Why do we think ancient people died so young?

This cartoon is dependent on the idea that early humans died at a very young age compared to now. But Christine Cave says that this is a myth and that people lived to quite old ages.

So it seems that humans evolved with a characteristic lifespan. Mortality rates in traditional populations are high during infancy, before decreasing sharply to remain constant till about 40 years, then mortality rises to peak at about 70. Most individuals remain healthy and vigorous right through their 60s or beyond, until senescence sets in, which is the physical decline where if one cause fails to kill, another will soon strike the mortal blow.

The origins of the myth lie in some systematic biases introduced in the way we estimate average lifetimes. One factor that she mentions that is fairly well known is that average lifetimes at time of birth can be low because of high infant mortality rates. If we instead calculate average lifetime after people reach adulthood, the value can rise significantly.

But there is another problem and that is that accurately estimating the age of death of a fossil is easier when the fossil is that of a child and difficult when the fossil is that of an adult, because the latter estimates are based on measures of degeneration.

These differences will accumulate as the years increase, meaning that once a person reaches the age of about 40 or 50, the differences are too great to allow any one-size-fits-all accuracy in the determination of the calendar age, whether it is done by eye on a living person or by the peer-preferred method of skeletal ageing. The result of this is that those older than middle age are frequently given an open-ended age estimation, like 40+ or 50+ years, meaning that they could be anywhere between forty and a hundred and four, or thereabouts.

Archaeologists’ age estimates, therefore, have been squeezed at both ends of the age spectrum, with the result that individuals who have lived their full lifespan are rendered ‘invisible’.

She and her colleagues are trying to find ways to more accurate measure the ages of death of fossils by measuring the wear and tear on teeth and were able to estimate “how many people lived to a grand old age, but also which ones were 75 years or older, and which were a few years past 50.”


  1. mnb0 says

    The cartoon is not about ancient people but about prehistoric people.
    Regarding Antiquity the answer is pretty well known. Ancient newborns had a low life expectancy, but it rather increased when kids made it past the first five years.

  2. rjw1 says

    Some people lived to quite old ages.
    Christine Cave’s comments seem to be referring to the Palaeolithic when humans lived in scattered groups. I’m not sure if that analysis applied from the Neolithic, when humans first lived in cities, to the present day. Until the late 19th century the mortality rate from epidemic diseases was often huge.

  3. grasshopper says

    Illiteracy was to blame. Their diet was very poor because they couldn’t read wellness books. Or because they didn’t have whiskey.
    Or whisky.

  4. jrkrideau says

    Why do we think ancient people died so young?
    I didn’t. If you made it to 15 or 18 you had a fairly decent chance to make it to at least your 60’s and often more.

    Christine Cave’s comments seem to be referring to the Palaeolithic
    I read the Smithsonian article yesterday but IIRC she was basing much of her comments on research done on Anglo-Saxon skeletons so she probably was talking about, say very roughly 600--800 AD.

    Until the late 19th century the mortality rate from epidemic diseases was often huge.
    True but she seems to have been talking about a period in England when most settlements would be fairly small and might limit the spread of epidemics. Also, her argument may be not that there was a high mortality rate not just from epidemic diseases( a small cut could kill you) as much as debunking the idea that “everyone” died young.

    People who dodged childhood diseases, epidemics, infected cuts, appendicitis, death in battle or childbirth, accidents of all types and food poisoning, etc, did live to a respectable old age.

  5. rjw1 says


    Thanks. I don’t why Cave was talking about fossils if the Anglo Saxon was the period of her research. There’s an obvious difference between life expectancy at birth and potential life span.

  6. flex says

    While others have already pointed this out, death in childbirth was one of the major reasons that, on average, women didn’t live as long as men. If a woman managed to get to menopause they generally out-lived men, but because of the deaths in childbirth their average adult life expectancy was lower.

    Averages are tricky things, especially in a population as diverse as a human lifespan. At different ages the risk and causes of death change, making a single statistic for the average human lifespan very unreliable. There are plenty of historical records from the Romans and Greeks referring to men in their eighties.

    @ rjw1, a reading of the selections Mano included shows that Cage didn’t talk about fossils in those excerpts. I suppose that it is possible that Mano himself made an error and assumed the Cage was writing about fossils when she was really writing about unfossilized human remains from the middle-ages. In either case, determining the age of human remains as an adult can be tricky. Are the teeth worn because of age, diet, or profession? All three can impact the wear of tooth enamel. A well-preserved 80-year-old may exhibit no differences from a malnourished 30-year-old.

  7. Heidi Nemeth says

    My dad told me years ago that average life spans are calculated using only people who have reached their first birthday because the first year of life is particularly lethal. Of my seven siblings, one died a few days after birth. The rest of us are still alive 60 years later. If you include only those of us who reached our first birthday, we have an average life span of 60 years (and counting). Including my deceased infant sibling, our average life span would be only 52.5 years.

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