Longevity Throughout History, Average Human Lifespan, How long did humans live in the past? Increases in Life Span From Prehistory Through the Modern Era
Currently, USA is the country with the longest life expectancy in Europe, with women living at an average of 82 years and men at an average of 78.
I have long been fascinated by the topic of human longevity. When I did research on the evolution of life expectancy throughout human history, I came across a statistic that at first glance seemed shocking: in 1900, the “average life expectancy” in USA did not reach 35 years…
When reading these data, the first impression that many people would have is that a century ago everyone died before the age of 35, and if you were 33 you were already an “old man”. Actually, it is a VERY wrong idea because “life expectancy” is not measured by the maximum age at which the oldest people live, but by the “average age” of death. And until the middle of the 20th century, due to a high infant mortality rate, the “average age” of death was always very low.
For example, if in a population half of the people died in infancy and the other half died at 60, the “average life expectancy” would be about 30. However, this number is meaningless as an indicator of longevity.
How long did humans live in the past? You often hear statistics about the average life of people who lived hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Did our ancestors really die at the age of 30 or 40 back then? Here is a small introduction on longevity throughout history to help you understand how life expectancy and life span have changed over time.
Life expectancy versus life expectancy
The term life expectancy means the average life expectancy of an entire population, taking into account all the mortality figures of that specific group of people. Life span is a measure of the actual length of an individual’s life.
While both terms seem straightforward, the lack of artifacts and historical records has made it difficult for researchers to determine how life expectancy has evolved throughout history.
No one knows for sure how old the first humans lived, but in general, the biological evolution of our species, homo sapiens sapiens
According to various studies, during the Paleolithic age, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small groups of 10 – 30 people and spent most of their lives migrating from one place to another in search of animals to hunt or fruits and plants to gather. Due to a physically demanding lifestyle, only the strongest and most skilled survived childhood. Among those who reached 15, perhaps many could live to be 50. But from that age, when the body no longer had the strength to cope with daily ailments, many began to perish. The leading causes of death were hunting accidents, infections, natural disasters, and predator attacks. Women had a higher mortality than men due to complications during delivery.
Since about 10,000 years ago, human society underwent a radical change: the agricultural revolution. Human populations began to settle in permanent places, dedicating themselves to the cultivation of cereals and cattle raising. Because the same area of cultivated land could feed a population 1,000 times larger than a virgin forest, the population began to multiply. In a matter of a few generations, villages of 200 inhabitants became 2000 towns, which later multiplied into cities of up to 50,000 inhabitants.
Life for most of the inhabitants in those pre-modern cities was precarious, with dozens of families living crammed into apartment blocks without sanitation services. The proximity of domesticated animals living with humans, the absence of sewers and the accumulation of garbage in the streets created a new mass killer: contagious diseases.
The “average hope” for a newborn baby was only 21 years old, and they had a 36% chance of dying before their first birthday. However, once they were 10 years old, they could expect to reach 44, and among those who did reach 20, a good percentage could live to almost 50. Of course, there were also people who lived more than 80 years (as well checked by historical sources), but only 1 in 1000.
The life of Primitive Man
Until relatively recently, there was little information about how long prehistoric people lived. Having access to very few fossilized human remains made it difficult for historians to estimate the demographics of any population.
Anthropology professors Rachel Caspari and Sang-Hee Lee, from Central Michigan University and the University of California at Riverside, respectively, chose to analyze the relative ages of skeletons found in archaeological excavations in eastern and Southern Africa, Europe and elsewhere. Source: 1
After comparing the proportion of those who died young with those who died at an older age, the team concluded that longevity only began to increase significantly, that is, beyond 30 years approximately, about 30,000 years ago, which is quite late in the span of human evolution.
In a 2011 article published in Scientific American, Caspari calls the change the” evolution of grandparents, ” as it marks the first time in human history that three generations could have coexisted. Source: 2
From ancient times to pre-industrial times
Life expectancy estimates describing the population as a whole also suffer from the lack of reliable evidence collected from these periods.
In a 2010 article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gerontologist and evolutionary biologist Caleb Finch describes the average life expectancy in the Times of the ancient Greeks and Romans as short, approximately 20 to 35 years, although he regrets that these figures are based on “notoriously unrepresentative”epitaphs and cemetery samples.
Moving along the historical timeline, Finch lists the challenges of deducing historical length of life and causes of death in this information vacuum.
As a kind of research commitment, he and other evolving experts suggest that a reasonable comparison can be made with demographics of pre-industrial Sweden (mid-eighteenth century) and certain small contemporary hunter-gatherer societies in countries such as Venezuela and Brazil. 3
Finch writes that, judging by these data, the main causes of death during these first centuries would undoubtedly have been infections, either from infectious diseases or infected wounds resulting from accidents or fights.
Unhygienic living conditions and poor access to effective medical care meant that life expectancy was likely limited to about 35 years. That is life expectancy at birth, a figure dramatically influenced by infant mortality, set at that time at up to 30 per cent.
It does not mean that the average person who lived in the year 1200 A.D. died at the age of 35. Rather, for every child who died in infancy, another person might have lived to see his 70th birthday.
