Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


flores

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

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.