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Uzbekistan's Tuti Yusupova May Not Have Been the World's Oldest Person. But Her Life Still Witnessed Phenomenal Change.

Tuti Yusupova - the oldest in the world? Image from RFE/RL. Used under creative commons.

Tuti Yusupova – the oldest in the world? Image from RFE/RL. Used under creative commons.

You should never speak ill of the dead, but world records are important.

One of the most important world records there is, is undoubtedly the oldest person in the world record. The record is a vital marker for humankind, showing how people can live active lives for longer periods of time, reflecting advances in basic healthcare and our improving knowledge of the environments we live in.

This is why the claim of Uzbekistan's Tuti Yusupova, who died on April 1, to be a whole thirteen years older than the current holder of the record, the late Jeanne Calment, deserves scrutiny.

Alim Khan, the Last Emir of Bukhara, ruled part of Uzbekistan under the suzerainty of the Russian empire. A 1911 colour photo by pioneer photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky. Wikipedia image.

Alim Khan, the Last Emir of Bukhara, ruled part of Uzbekistan under the suzerainty of the Russian empire. A 1911 colour photo by pioneer photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky. The part of Uzbekistan Yusupova lived in would probably have been ruled by another fief, Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, during this period. Prokudin-Gorsky also captured him in colour. Wikipedia images.

To be sure, Yusupova, who Uzbekistan says was 135-years-old when she died, was not an overnight claimant. The Uzbek authorities have been lobbying for her inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records for some time.

On an Uzbek science and technology blog Davron Akhmedov wrote in 2008, citing the regional administration where Yusupova lived:

Самая старая жительница планеты 128-летняя Тути Юсупова проживает на одном из аулов Турткульского района Каракалпакстана, однако она не подвергалась геронтологической экспертизе.

«Тути Юсуповой в этом году исполнилось 128 лет. Она долгое время работала на строительстве местных каналов Шахтаарна и Богён. Местные жители уважают ее такие качества как честность и инициативность, молодежь прислушивается к ее наставлениям», – отметили в районной администрации.

По словам представителя Турткульской районной администрации, в этом году Тути Юсупова указом президента Узбекистана была награждена медалью «Шухрат».

По данным Gerontology Research Group, в настоящее время самым старым человеком в мире является 115-летняя Мария де Жезус из Португалии, которая появилась на свет 10 сентября 1893 года.

The Bolsheviks banned the veil when they consolidated power in the region after World War One.

The Bolsheviks banned the veil when they consolidated power in the region after World War One. This photo is from before that period. Shared via @oldtashkent.

The oldest resident of the planet, 128-year-old Tuti Yuspova lives in one of the villages of the Turtkul region of Kakalpakstan, however she has not undergone gerontological expertise.

“Tuti Yusupova this year celebrated 128 years. She worked for a long time on the construction of the local canals in Shahtaarna Bogёn.
Local residents respect her qualities, such as honesty and leadership, youth listen to her instructions,” said a member of the district administration.

According to the district administration representative this year Tuti Yusupova was awarded the medal Shukhrat by presidential decree.

Construction of the Great Fergana Canal in 1939. Shared by @oldtashkent.

Construction of the Great Fergana Canal in 1939. Soviet-era Uzbekistan. Shared by @oldtashkent.

On the Daily Mail website, the news of Yusupova's passing, accompanied by a scan of her passport, inspired doubts about her age:

Yv G:

Look at the passport closely. The date of issue was 1997, which means that she was allegedly 117 at the time that photo was taken. Clearly that's not the case.

Ken:

Would be more convincing if they produced all of her previous passports too. Any Soviet Citizen would have had an internal passport (not valid for travel outside the country) since the 1930s if not earlier.

Universal education under the Soviets. Shared by @oldtashkent.

Universal education of Uzbeks and Russians in Uzbekistan's Fergana region under the Soviets. Was Yusupova really 50-years-old when this photo was taken? Shared by @oldtashkent.

As well as the usual dose of spam:

I believe her secret to longevity is no exposure to all these chemicals that go in our packaged food drinks.She gets all her vitamins minerals from natural source.I heard a Dr say recently a study was done on plastic bottle water that it had more harmful chemicals than tap water.There needs to be solution to this plastic bottles harmful packaging plus the takeaway polystyrene cups boxes that hold hot drinks food, this melts the glue which is so harmful to you.Did you know ALL CANCERS are that the person is either lacking in certain vitamins & minerals there is a good Doctor Dr.Joel Wallach where he mentions everybody should take 90 essential vitamin minerals daily…

The emergence of the Soviet rail network. Shared via @oldtashkent.

