There is a common misconception about the longevity of ancient humans: that they rarely lived past age 30.
Based on artwork and recordings from ancient Egypt and Greece, individuals regularly survived to age 80 and beyond. Studies on tribal peoples living apart from modern society and medicine reflect a similar longevity.
So why are we told that people used to die at age 30 or 40?
The average lifespan of ancient peoples is heavily skewed by a high infant mortality rate. It is also affected by war, disease, famine, and other threats we do not experience today.
Adding to the problem is our inability to correctly estimate the age of individuals who died before written records. While archaeologists and anthropologists can estimate the age of children based on tooth eruption and other physical signs, they must estimate the ages of adults based on degeneration.
As we know, a person “degenerates” faster or slower based on diet, activity, and other lifestyle factors. This means that adult skeletons are often given an age estimation such as “40+,” which could mean anything from 40 to 100. This ineffective way of classifying skeletons also skews the average, leading to a deceptively low average lifespan.
To better understand the longevity of ancient peoples, researchers Christine Cave and Marc Oxenham examined three cemetery populations in England. They chose cemeteries that had been relatively undisturbed over the years and contained individuals from the same demographic.
Cave and Oxenham measured the level of wear and tear on the teeth of each skeleton, with individuals whose teeth exhibited the most damage classified as the “oldest.” By comparing the cemetery populations to a known model population with a similar age structure, they were able to see what they call the “invisible elderly.”
Cave and Oxenham discovered that many people lived to age 75 and older and noticed that women tended to live longer than men - a fact that persists today but has not been attributed to ancient peoples.
The researchers also noted that men were more likely to be buried with weapons and grooming tools, while women were buried with jewelry.
“This suggests that men were identified by their martial qualities, while women were admired for their beauty,” writes Cave. This habit has not changed much over the years, she notes.
Overall, this study suggests that ancient peoples who made it past infancy were just as likely to make it into old age as we are today, but without advanced medical care. We can thus infer that the modern lifestyle - and all the unhealthy habits associated with it - is driving longevity down (we just don’t see it because we have modern medicine).
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