has been done through baptism records. To judge from video and interviews, he’s pretty healthy and in good spirits. He doesn’t look a day over 97.

Particularly notable is that Flores Laura isn’t from North America, Europe, or Japan. According to Guinness, which tracks human age records, the overwhelming majority of extremely old people have come from those regions. The world’s oldest recorded person before today was a French woman who died in 1997 at 122 and a half. More recently, a Japanese man was considered the oldest living human until earlier this year, when he died at a relatively spry 116. By comparison, Flores Laura is an Aymara Indian from the Andes mountains, a rare example outside the geographic narrowness typical in these stories. What explains this? Has there really never been an unusually old person from the entire African continent? Is Carmelo Flores Laura really the first Latin American to live so long?

He seems to have avoided eating noodles, but ate complex carbs—quinoa’s good for you, just like it says on the box.

A theory: Rather than diet or exercise explaining ultra-longevity, the list of of super-elderly suffers from selection bias. The real story today looks to be the work of the Bolivian civil registry, which found Flores Laura in the first place, did some successful fact-checking, showed an interest in flagging an unusual life, and provided means to make noise about it. Is it really more likely that North Americans, Japanese, and a sliver of those from Europe really are biologically distinct from humanity in the most basic way? If so, that would explain why it’s so unusual to hear about the world’s oldest Indonesian, Kenyan, Romanian, or Afghan. But if that’s so, then Flores Laura, an Andean, would be even more remarkable than he is—he’s certainly not Japanese or European, biologically.

Or is a clerical explanation more likely? As anyone who has tried to construct a family genealogy knows, record-keeping from the late 19th and early 20th century can be awfully hard to track. Even in the Bolivian case, the La Paz civil registry official who spoke on camera to the BBC notes that their determination of Flores Laura’s age came from those church baptismal records—a civil registry didn’t yet exist in 1890, the presumed year of Flores Laura’s birth. Today’s news was a stroke of luck based on a decision by an Aymara family in 1890: no baptism, no birth record, no new “world’s oldest human.”

A glance at Flores Laura’s own family adds to the record keeping mystery. Speaking to reporters this week, Flores Laura claimed his wife only died a decade ago. (He added that he missed her; what do you get someone for an 80th anniversary?) Maybe he’s fuzzy on the dates; maybe his wife really died 20 or 30 years ago, when he was 93 or 103. But if he’s right, and if the couple were even remotely close in age, that would have put Mrs. Flores Laura north of 110 when she passed away. Not bad. How many more such cases are out there?

None of this is to take anything away from Flores Laura’s remarkable individual story. Unsurprisingly, he appears to have lived a life of healthy habits. The water in his high-mountain town comes from an Andean glacier. Though he served in the horrific 1933 Chaco War, he survived it and subsequently worked as a shepherd, which involved decades of daily walking at considerable altitude. He seems to have avoided eating noodles, but ate complex carbs—quinoa’s good for you, just like it says on the box.

Despite living cleanly he appears to have lived fully. He has 40 grandchildren. His favorite snack, according to several reports, is pork rinds.

Marc Herman

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