At the ripe old age of 122 years and 164 days, Jeanne Calment entered the Guinness World Records as the world's oldest person ever. However, Russian researchers have thrown doubt on the claim, sensationally arguing that Jeanne actually died in 1934 and her daughter assumed her identity to avoid inheritance taxes.
Jeanne Calment was reportedly born in Arles, Southern France on February 21, 1875, and died on August 4, 1997, meaning she outlived both her daughter and grandson. She even claimed to have watched the construction of the Eiffel Tower and met Vincent van Gogh when she was just 12 or 13, describing him as ''very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick.”
While the claims of her longevity are pretty well established, mathematician Nikolay Zak and gerontologist Valery Novoselov now claim to have found “multiple contradictions” in interviews, photos, and other documentary material about Jeanne, as reported in a pre-print study on Research Gate.
For one, they note that there is some disparity between her eye color, as well as her chin and forehead shape, from her 1930s passport portrait and photographs of her taken later in life. Many other photographs and family archives were seemingly destroyed after Calment was moved into a nursing home, which the researchers say "suggests that Jeanne had something to hide."
Stranger still, she frequently confused her husband with her father in interviews. When asked whether she knew the famous French writer Frédéric Mistral, she replied: “Yes! Yes, he was a friend of my father… um, he was a friend of my husband."
Perhaps that's just a symptom of a 122-year-old brain at work, but there is some harder scientific evidence to back up all this conjecture. At age 118, Calment underwent a series of cognitive function tests. The researchers reported that her performance was “comparable to that of persons with the same level of education in their eighties and nineties” – which is suspiciously close to the age her daughter would be.
"As a doctor, I always had doubts about her age," Novoselov, head of the gerontology section of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, told AFP. "The state of her muscle system was different from that of her contemporaries. She could sit up without any support. She had no signs of dementia."
Last but not least, it’s also worth noting that the gap between her and the next oldest person is disproportionately large. So large, in fact, scientists believe Jeanne will hold the record for several decades, despite advances in medical care.
Nevertheless, not everyone is convinced by these grand claims. Speaking to Le Parisien, Jean-Marie Robine, director of research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, said: “This is completely wobbly and is not based on anything.”
“We have never done so much to prove the age of a person,” he added. “We never found anything that allowed us to give the slightest hint of her age. We had access to information that only she could know, such as the names of her teachers of mathematics… Either she did not remember, or she just answered. Her daughter could not have known that."