The first years up to the age of 15 remained dangerous, thanks to the risks posed by illness, injury and accidents. People who survived this dangerous period of life could reach old age.
Other infectious diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox would limit longevity, but none on such a harmful scale as the fourteenth-century bubonic plague. The Black Death moved across Asia and Europe, wiping out a third of the European population, temporarily lowering life expectancy.
From the nineteenth century to the present
From the sixteenth century onwards, until about 1800, life expectancy throughout Europe ranged from 30 to 40 years.
Since the early nineteenth century, Finch writes that life expectancy at birth has doubled in a period of only about 10 generations. Improved health care, sanitation, immunizations, access to clean running water and better nutrition are attributed to the huge increase. Source: 3
Although it is difficult to imagine, doctors only began to wash their hands regularly before surgery in the middle of the XIX century. Since then, a better understanding of Hygiene and transmission of microbes has contributed substantially to public health.
However, the disease was still common and affected life expectancy. Parasites, typhoid fever and infections such as rheumatic fever and scarlet fever were common during the nineteenth century.
In the future
Some researchers have predicted that lifestyle factors such as obesity will stop or even reverse the increase in life expectancy for the first time in modern history.
Epidemiologists and gerontologists as S. Jay Olshanky warn that in the united States, where two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, and obesity and its complications, such as diabetes, could very well reduce the life expectancy at all ages in the first half of the XXI Century. Source: 4
Meanwhile, increasing life expectancy in the West brings good and bad news: it’s good to live longer, but you’re now more vulnerable to the types of diseases that affect you as you get older. These age-related diseases include coronary artery disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and dementia.
While they can affect the amount and quality of life, many of these conditions can be prevented or at least delayed through healthy lifestyle choices like following an anti-aging diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and keeping stress hormones like cortisol at bay.
One of the most widespread myths when talking about the paleo diet or evolutionary diet is that the life expectancy of the Palaeolithic human being was low, close to 20 years, and that it progressively increased thanks to the agricultural revolution and subsequent development of the civilization. Which leads to affirm that the human being in the Paleolithic died young. Nothing is further from reality.
First, life expectancy is the average of the number of years that a population lives in a given period, that is, the average age of the deceased. Life expectancy does not measure the maximum age at which the oldest population reaches, but the average age at which it dies.
In the Paleolithic, the infant mortality rate was very high, between 30% and 40% before the age of 15. Once this age was exceeded, life expectancy increased over the years. Some studies indicate that the most probable age of death in the Paleolithic era was 72 years.
On the other hand, speaking in strict terms of life expectancy, from the beginning of the agricultural revolution until the 18th century, the life expectancy of the world population is lower than in the Paleolithic, mainly due to the very high rate of juvenile mortality. As a significant fact, life expectancy in Spain in 1900 was 35 years.
Now that we know that in the Paleolithic they did not die young, and fortunately for us today, the important thing is that we take care of our health to enjoy an active and healthy old age.
Do humans really live longer today than our ancestors?
In recent decades, life expectancy has increased dramatically around the world.
On average, a person born in 1960, the first year the United Nations began collecting global data, had a life expectancy of 52.5 years. Today, the average is 72 years.
The natural conclusion is that both the miracles of modern medicine and public health initiatives help us live much longer than before. So much, in fact, that we may be running out of innovations to extend life.
In September this year, the Office for National Statistics confirmed that in the UK, at least, life expectancy has stopped increasing. And globally it is also slowing down.
But while medical advances have improved many aspects of our health care, the assumption that human life has increased dramatically over centuries or millennia is misleading.
A matter of average
“There is a basic distinction between life expectancy and life span,” says Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel, a leading scholar of ancient Roman demography.
“And the life span of humans, as opposed to life expectancy, which is a statistical construct , hasn’t changed much, ” he says.
Life expectancy is an average. If you have two children, and one dies before their first birthday but the other lives to be 70, their life expectancy is 35. That is mathematically correct, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture.
However, this average is the reason why ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, are commonly said to live to be 30 or 35 years old. Did that mean that a 35 year old could be considered ‘old’?
If that were true, the writers and politicians of antiquity do not seem to have gotten the message. At the beginning of the VII century a. C., the Greek poet Hesiod wrote that a man should marry “when he is not much less than 30 years old, not much more”.
Meanwhile, the cursus honorum of ancient Rome – the sequence of political offices that any ambitious young man would undertake – did not even allow a man to hold his first position, that of quaestor, until he was 30 years old. To be a consul, you had to be 43 years old.
In the 1st century, Pliny dedicated a whole chapter of his “Natural History” to the people who lived the longest. Among them, he lists the consul M. Valerius Corvinos (who lived to be 100 years old), Cicero’s wife, Terentia (103), a woman named Clodia (115, and with 15 children), and the actress Lucceia who acted in the scenario at 100 years.
However, aging was not as easy as it is now: “Nature, in reality, has bestowed no greater blessing on man than the brevity of life,” wrote Pliny.
“The senses are turned off, the limbs become clumsy, the sight, the hearing, the legs, the teeth and the organs of digestion, all die before us…”
In the ancient world, at least, it seems that people could live as long as we do today. But how common was it?
