Life Expectancy Myths

The life expectancy myth, and why many ancient humans lived long healthy lives

(Read the article on one page)

It is not uncommon to hear talk about how lucky we are to live in this age of scientific and medical advancement where antibiotics and vaccinations keep us living longer, while our poor ancient ancestors were lucky to live past the age of 35. Well this is not quite true. At best, it oversimplifies a complex issue, and at worst it is a blatant misrepresentation of statistics. Did ancient humans really just drop dead as they were entering their prime, or did some live long enough to see a wrinkle on their face? 

According to historical mortality levels from the Encyclopaedia of Population (2003), average life expectancy for prehistoric humans was estimated at just 20 – 35 years; in Sweden in the 1750s it was 36 years; it hit 48 years by the 1900s in the USA; and in 2007 in Japan, average life expectancy was 83 years.  It would appear that as time went on, conditions improved and so did the length of people’s lives. But it is not so simple.

What is commonly known as ‘average life expectancy’ is technically ‘life expectancy at birth’.  In other words, it is the average number of years that a newborn baby can expect to live in a given society at a given time.  But life expectancy at birth is an unhelpful statistic if the goal is to compare the health and longevity of adults.  That is because a major determinant of life expectancy at birth is the child mortality rate which, in our ancient past, was extremely high, and this skews the life expectancy rate dramatically downward.

The early years from infancy through to about 15 was perilous, due to risks posed by disease, injuries, and accidents.  But those who survived this hazardous period of life could well make it into old age.

Drawing upon archaeological records, we can indeed see evidence of this. The "Old Man of La Chapelle", for example, is the name given to the remains of a Neanderthal who lived 56,000 years ago, found buried in the limestone bedrock of a small cave near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908.   Scientists estimate that he had reached old age by the time he died, as bone had re-grown along the gums where he had lost several teeth, perhaps decades before. He lacked so many teeth in fact that scientists suspect he needed his food ground down before he was able to eat it. The old man's skeleton indicates that he also suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis.

Old Man of La Chapelle’

Facial reconstruction from the skull of ‘The Old Man of La Chapelle’. Photo source .

If we look again at the estimated maximum life expectancy for prehistoric humans, which is 35 years, we can see that this does not mean that the average person living at this time died at the age of 35. Rather, it means that for every child that died in infancy, another person might have lived to be 70.  The life expectancy statistic is, therefore, a deeply flawed way to think about the quality of life of our ancient ancestors.

So is modern society more beneficial for health and longevity than, say, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle?  To help gain an answer to this question, scientists have compared the life span of adults in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes (excluding the infant mortality rate).  It was found that once infant mortality rates were removed, life span was calculated to between 70 and 80 years, the same rate as that found in contemporary industrialised societies. The difference is that, in the latter, most individuals survive childhood (Kanazawa, 2008).

It is certainly true that improvements in food availability, hygiene, nursing care, medical treatments, and cultural innovations have resulted in far fewer deaths caused by external injuries, infections, and epidemics, but on the other hand, we face a global cancer crisis that our ancient ancestors never had to contend with on such a scale. Are we just replacing one form of death with another?

Major causes of death

A summary of major causes of death over time. S. Horiuchi, in United NaEons, Health and Mortality: Issues of Global Concern, 1999

Archaeologists and anthropologists face a real challenge in trying to unravel reliable information about the age structure of ancient populations, largely due to the lack of a sufficient number ancient samples, as well as the difficulties in determining exact age.  Nevertheless, we can safely say that our ancient ancestors were not dropping dead at 35, and some would have even been blessed with long and healthy lives. 

Featured image: Reconstruction of a Neanderthal in the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany.

Comments

I can't understand your comment...What is the problem with the food?

The article is about the fact that some ancients lived long healthy lives, just as they do today...the difference now is that babies don't die as often.

Tsurugi's picture

Two problems I see with your argument.
One, this article and the studies it cites were comparing life expectancy in modern industrialized nations with our ancient, pre-civilization ancestors, not with historical-era cultures. There were no "rich noble and religious people" in the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal groups of pre-history...and they all most certainly ate meat(ergo the "hunter" bit).
Two, the nobility and the wealthy of historical era cultures mostly lived longer than the common folk.

In Ancient Roman literature there are references to men being young at thirty years of age. The earliest age at which a man could take high office was 35. If i remember correctly a man coyld be elected Consul (the highest political office in Rome until imperial times) could only hold the office when he reached the age of firty five. This implied that most Romans, of good families at any rate, expected to live a long and reasonably healthy life. It is indeed the high infant mortality rate that if not taken into account skews the figures.

Less people die younger....more people die older. The increase in the average is does not mean the average maximum is increasing. The people that managed not to die of disease or accidents always made it past their 50's because humans tend to care for their elders, sick, and young.

when I see archaeological digs at the amazingly god shape of the teeth and they didn't have flouride!

Good article. Makes me think there's hope for archaeology.

Pages

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

Open Book Photo
A legend is a tale regarded as historical even though it has not been proven, and the term “myth” can refer to common yet false ideas. Many myths and legends describe our history, but they are often treated skeptically. This is because many of them, while explaining a phenomenon, involve divine or supernatural beings.

Ancient Places

Some of the Mitla mosaics.
Unique and curious designs plaster the walls of the most popular Zapotec archaeological site in Mexico. They are called the Mitla mosaics and are unrivalled in their precision and quality of workmanship. But a mystery surrounds the carved symbols as some researchers suggest they contain a coded language just waiting to be deciphered.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article