Life Expectancy Myths

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

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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.


Justbod's picture

Very interesting!

I remember learning at school that during the Industrial Revolution the average life expectancy of a mill worker was 19 and a mill owner 35. At a young age this confused me, as it implies a predominantly young population. I also had ancestor mill owners who's lived into their seventies and an agricultural labourer who'd lived to 93.

It dawned on me years later that it was skewed by the very high child mortality rate.

It seems to me to be a powerful argument for the responsible communication of statistical information!

Thanks for another thought-provoking article!

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That may be a different statistic. Mill workers are a very specific population to look at. Given that you can't really factor babies dying in infancy into that group they likely were actually looking at adult mill workers.Then what you would have had were workers who began working at 5 or 6 years old, kept out of the sunlight and poorly fed (rickets and other deficiency), pulling threads and cleaning/servicing machines where larger hands couldn't (injuries) and breathing dust and fibers continuously (pulmonary ailments). So it's likely that long term mill workers who started young didn't have a very long life. Owners also might have been working around the textiles for a long time, breathing it, and probably were also susceptible to lung ailments. 35 does seem young but I can't see how the average would be dragged down by infant mortality in that case.

Yup, many of our ancestors had great health and longevity, even in ancient Greece many of the well known philosophers lived to 80 years old, and some even into their 90s and 100s, same goes for many philosophers and martial artists of ancient China.

Great diet, mindset, lifestyle and environment = long healthy life.

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.

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.

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.

im allways telling this to everyone.. something i thought after becoming vegan !!!.. all the dates that were registred were from rich noble and religious people.. since the middle ages.. and roman empires.
only rich people add acess to animal foods . while the population used to eat bread .. potatoes.. and rise ... the problem ITS THE FOOD !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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.

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.

just what i've been looking for and am sure we gonna have a great time

The average age for all peoples prior to modern city sanitation was 25 for women (one third died in childbirth) and 35 for men. It mean that when children reached puberty their parents died, the mother first on average. Living in a city didn't help, but living in a temperate zone with easy weather gave an extra decade. Infections, flus and common illnesses would have accounted for much death. The shape of the death curve over time can be high at birth and high after 30. For a good source of information see Ian Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 1992, especially chapter 3.

Before I say anything to the contrary, I would like to say great article. However, mytwo take aways would be a few things that may need to be further evaluated. 1. To say for every child that died there was someone to live to 70 would only be true if there were nearly equal rates of infant/child mortality, and those living into old age. Most figures I look at say somewhere around 30%, which would imply a gross adjusted life expectancy, excluding infant-child mortality, of around 50 years. This is a very believable number, until the dawn of human mourning, I.E. burials, and caring for the old, most people would have trouble fending for their self beyond age 60. Also, remember it is infant and child mortality, so, while death may be most common in the first year of life, probably 50% of all child deaths would have occurred in that time, and probably about 70-75 occurring by age 5, the rest being evenly spread between 6-15, that would give a mean age of child deaths at about 3.96 years, and that 3.96 accounts for 30%. This means the other 70% averaged about 44 years, or the life expectancy with infant and child mortality removed. 2. You compared the life expectancy of modern hunter gatherer tribes with that of the western, or industrialized nations without removing there child/infant mortality, while the infant mortality is just under 1% the rates if you were to include the deaths of children 0-15 would definitely skew the data some.

I agree with the article that really it's life expectancy at birth, not life expectancy after your childhood years (having escaped death at birth, illnesses etc. etc.). Obviously if someone makes it to 80 and someone dies at birth the average is 40. However I feel that this is just an article on Statistical semantics. It's all well and good making it to 80 in Rome say but not if you happen to be one of the large proportion that died before they were 15. Living in an era where "Life expectancy at birth" is much greater than the stone age is surely preferable, including for the many mothers that also died in childbirth. "We all live to the same average age" if we avoid the vagaries of the time childbirth,disease, mammoths,pestilence, cancer, disease is surely a truism. There hasn't been an evolutionary leap in our bodies not wearing out.

It isn't semantics because if you are an adult then infant mortality doesn't apply.

Not sure what you mean. Irrespective of whether you are an adult of newborn, infant mortality obviously contributes to the “average life expectancy”


The thing I take from this, is that many now are trying to replicate the ancient way of eating in order to improve health, and there is a large negative voice saying that those people couldn't have been so healthy since they didn't live long. This article goes to suggest that the attempt to replicate the ancient diet, albeit in modern form, is not as ridiculous as some make out.

"Yet running beneath the surface there has been a core rate of cancer, the legacy of being multicellular creatures in an imperfect world. There is no compelling evidence that this baseline is much different now than it was in ancient times."

Life expectancy is rising even corrected for infant mortality.
if 50% of all people died at birth and the rest at 120 that gives avg age of 60.
This means to get n avg age higher more people would have live longer than 20 years just to reach 70.
So more people are living to 70+ to make the avg. with max age 120 that mean avg minimum age today is 20 or higher. The more people living above 70 the higher avg minimum age must be.

You skipped over something here, but it's a common mistake. In these discussions of life expectancy we frequently compare prehistoric people with modern people but there's another group we can compare them against: pre-industrial agricultural people. Where the life expectancy of prehistoric people was around 35, the LE of pre-industrial farmers was more like 19.

So basically modern life compensates for all the things that kill us about agriculture.

Turks and Greeks didn't regain their pre-civ, pre-agricultural average height until the 20th century. That should scare people, but most of us don't know about it.

What you write is not a revelation. It's has always been communicated in the literature since at least when I studied this 40 years ago that the average life expectancy did not mean maximum possible age. It's only through the non scientific, popular, badly researched press that such misunderstanding is perpetuated.

I've often thought that ancient people must've lived longer than we've always been told, considering their advanced astrological knowledge. If most everyone was dying at the ripe old age of 28 or so, with children to care for and feed, who would've had time or even sufficient interest to track the movement of celestial bodies, etc., not to mention the great neolithic structure building that was going on all over the world.

I agree that we underestimate the ancient people. Even today there aren't a lot technology actually has done in adding to our life span. The important factors remain the same: sleep quality, nutrients, stress level. For example, GMO is utilized to produce massive amount of crops but these crops are gluten-laced and deprived of the goody of traditional crops. This is why we have been consuming so much more sugar than people from before and obesity has become a problem more and more. There are no pharmesutical drugs or nano robots capable to best nutritional science so far. I wish that day will come where technology finally is able to take a crucial rule though.

I am interested in prehistoric humans and their lif e span
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