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The Oldest Human or the Greatest Scam of All Time?

By Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer
January 14, 2019
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Russian researcher claims 122-year-old Jeanne Calment was actually a 99-year-old imposter.

Jeanne Louise Calment was a woman from Arles, France who has long been documented as the oldest human being. Her longevity has not surprisingly attracted much interest in her lifestyle and eating habits, including those of us here at The Paleo Diet®. She was born on February 21st, 1875 and died on August 4th, 1997, equating to a lifespan of 122 years and 164 days. Or at least, that is what the current records show.

However, on December 19, 2018, Nikolay Zak, Ph.D. a Russian mathematician, published a research article at the online research-sharing website ResearchGate challenging the validity of her, up until this point, universally accepted record lifespan.

In his abstract he states “I suggest an explanation of these discrepancies based on the hypothesis that Jeanne's daughter Yvonne acquired her mother's identity after her death in order to avoid paying inheritance tax and that Jeanne Calment's death was reported by her family as Yvonne's death in 1934.” It should be noted that the research paper is not peer reviewed. However, it is supported by respected gerontologist Valery Novoselov Ph.D. and has also received a positive review by another highly regarded gerontologist, Robert Young. Either way, to say that it has thrown the supercentenarian world into a bit of a spin might be an understatement!

Zak’s paper certainly grabs one’s attention. In the paper, he lays photographs of Yvonne and Jeanne Louise over making a compelling case that both photographs are of the same person (see Fig 4.) However, one could easily argue that many mothers and daughters look very similar and so it should not be that surprising. But then in the same figure, a possible fibroma on both women in the same location on their nose swings the pendulum back to suspicion. Or, again, can this also simply be put down to inherited genetics. So the intrigue begins and the question “is this the greatest scam of all time” has been put forward.

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Fig 4. from Nikolay Zak’s paper. A: Yvonne Calment; Yvonne Calment over the old Madame Calment; old Madame Calment. B: Possible fibroma on the nose of Yvonne (contrasted with Photoshop) and the old Madame Calment. С: Madame Calment at 117 used in the age estimation poll.

Jean-Marie Robine, the French gerontologist who helped validate Jeanne Calment’s extreme age in the 1990s, is well respected and known the world over for validating supercentenarians and has already dismissed the age-faking theory as nonsense. Speaking to Le Parisien, he said, “All of this is incredibly shaky and rests on nothing.” While researching Jeanne Calment’s claim that she was born in 1875, Robine said, he and a colleague made sure to ask her questions that only she would know the answer to, such as the name of her mathematics teacher. “Her daughter couldn’t have known that,” he said.

Robine also pointed out that it would be incredibly difficult to keep a lie of that magnitude secret for more than 80 years. “Do you have any idea how many people would have needed to lie?” Robine said. “One day Fernand Calment starts passing off his daughter as his wife and everyone keeps quiet about it? It’s preposterous.”

Further support of how difficult it would have been to keep this lie a secret is the fact that Calment was part of a prominent family in Arles, a relatively small city in the south of France. In fact a large commercial building, “Maison Calment”, owned by the family, stood in the center of the city. By the late 1980s, Jeanne Calment had risen to international prominence, and had become the city’s most famous inhabitant due to her description of having once met Vincent Van Gogh. Despite this fame, never did a fellow Arlesian come forward with evidence that the real Jeanne Calment was buried under her daughter’s headstone.

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We know that “Jeanne Calment” (Jeanne Calment herself or her daughter) had certain lifestyle choices that are of interest to us here at The Paleo Diet. These choices are of greater significance if “Jeanne Calment” is actually Jeanne Calment, a lady who supposedly lived into her 13th decade. It appears the French government has only one choice to clarify this debate. As Nicolas Brouard, a research director at France’s national institute for demographic studies, stated, the question can only be truly resolved via an exhumation of Jeanne and Yvonne Calment. Only time will tell if this happens, but we at The Paleo Diet hope that this controversy can be clarified very soon for the betterment of science and the pursuit of answers to optimal human health and longevity.

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