Despite what us young’uns may think, human lives are fleetingly short. The average life expectancy in the US is less than 80 years. In the general scheme of things, that’s barely a blink of an eye. You, us, and everyone you know will burn out and turn to ash before we’ve barely even got started.
At least, that’s usually the case. But every now and then, someone comes along who bucks this trend. Someone who lives so insanely long, that they’re completely entitled to call a mere centenarian a young whippersnapper. Here are ten of the longest-lived people in the history of the modern world, including a handful of disputed cases who may be record breakers – or may just be fibbing about their old age.
10. Dhaqabo Ebba – Around 160 (Disputed)
In Ethiopia, there lives a retired farmer who may just be the oldest man to have ever lived. Dhaqabo Ebba is a community elder who Ethiopia state broadcaster Oromiya interviewed in 2013 about his memories of fighting the invading Italians in his late 30s. The catch? The Italian invasion took place in 1895.
That would put Ebba’s birthdate at some point in the late 1850s, just before the start of the US Civil War, and before the invention of the lightbulb, celluloid or dynamite. In other words, he would be around 160 years old – by far the oldest age ever achieved by any human.
However, Ebba’s claim is heavily disputed. Like many rural Ethiopians, he holds no birth certificate, and his advanced age means anyone who could corroborate or dismiss his story died long ago. As far as professional researchers are concerned, his case is totally unprovable. A shame, as discovering humans were capable of living for over a century and a half would flip on its head almost everything we know about basic biology.
9. Tuti Yusupova – 134 (Disputed)
When Tuti Yusupova died on April 2, 2015, the world may have lost its oldest-ever supercentenarian (meaning someone who lives past 110). A poor woman from Uzbekistan, Yusupova was said by her family to have reached the staggeringly old age of 134. Unlike Ebba over in Ethiopia, she also had a fairly powerful backer on her side. Her claim was supported by none other than the government of Uzbekistan.
Yusupova was the subject of a BBC documentary and a World Health Organization study. She could even supply passports and documents to prove her age. This would mean she was born eight years before construction began on the Eiffel Tower, and lived to see the age of Twitter, Facebook and Stampy Does Minecraft.
Yet her claim remains controversial. Uzbekistan is a corrupt dictatorship, and ministers have been known to lie about how their country has the highest proportion of centenarians in the world (they don’t, the honor goes to Japan). So it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that both Tuti Yusupova and the Uzbek government were exaggerating her claim.
8. Jeanne Calment – 122 years, 164 days
One of Jeanne Calment’s most-vibrant memories was of meeting Vincent Van Gogh. In 1888, the great artist walked into her father’s art supplies store in Arles, France. According to interviews Calment later gave, Van Gogh was “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable.” Calment gave these interviews in 1997 – nearly 110 years after Van Gogh had died.
To call Calment’s life long would be an understatement. She’s the oldest verified person to have ever lived. When she was born in France in 1875, Abraham Lincoln had only been dead ten years, the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty didn’t exist, WWI was still a lifetime away, and Oscar Wilde was a struggling, unknown playwright. She outlived her only daughter by over 60 years, her husband by over 50 years, and her only grandchild by over 30 years. The world died around her, and Calment just kept right on truckin’.
According to the grand old dame herself, this longevity was due to a diet rich in olive oil, drinking port wine by the bucket load, and having a crazy number of interests. She took up fencing at 85, cycling at 100, and celebrated her 121st birthday by releasing a rap CD (hey, it was the ’90s).
7. Juana Chox Yac – 122 (Disputed)
When elderly peasant Juana Chox Yac finally went to register for a Guatemalan ID card in 2012, the authorities got one heck of a surprise. The indigenous woman entered a birth date from the 19th century: November 29, 1893. Out of nowhere, the world’s oldest living woman had seemingly appeared in their country, claiming to be over 120 years old.
According to Chox Yac’s own account, she had 75 descendants, including great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. She’d lived through multiple dictatorships and the bruising Guatemalan Civil War, enduring hardship, poverty and terror. At the time of her birth, the world had been ruled by warring European superpowers. When the first reports on her extreme old age began to emerge, those powers had coalesced into the EU and America and China were the biggest names on the global stage. The entire Cold War was barely a heartbeat in her long, long life.
Officially, though, Chox Yac’s account is disputed. While the Guatemalan government supports her claim, a lack of documentation makes it impossible to verify if she’s telling the truth, lying, or simply confused.
6. Sarah Knauss – 119 years, 97 days
Had Sarah Knauss held on for just two more days, she would have lived to see her third century of human existence. Born in Pennsylvania in 1880, Knauss’s life straddled the last years of the 19th century and the whole of the 20th, until her death on December 30, 1999. To put her insanely-long life into perspective, she was already cashing her pension by the end of the Second World War.
One of the most-impressive things about Knauss was how little she cared about her own longevity. A former insurance worker, the old bird famously had no time for fatuous stuff. When her family informed her she was now the oldest living person in the world (following the death of Marie-Louise Meilleur in 1998 – more on her in a second), she simply replied, “so what?”
In truth, Knauss probably got more in her old age from family relations than she ever did from fame. At the time of her death, her daughter was still alive, despite being nearly 100 herself. Beyond that, she had several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, and even some great-great-great-grandchildren.
