This week, this story crossed the wires:
FRASQUIA, Bolivia (AP) - If Bolivia's public records are correct, Carmelo Flores Laura is the oldest living person ever documented. They say he turned 123 a month ago. The native Aymara lives in a straw-roofed dirt-floor hut in an isolated hamlet near Lake Titicaca at 13,100 feet (4,000 meters), is illiterate, speaks no Spanish and has no teeth. He walks without a cane and doesn't wear glasses. And though he speaks Aymara with a firm voice, one must talk into his ear to be heard. "I see a bit dimly. I had good vision before. But I saw you coming," he tells Associated Press journalists who visit after a local TV report touts him as the world's oldest person.
The story has all the elements that make it irresistible to the public ... and journalists. To be fair, the story contains qualifiers like "If Bolivia's public records are correct," but the claim was relatively easily debunked within a few days.
UCLA's Dr Stephen Coles, director of the Gerontology Research Group, which investigates these kinds of claims for the Guinness Book of World Records, says he was skeptical from the start, especially because there was no documentary proof dating to the year Laura was supposedly born. "I was immediately suspicious because no man to our knowledge has ever lived past the age of 116, because 90% of people we call super-centenarians are female."
He listed other red flags:
- This gentlemen is illiterate;
- There's no proof of birth dating to the original time of birth;
- There's no documentation for this man's age until he applied for a pension (giving him a financial incentive for age exaggeration);
- There's an alleged Baptismal Record (which, if it exists at all, could be for an entirely different person);
- There's no current ID;
- He can still walk at age "123" yo;
- His oldest child is 67 (that's a huge generation gap).
Then, researchers went on the Internet.
"There was," Coles said, "to our surprise, a baptismal certificate, which I'm holding in my hand right now."
I asked, "Was he born in 1890, like they said?"
"Not at all," Coles responded. "Not 1890, but 1906."
107 is nothing to sneeze at, but we'll check back with Carmelo Flores Laura in 16 years.
The oldest person in history remains a Frenchwoman, Jeanne Calment, who lived to 122.