Why The Oldest Person To Ever Live Might Have Been A Fraud

By the time she died on August 4, 1997, Jeanne Calment was already named the oldest person to have ever lived by Guinness World Records. According to the board, Calment's age was "fully authenticated." Since then, Calment's incredible record of living for 122 years, 164 days has stood unchallenged; the second oldest person to have ever lived, the U.S.-born Sarah Knauss, died in 1999, aged 119.

Just like the many interviews that Calment undertook in the final decades of her life, her many obituaries were preoccupied with trying to identify the secrets of her longevity. Journalists noted that her diet was rich in olive oil but that she was also willing to treat herself to sweet wines and plentiful amounts of chocolate (via Google News Archive).

Born in Arles, France, on February 21, 1875, Calment said she sold canvasses to the legendary painter Vincent Van Gogh as a young girl working in her father's art store in the late 1800s. But despite record keepers' conviction that her age was rigorously verified, some experts have raised questions about the authenticity of Calment's story and have grown more vocal in sharing their doubts.

Did Jeanne Calment fake her age?

According to The New Yorker, the team of three researchers who worked with Jeanne Calment in the final years of her life to verify the details of her youth — and with it, the truth of her age — was convinced that their subject was indeed born in 1875. Even some of the language she used, the researchers claim, proved that her formative years had taken place before the turn of the century. But in recent years, a small circle of academics has fought through various channels to make clear their skepticism towards Calment's claim to have been the oldest person to have ever lived.

Led by Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak, these skeptics argue that the woman claiming to be 122-year-old Jeanne Calment wasn't 122 at all — or even, they say, Jeanne Calment. Rather, a paper Zak published in the academic journal Rejuvenation Research presents the "hypothesis that Jeanne's daughter Yvonne acquired her mother's identity after her death to avoid financial problems and that Jeanne Calment's death was reported as Yvonne's death in 1934." According to Zak, the woman claiming to be Calment was a generation younger than she said she was. Zak's theory, however, has not been accepted by many academics, who argue that it is impossible (per The New Yorker).

Calment's record, however, may finally be under threat. The third oldest person ever, Japan's Kane Tanaka, is almost 119 at the time of writing and is still going strong.