A few weeks ago on SGU, we talked about the recent discovery of what is possibly the world’s oldest living tree — a 9,550-year old spruce on a Swedish mountainside. We received a few letters from people who claimed their alder was elder, or whatever. (Actually, some New Zealanders were up in arms at the lack of a shout-out for their Lomatia tasmanica, a shrub that might have been cloning itself for 135,000 years. Dear New Zealand: a shrub is not a tree. Call us when you find a really old woody plant with a single central stem as opposed to multiple stems originating near the soil line. Then we’ll talk.)
Anyway, as contentious as the World’s Oldest Tree is, that’s got nothing on the battle to name the World’s Oldest Ape.
Cruising around Fark the other day, I found a link to “Bodyshock: The Amazing Story behind the 256 Year-Old Man.” Here’s how the article starts:
According to the 1933 obituaries in both Time Magazine and the New York Times, Li Ching-Yun was reported to have buried 23 wives and fostered 180 descendants by the time he died at the age of 256.
Was he really that old? Could he have forgotten his own birthday or exaggerated his claim? Environmental Graffiti investigates.
An investigation, you say? I am intrigued! Tell me more.
The article proceeds to tell the tale of a Chinese herbalist who traveled the world spreading wisdom . . . and semen, judging by the purported progeny. And so maybe chlamydia or something, too. Anyway!
I’m sure that like me, you’re all eager to hear the evidence in favor of a man living so long in a time when most people weren’t likely to hit their mid-60s. Even in today’s age of health and technology break-throughs, the oldest living person is only a sprightly 115. Let’s take a look at the evidence that Environmental Graffiti has turned up in its “investigation.” To help examine each point, I’ve developed the Bullshit Index (BSI), a 0-100 believability rating system with “100” being absolutely without a doubt totally believably true (like “pizza is delicious”) and “0” being complete and utter bunk (like “Sylvia Browne is a moral, upstanding and pretty member of society.”)
By his own admission he was born in 1736 and had lived 197 years. However, in 1930 a professor and dean at Minkuo University by the name of Wu Chung-chien, found records â€œprovingâ€ that Li was born in 1677. Records allegedly showed that the Imperial Chinese Government congratulated him on his 150th and 200th Birthdays.
1. He said he was 197.
I say I’m an adventurer who travels through time amassing the greatest coin collection known to man. See? It’s easy to say things.
2. “Records” say he was 256.
“Records?” What records? 45s? What kind of investigation is this? A bit of Googling gives me this on Wikipedia: “The Time Magazine article says that in 1930 Professor Wu Chung-chieh, from Chengdu University, found records from the Chinese Imperial Government congratulating Li Ching Yuen in his 150th birthday in 1827.” Okay, so I suppose those records are around here somewhere . . . huh.
See, simply saying there’s a record somewhere isn’t evidence. Even holding a governmental record in your hand isn’t evidence — governments are run by people, who are occasionally gullible and/or stupid, and who have the ability to turn any random memo into an official government document. If the “records” came complete with a birth certificate from an actual hospital, well, then we could bump up the BSI. In the meantime, BZZZZZZZZZT. Next!
The detail, which seems to prove both arguments and debunk them at the same time, is Liâ€™s youthful appearance, noted in a 1928 article from the New York Times. Visually and physically, he appeared to look like a typical 60 year-old.
3. He looked so young! BSI: ??
Why is this even mentioned? It doesn’t prove or debunk anything, it just is. They may as well have written that he had a penchant for wearing women’s underpants.
Apparently there have been a few books on the man, like one called Qigong Teachings of a Taoist Immortal: The Eight Essential Exercises of Master Li Ching Yuen by Stuart Alve Olson. The word “immortal” struck me as peculiar, until I noticed this in his Wikipedia entry:
Returning home, he died a year later. Some say of natural causes, while others claim that he told friends that “I have done all I have to do in this world. I will now go home,” before he died.
Ah, so he was immortal and just chose to die, I guess. The equivalent of “I meant to do that.” Okay. That gets a BSI of 1â€¢2.
With all that evidence going for him, it’s no wonder people are still talking about Li Ching Yuen. I mean, that’s slightly more evidence than what we have for the lifespans of Moses (120 according to the Bible, and actually within the realm of possibility for how long a human being can live) or Abraham (175 according to the Bible) or Methuselah (969 according to the Bible).
Obviously, I’m being sarcastic. It is highly unlikely that this man achieved a supernaturally long lifespan through qigong and herbal treatments (overall BSI: 2). However, you may be interested to know that there are scientific studies looking into the effect of herbs on longevity. For instance, researchers at University of California-Irvine, recently published a paper showing a possible effect of the Chinese herb Rhodiola on the lifespan of the fruit fly. They suggest that the herb’s ability to reduce stress may have made the positive impact. Before you get all excited, though, the same study found no effect from three other herbs: Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang, San Zhi Pian, and Lu Duo Wei, the last of which contradicts a 1993 study by researchers in China.
So, we have some contradictory evidence that may or may not say that some herbs might increase the lifespan of a fruit fly. Sadly, I’m thinking that if you want to get famous for a record-breaking age, you’re probably better off fudging your birth announcement, changing your name to make it easy to confuse with someone else, and adopting an alternative health practice that will make it likely people will want to believe you lived a really long time. Oh! Or found a religion.