Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Could It Be Something In The Water?
The old joke at the office water cooler takes a new twist with this recent account of a town of twins.
Mystery of the ‘Land of Twins’: Something in the Water? Mengele?
"It was in the early 1990s that the high proportion of twins was widely noticed. Soon, camera crews were rolling in from all over. Town leaders declared São Pedro(Brazil) to have the highest concentration of twins in the world. (A spokesman for Guinness World Records could not confirm that claim, saying Guinness did not keep track of the category.)
Today, residents relish the attention. Last year, at São Pedro’s sixth biennial twins party, they erected a statue of a woman holding a boy in one arm and his twin sister in the other, and installed a moat-like “fertility spring” that lights up at night.
A sign at the entrance to Cândido Godói says, “Garden City and Land of Twins.” More than 80 percent of its 6,700 residents are of German descent. They began arriving around World War I, lured by the prospect of cheap land, an agreeable farming climate ...
Geneticists say the most likely explanation for the twins is genetic isolation and inbreeding. Ursula Matte, a geneticist in Porto Alegre, found that from 1990 to 1994, 10 percent of the births in São Pedro were twins, compared with 1.8 percent for the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Mr. Sauthier (a Historian/Resident) said he believed private water sources contain a mineral that affects ovulation. “To this day, no one has tested that water,” he said, noting that in the past decade the town switched to underground well water, a possible explanation for a recent decline in twin births.
Testing the spring sources would be expensive and, Dr. Matte said, would require some hypothesis about what the research was looking for. She doubts the town will ever push seriously to do a study. “They like to maintain the mystery,” she said.
There was no evidence of the use of contraceptives or fertility drugs among the women, nor of any genetic mixing with people of African origin, who have higher twinning rates than caucasians, Dr. Matte said. But the rate of identical twins here, at 47 percent of all twin births, is far higher than the 30 percent that is expected in the general population, she found.
A book about the twins, published in 2007, tells of several visits Mengele made to the region, using false names.
“I am convinced that Mengele was in the region and was observing the twins phenomenon,” Dr. da Silva said. He said a man identifying himself as Rudolf Weiss attended women with varicose veins and sometimes performed dental work. And some residents told him a German man was driving from home to home in a mobile laboratory, collecting samples and ministering to women.
Mr. Sauthier, the historian, said that the assertions lacked proof and that the German community did not deserve to be associated with “a criminal like Mengele.”
There are no Nazi sympathizers in this region,” he said, although he acknowledged a historical interest in Nazi artifacts, including a 1937 metal milk can with a swastika in his museum and a 1936 photo of schoolchildren in Cândido Godói holding swastika flags that was included in Dr. da Silva’s book.
But to some, the mystery remains. A decade ago, Anencir Flores da Silva, a town doctor and former mayor of Cândido Godói, set out to solve it, and he has since interviewed more than 100 people. He said he believed that people were holding back information about Mengele.
“In a region full of Nazis, there are some that remain silent, who are scared,” Dr. da Silva said. “It is important that we discover the truth.”
A book he helped write about the twins, published in 2007, tells of several visits Mengele made to the region, using false names.
Even today they live a relatively isolated existence. Oxen still drag farm machinery. Residents speak a German dialect to one another.
Some researchers have suggested the darker possibility that Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician known as the Angel of Death, was involved. Mengele, residents say, roamed this region of southern Brazil, posing as a veterinarian, in the 1960s, about the time the twins explosion began. In a book published last year, an Argentine journalist, Jorge Camarasa, suggested that Mengele conducted experiments with women here that resulted in the higher rate of twins, many of them with blond hair and light-colored eyes. The experiments, locals said, may have involved new types of drugs and preparations, or even the artificial insemination Mengele claimed to know about, regarding cows and humans.
But neither Mr. Camarasa nor any other adherent of the Mengele theory has been able to prove the escaped Nazi conducted any experiments here. Mengele, who died in Brazil in 1979, was notorious for his often deadly experiments on twins at Auschwitz, ostensibly in an effort to produce a master Aryan race for Hitler.
“People who are speculating about Mengele are doing so to sell books,” said Paulo Sauthier, a historian who runs a museum here. “He studied the twins phenomenon in Germany, not here.”
Interesting, Nazi or Nature it is still unusual.