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.

Comments

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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