Era of empires
In 1994, a study examined all men who had an entry in the Oxford Classic Dictionary and who lived in ancient Greece or Rome . Their age at death was compared with that of men in Chambers’ most recent Biographical Dictionary.
Of the 397 ancient men in all, 99 died violently by murder, suicide, or in battle. Of the 298 remaining, those born before 100 BC lived to an average age of 72 years .
Those born after 100 BC, meanwhile, lived to an average age of 66. The authors speculate that the prevalence of dangerous lead pipes may be behind this apparent shortening of life.
The average of those who died between 1850 and 1949? 71 years, just one year younger than their pre-100 BC cohort
Of course, there are some obvious problems with this sample. One is that it only looked at men. Another is that all men were illustrious enough to be remembered.
What we can extract is that privileged men lived, on average, to almost the same age throughout history. If they weren’t murdered , of course.
For Scheidel, the results should not be dismissed, however. “It implies that there were non-famous people, much more numerous, who lived even longer,” he says.
Only the elite?
But not everyone agrees. “There was a huge difference between the lifestyle of a poor person in relation to the Roman elite,” says Valentina Gazzaniga, a medical historian at La Sapienza University in Rome.
“Living conditions, access to medical therapies, even hygiene, everything was much better among the elites,” he adds.
In 2016, Gazzaniga published his research on more than 2,000 ancient Roman skeletons, all belonging to working-class people who were buried in mass graves. The average age of death was 30 years.
Many showed the effects of hard work, as well as diseases that we would associate with older ages, such as arthritis.
Women also did heavy work, such as working in the fields. To this must be added that, throughout history, childbirth, often in poor hygienic conditions, is one of the reasons why women were at particular risk during their childbearing years . Even the pregnancy itself was dangerous.
In addition, the delivery was worsened by other factors. “Women often ate less than men,” says Gazzaniga. That malnutrition meant that the girls did not fully develop their pelvic bones, increasing the risk.
“The life expectancy of Roman women increased with declining fertility, ” says Gazzaniga. “The more fertile the population, the lower the female life expectancy.”
Lack of data
The main difficulty of knowing with certainty how long on average our predecessor lived, be it from Antiquity or Prehistory, is the lack of data.
In trying to determine the average ages of death of ancient Romans, for example, anthropologists often rely on the results of the census of Roman Egypt. But because these papyri were used to collect taxes, data was often missing from many men, as well as babies and women.
The inscriptions on the tombstones are another obvious source. But babies were seldom buried in graves: the poor couldn’t afford them, and families who died simultaneously, during an epidemic for example, were also left out.
Available data from ancient Rome indicate that up to a third of babies died before their first birthday, and half of children before the age of 10. After that age, his chances improved significantly. If they reached 60, they would probably live to be 70.
Overall, the length of life in ancient Rome was probably not much different from today. It may have been a little less “because there wasn’t this invasive end-of-life medicine that prolongs life a little bit, but it wasn’t dramatically different,” Scheidel says.
The data improves later in human history, once governments begin to keep careful records of births, marriages, and deaths, at first, particularly of nobles.
Those records show that infant mortality remained high. But if a man reached 21 and did not die by accident, violence or poison, he could have a life expectancy almost similar to that of men today.
Between 1200 and 1745, 21-year-old men could reach an average age of between 62 and 70, except in the 14th century, when the bubonic plague reduced life expectancy to 45 years.
Did money or power help? Not always.
An analysis of some 115,000 European nobles found that kings lived about six years less than lower-ranking nobles, such as knights. Demographic historians found in county parish records that in 17th century England, life expectancy was longer for villagers than for nobles.
“Aristocratic families in England possessed the means to obtain all kinds of material benefits and personal services, but life expectancy at birth among the aristocracy lagged behind that of the general population until well into the 18th century,” he writes.
This probably happened because the nobles preferred to live most of the year in cities, where they were exposed to more diseases.
But when the revolution in medicine and public health came, it helped the elites before the rest of the population. At the end of the 17th century, English nobles who reached the age of 25 lived longer than their non-noble counterparts, even though they continued to live in cities.
There are not so many differences
Although we generally think that in the time of Charles Dickens life was unhealthy and short for almost everyone, as researchers Judith Rowbotham, now at Plymouth University, and Paul Clayton of Oxford Brookes University wrote, “once the dangerous years of childhood passed, life expectancy in the middle of the Victorian period was not much different from what it is today “: a five-year-old girl would live to be 73; a child, up to 75.
These numbers are not only comparable to ours, they can be even better. Members of the working class today (a more accurate comparison) live for about 72 years for men and 76 for women.
“This relative lack of progress is surprising, especially given the many environmental disadvantages of the Victorian era and the state of medical care at a time when modern medicines, detection systems and surgical techniques were not available,” wrote Rowbotham and Clayton.
They argue that if we think that we are living longer now than before, this is because our records date back to around 1900, somewhat misleading since that was a time when nutrition declined and many men started smoking.
In conclusion, our maximum life may not have changed much, but that is not to delegitimize the extraordinary advances in recent decades that have helped many more people reach that maximum life, and live healthier lives in general.