Pre-Modern Life Expectancy

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

Basing quality-of-life estimates on average life expectancy at birth warps our view of pre-modern life:

For Neanderthals and other pre-modern humans life was short and brutal primarily because they had to kill animals with handheld weapons at close range. Neanderthals who survived into their thirties looked like they had been pulled out of a Humvee that was hit by an IED. One fellow was missing an eye, an arm, a thumb and a foot! These guys suffered from no known diseases. However, their main food [according to chemical analysis of their bones] was the auroch — basically a rodeo bull — which they had to kill be wrestling with it, stabbing it, and smashing it with rocks!

For a Neanderthal 35 years old was as old as it is for an NFL running back or a lightweight boxer. If one imagines a world where such athletes were executed at retirement, and that all men were such athletes, you get a good idea of the climate for thirty-something folks in the Old Stone Age.

Mature Stone Age hunting and gathering societies, which had not yet invented alcohol, and which did not live with disease bearing domesticate animals, and did not engage in repetitive chores that wear away their connective tissue, produced healthier warriors and women than more technologically advanced societies until the 20th Century. Although few men survived to old age due to constant small scale warfare, male leaders and women living into their 70s was common. As with other apex predators, like lions, most of a primitive’s day consisted of leisure activities.

Agriculture caused people to live in one place, which encouraged disease. With the addition of domestic animals living in close proximity, humanity acquired the measles, all the pox diseases, and venereal disease [don’t ask how]. The result was that few children lived to age five. This is reflected in the fact that many societies did not name children at birth, and that children were seen as a burden until they were able to engage in the horrid economy which the adults were shackled to.

An agrarian man typically worked from sunrise to sundown doing a small cluster of repetitive motions, resulting in a terribly worn body by about age 30. The woman had it no better, on her knees grinding grain all day long, and becoming arthritic before age 30.

This was a nasty way to live, so conquerors lived according to the more ancient primitive tradition. The apex of the population — the nobility and royalty, being the top 5% — continued to live as primitives, hunting and fighting and enjoying leisure time, and making all of those great scientific, literary, artistic, and military advances.

The common agrarian person was a machine, a brute who ate, worked, shat and died in misery, and was regarded as subhuman by his masters, who lived, essentially, as a primitive warrior class.

Note that the age of majority has always been based on man’s prime as an athlete or war fighter. Ancient Greek warrior-athletes, Roman soldiers and medieval knights were not considered fit for combat until age 21, and were regarded as pretty well shot by 40. This has not changed, with modern boxers and football players considered subpar until age 22 and over the hill by age 35. Likewise, various social rights, such as firearms licenses, drinking privileges, voting rights, and military service, have typically not been granted until the 18–22 year age range. It has also remained nigh unthinkable for a head of state to be younger than 35 years of age. This athletic life span corresponds with the hunting life span of the Neanderthal auroch hunter.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    The recent expansion of life expectancy at birth is due almost entirely to the elimination of infant and child mortality. Go look at any cemetery from the colonial era and see the high percentage of children.

    This change was primarily due to better sanitation, especially of water supplies, improved agricultural yields leading to better diets, and improved transportation that distributed the food. We only got back to the Roman standard for transportation in the 19th Century.

    Medicine had nothing to do with improved life expectancies. Doctors were helpless and hospitals an imminent threat until the discovery of antibiotics. Doctors in hospitals still kill more people than cars and guns combined, largely because of careless sanitation, something Lister harped on more than 100 years ago.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    And according to Wikipedia, the aurochs even survived until a few hundred years ago; the last recorded aurochs died 1627 in Poland. They made an ornamented hunting horn from that bull for King Sigismund!

    Even Julius Caesar wrote about these beasts:

    “…those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.”

  3. Edwin says:

    Neanderthal had only thrusting weapons and no throwing weapons. I am not sure if Cro Magnon had throwing weaponry. Throwing sticks [like the boomerang] can bring down birds so that was a possible. Agriculture and animal husbandry [domesticated animals] goes hand in hand and then comes disease jumping from animals to humans?

  4. Bruce says:

    Hard to believe Neanderthals weren’t using pit traps.

  5. R. says:

    Can’t take the essay seriously, the guy plays fast and loose with data I know off. Gigantopithecus, a homind and ancestor?

    Agrarian men worn out by age 30? Maybe the very first ones, who had no clue what they were doing, lack of protein, etc. Also, outside of places enabling year-long cultivation, peasant were hardly working from sunrise to sundown.. the hours they worked on average were less than 40 per week.

  6. A Boy and His Dog says:

    This guy is spouting nonsense. It’s likely that pre-industrial agrarians had more free time than modern people, not less.

  7. Alrenous says:

    Apparently butts are for throwing. And neanderthals didn’t have maximus glutes. Ever noticed how scrawny chimp butts look? A human, I’m told, is the only animal that can kill conspecifics by throwing things at them. Everything else has to get into melee range.

  8. Grasspunk says:

    “An agrarian man typically worked from sunrise to sundown doing a small cluster of repetitive motions, resulting in a terribly worn body by about age 30.”

    Only true if his cluster of repetitive motions includes drinking and f—ing.

  9. R. says:


    Why would they bother with throwing? IIRC their modus operandi was ambush hunting, presumably sprinting from cover towards a big animal and then thrusting a spear deep into it…

  10. Kudzu Bob says:

    I don’t know if Roman soldiers and Medieval knights were considered washed up at age 40, but according to HDF Kitto, it was not unheard of for sons, fathers, and grandfathers to fight side by side in Greek armies. He notes that ancient Greeks seemed to live fairly long lives and aged well, and attributes their health to good hygiene, a wholesome diet, and a mild climate. Having slave labor probably helped too.

  11. Adar says:

    The pygmy are known even unto this day to kill an elephant with a single spear thrust. Sneak up behind the beast and stab the animal in the anus, penetrating deep into the rectum. The animal runs off in terrific pain and the hunter waits for a day or more for the animal to die from blood loss and shock.

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