5. Lucy Hannah – 117 (Now Disputed)
Despite being one of the oldest women who has ever lived, Lucy Hannah’s longevity was consistently, constantly overshadowed. Reaching the ripe old age of 117 usually means you get at least a few months in the Guinness World Records as the oldest person ever. Not Hannah. When she reached 117, Jeanne Calment was still alive, and five months older than Hannah. Since Hannah died in 1993, she will forever be known as the oldest person to have never held the world’s ‘oldest living person’ record.
Still, Hannah has some good claims to fame. She’s the oldest African American person on record, and the 3rd oldest person in history. Or is she? In keeping with fate kicking Hannah’s achievements into the dustbin, the supercentenarian-tracking 100 Club now casts doubt on the validity of her 1875 birthdate. According to new information, she may have been born as late as 1895, making her lifetime certainly long, but not remarkably so. At time of writing, the longevity or otherwise of Hannah is still heavily disputed.
4. Marie-Louise Meilleur – 117 years, 230 days
If anyone would know a thing or two about living a long life, it’s Marie-Louise Meilleur. The oldest Canadian in recorded history, the Quebec native had one simple tip for smashing the 100 year barrier. Unfortunately, you’re not gonna like it. According to Meilleur, the secret to long life was to work. Hard. Really hard.
If that’s a disappointing answer, you’ll be pleased to know Meilleur wasn’t completely free of vices. She smoked like a chimney way into her nineties. She had more children than your standard HBO season has episodes. Over the course of her insanely long lifetime, Meilleur popped out 12 kids, eight of whom she would eventually outlive. As a result, at the time of her death, this tough old French Canadian was survived by 85 grandchildren, 80 great-grandchildren, 57 great-great-grandchildren, and four great-great-great-grandchildren. At least she was guaranteed a good turnout at the funeral.
Interestingly, Meilleur may have only held the post of world’s oldest person for a single day. The day before she died, Felicia Young Cormier passed away, at the supposed age of 118. However, since Cormier lacked a birth certificate, Meilleur officially held the post from the moment Jeanne Calment died until her own death 8 months later.
3. Misao Okawa – 117 years, 27 days
Many of us are constantly trying to claw a precious few seconds of life back; desperately hanging on to moments until they crumble to ash; constantly scared that our allotted lifetime just isn’t enough. If you’re one of those people, we’ve got some bad news for you. When Misao Okawa celebrated her 117th birthday, becoming the fifth oldest person ever verified, and the oldest-ever in Asia, she had one bleak lesson to impart. According to the supercentenarian, her impossibly long life “had seemed rather short.”
The daughter of a kimono maker, Okawa was born in Japan on the cusp of the 20th century. She lived through the vicious rise of Imperial Japan, the devastating beat-down the Allies handed the country in WWII, the economic miracle of postwar Japan, and the endless economic stagnation that started in the 1990s. She saw China fall and then rise up again, witnessed telegrams evolve into social media, and experienced her home country rapidly transform from one of the most-militaristic to one of the most-peaceful on Earth.
And yet, all this passed in the space of a single heartbeat. When she finally died in 2015, Okawa still had more she wanted to do, more living she felt needed to be done. It just goes to show: however long you get, it won’t feel like nearly enough.
2. Emma Morano – Still Alive (116 years and counting)
Emma Morano is the last one left. A living slice of history. Provided you’re not reading this in our archives a couple of years down the line, this 116-year old Italian lady is the last surviving link to our own distant past. Emma Morano is thought to be the last person alive today who was born in the 19th century.
Let’s just think about what that means for a second. The 19th century was one of the most-dramatic in human history. It was where the Industrial Revolution really hit its stride, changing the world forever. It was where many of our modern nation states, such as Germany and Italy, were forged. It was the age of Empire, of European colonies spreading out across Africa and Asia, shaping the world forever. The age of Queen Victoria, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Abraham Lincoln, the telegraph, the radio, the bicycle, the detective novel and the modern police force. It was an age that still dramatically shapes our own, and Morano is its last refugee – still clinging to life on the jagged shores of the modern world.
Of course, Morano doesn’t actually remember any of this. When the 20th century began, she was a mere one month and three days old. Yet it’s still shocking to think this last link to our past will soon be gone, closing forever one of the most-important chapters in human history.
1. Margaret Ann Neve – 110 years, 321 days
Margaret Ann Neve was once the oldest verified woman to have ever lived. However, as medical technology has improved, her achievement has been surpassed so many times she no longer even makes the top 100.
So why are we including her here? Well, because we think there’s something about Neve’s story that’s both more-romantic and more-impressive than those of many others on our list. See, Neve lived to see three separate centuries. No, not the 19th, 20th and 21st. Neve was perhaps the only person who ever lived to clearly remember events from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Born on the British Channel Island of Guernsey in 1792, Neve managed to make it all the way through until 1903 before finally dying. That meant she was old enough to remember the French Revolution (which affected Guernsey) and the Napoleonic Wars. In her old age, she would even fondly recall visiting the field of Waterloo just after the battle to collect souvenirs.
Since she spent most of her life living in a time without antibiotics or painkillers, and with rampant cholera and poor hygiene, it’s probably not surprising to learn Neve had the constitution of a steroid-chomping Ox. She didn’t get sick once until she hit the age of 105 and contracted flu. In her 110th year, she still liked to climb trees to pick apples. When she finally died, just shy of her 111th birthday, she was still knocking back brandy and whiskey every single day. We’re almost amazed this super-granny didn’t just carry on going right up to the present.