It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Dec 7, 2016

Vilcabamba: Miracle Longevity or Tale for Fools?

In the Valley of Longevity, in southern Ecuador, visitors find the quiet and legendary town that has inspired travelers for decades—Vilcabamba. Vilcabamba means “Sacred Valley” in the Inca language, thus invoking an association with religious and mythical beliefs. Once just another of a thousand beautiful Andean villages, this community of about 4,000 people is today one of the hottest destinations for outsiders seeking their own little piece of Shangri-La. The town, of affordable goods and productive soils, promises new life—not to mention long life—for both vacationers and expats, and in the past two decades Vilcabamba has become an uncanny magnet and New Age watering hole for soul-searchers dabbling in everything from agriculture to shamanism to hallucinogens.

In the 1970s, researchers began flocking to Vilcabamba, a town in the Andes which apparently boasted the oldest population on Earth. Residents regularly reached ages of 115 and beyond but remained as healthy as people much younger. In 1973, National Geographic ran a story by a researcher from Harvard Medical School about this amazing valley and its people's perpetual youthfulness.

Many theories were offered to explain this phenomenon, from clean air to super-antioxidant minerals found in the water. Tourists as well as people suffering from chronic conditions began pouring in under the assumption that they were all going to turn into Benjamin Button.

The scientific team led by Dr Leaf found that the residents of Vilcambamba had very low cholesterol and there was a virtual absence of heart disease and chronic illness.  Later research showed that the retinas of the oldest residents were comparable to those of 45 year-olds.

In 1981, the Ecuadorian government hired medical journalist Dr. Morton Walker to study the residents. In his book, "The Secret to a Youthful Long Life", Dr. Walker reported on the good health of the elderly villagers, which he attributed to the mineral rich water in Vilcabamba. The water flows into the valley from the Podocarpus National Forest, a protected Ecuadorian regional preserve which claims to have pre-Ice Age microorganisms and one of the world's few remaining pristine rainforests.

British biochemist, Dr Richard Laurence Millington Synge, a Nobel Chemistry Prize winner and the man who discovered amino acids, stated that there are remarkable medicinal qualities to be found in the plant life in Vilcabamba, particularly with regards to their anti-oxidant properties.

Even today, some local websites boast to potential tourists that "years are added to your life ... and life is added to your years!"

Except for one thing.

It was, probably, a one big lie. While the National Geographic, among other publications, had reported an unusually high number of centenarians in the village, Dr. Alexander Leaf, of Harvard Medical School, was growing skeptical of villagers’ claims to be well over 100—and in one case as old as 134. He called upon two American professors to come help determine the truth. They did, and in 1978, after pressing villagers for information and facts, Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin and Sylvia Forman of U.C. Berkeley released their findings. The entire legend of long life was no better than myth—and as bad as outright lies. There was not, they reported, a single person over 100 in the Valley of Longevity. The average age of supposed centenarians was actually 86 years old, and one man who claimed to be 127 years old in 1974 was actually 91 at the time.

Like many cultures that aren't the United States, the people of Ecuador value the wisdom and experience that comes with old age, and to that end it is a tradition in Vilcabamba to exaggerate your age. After people turn 70 or so, it starts to get really ridiculous as they tack as much as a decade per year onto their true ages. To confuse things further, because many residents are named after their parents, they can simply claim their parents' birth records as their own.

The researchers who studied the people of Vilcabamba fell prey to what is known as confirmation bias: Because they already wanted to believe that Indiana Jones was real and that there was a fountain of youth in some small town in Ecuador, they skipped right over the possibility that the people were simply lying. When people started asking the right questions, Vilcabamba looked less like the "Valley of Longevity" and more like a retirement community in Florida.

Also, the blur between fact and fiction in Vilcabamba may—or may not—have something to do with a local hallucinogen called aguacolla, made from mescaline extracted from several dozen species of cacti in the genus Trichocereus, collectively referred to as the San Pedro cactus. T. pachanoi is the most commonly used for medicine and (let’s be honest) sport. Shamans and village doctors have used the cactus for ages, and the drug today, though illegal in many countries, is provided by licensed shamans and in the Andes is a popular draw for tourists seeking the journey—trip, that is—of a lifetime.

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