The emergence of the Soviet rail network in Central Asia. Shared via @oldtashkent.

Visitors to Uzbek websites such as gazeta.uz were more inclined to believe the news and register their sadness at her passing.

Anvar Madaminov:

Жойлари жаннатда бўлсин. Dunyo kurib quysin va ta'm bersin

May her place be in paradise. Let the world see and be astonished.

Xusniddin Kamolov:

Илойим жойлари жаннатда булсин. Барчамизга шу ая сингари узок умр куриш насиб килсин. Фарзандлари, якинларига сабр тилайман.

May God grant her place in heaven. May He bless us all with such a
long life. My condolences to her children and close ones.

But even on these websites there was skepticism. Radim Ibragimov wrote:

Газета. уз, что-то я не разберусь. Только сегодня читал в мировых новостях, что скончалась Мисао Окава — старейшая жительница планеты на 118 году. Она жила в Японии. Сегодня же читаю вашу печальную новость про Тути Юсупову. Понимаю, что не к месту, но кто все-таки был старейшим жителем до сегодняшнего дня? Где правда? В мировых СМИ ни слова про Тути Юсупову..

Gazeta.uz, I cannot work this out. Only today I read world news that [Japan's] Misao Okawa [who died days after Yusupova on April 1] was the oldest person on the planet at 118. She lived in Japan. Today I read your sad news about Tuti Yusupova. I understand it may not be appropriate, but who really was the oldest person on the planet? Where is the truth? International media have not written a word about Tuti Yusupova.

Passenger flights in the Soviet Union.

Passenger flights in the Soviet Union. Photo taken in 1968. Shared by @oldtashkent.

So, is Uzbekistan being unfairly done out of a world record, and one it would likely keep for a while? Here are three tentative reasons why that might not be the case:

Central Asian countries like records

A google search for world records next to the name of Uzbekistan's westerly neighbour, Turkmenistan, returns ‘Turkmenistan enters record books for having the most white marble buildings’, ‘Turkmenistan builds largest indoor Ferris wheel’ and ‘Largest architectural star record set in Turkmenistan’. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan's easterly neighbour had the world's tallest free-standing flagpole until Saudi Arabia eclipsed it recently, and has built the Central Asian region's largest library and teahouse, seemingly all for the love of size.

Uzbekistan's bids for records are more modest — in 2012 it claimed the record for the largest picture made of LED lights — but the oldest person in the world title, in a country where seniority automatically confers power and deference, would be a powerful propaganda tool.

Uzbekistan's independence and the birth of the Uzbek sum currency. Shared via @intashkent.

Uzbekistan's independence and the birth of the Uzbek sum currency. Shared via
@intashkent.

Uzbekistan does not always record records with integrity

Uzbekistan is one of the few post-Soviet countries that has posted robust economic figures even as Russia's economic crisis reverberates through the region. The Soviet-style command economy, famous for book-cooking, remains in place. Recently 77-year-old President Islam Karimov won over 90% of a presidential vote in which authorities claimed a 91% turnout. The OSCE said vote fraud had been a key feature of the ballot. Even if Yusupova was the oldest person in the world, Uzbekistan's attitude towards statistics has cast suspicion on her claim from the outset.

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's President since 1990. Shared via @KenRoth

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's President since 1990. Shared via @KenRoth

The air in Karakalpakstan will dry your skin

Could Yusupova have aged prematurely or even developed a skin condition? As the government only provides one old passport photo, we do not know. But a life in the scrubland that is Karakalpakstan, a nominally autonomous region of Uzbekistan that hosts the ongoing tragedy of the Aral Sea, might easily do that to a person. In such a hostile physical environment, where one resident told a traveller to the region that the ‘air rains salt’, it is a tribute to Yusupova's constitution that she lived to old age at all.

The near total shrinkage of the Aral Sea. Wikipedia image.

The near total shrinkage of the Aral Sea, shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, happened within Yusupova's lifetime, and, indeed, the lifetime of anyone over the age of 60. Scientists attribute the sea's practical disappearance to over-cultivation of cotton in Uzbekistan. Wikipedia image.

So far Guinness have yet to publish a reaction to Uzbekistan's claim, and may be reluctant to pour over the case of a person whose police state government says she was born over three decades before the collapse of the Russian empire, when legal documents were presumably in short supply. Yet just as Yusupova's age claim should not be accepted without a reasonably thorough investigation, it should not be rejected without such either. The record's integrity depends on it. 

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