If paleolithic people were healthier than us due to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, why did they have a shorter life expectancy than we do today? I was just reminded by Scott over at Modern Forager about some data on paleolithic (pre-agriculture) vs. neolithic (post-agriculture) life expectancy and growth characteristics. Here’s a link to the table, which is derived from an article in the text Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture.
The reason the table is so interesting is it allows us to ask the right question. Instead of “why did paleolithic people have a shorter life expectancy than we do today?”, we should ask “how did the life expectancy of paleolithic people compare to that of pre-industrial neolithic people?” That’s what will allow us to tease the effects of lifestyle apart from the effects of modern medicine.
The data come from age estimates of skeletons from various archaeological sites representing a variety of time periods in the Mediterranean region. Paleolithic skeletons indicated a life expectancy of 35.4 years for men and 30.0 years for women, which includes a high rate of infant mortality. This is consistent with data from the Inuit that I posted a while back (life expectancy excluding infant mortality = 43.5 years). With modest fluctuations, the life expectancy of humans in this Mediterranean region remained similar from paleolithic times until the last century. I suspect the paleolithic people died most often from warfare, accidents and infectious disease, while the neolithic people died mostly from chronic disease, and infectious diseases that evolved along with the domestication of animals (zoonotic diseases). But I’m just speculating based on what I know about modern populations, so you can take that at face value.
The table Stephan refers to is interesting.