What Was the Average Lifespan of Humans in Ancient Times?

What Was the Average Lifespan of Humans in Ancient Times?

Jeanne Louise Clement, a French woman, holds the record for the oldest verified human to have lived on Earth. She lived for 122 years from 1875 to 1997, according to the Guinness World Records. Although most people won’t be as fortunate as she was, modern health practices, sanitation, and other factors have significantly increased life expectancy in recent decades. However, determining the life expectancy of ancient humans is a daunting task, as detailed population records and death records are scarce, especially as we go further back in time.

Ancient Humans and Present Day

Determining if human lifespan has changed over tens of thousands of years, without the interference of violence, disease, or natural disasters, is unlikely. This is due to the inevitable occurrence of such factors in our lives on this planet. According to Marios Kyriazis, a biomedical gerontologist at the National Gerontology Center in Cyprus, early humans would live, have children, and quickly succumb to disease or predation. Although there are historical reports of people living up to 150 years, most of these are likely exaggerations, according to Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford University who studies the demographics of the Roman empire.

Kyriazis, who authored the study titled “Aging Throughout History: The Evolution of Human Lifespan” published in the Journal of Molecular Evolution, explains that the human body is designed by nature to have children, live a few more years to witness their growth, and possibly reach the age of seeing their grandchildren. However, due to improved hygiene, medicine, and nutrition, the number of individuals who reach this stage has increased. Despite these improvements, chronic degenerative diseases and other issues remain challenging to prevent since our body is not equipped to make continuous repairs beyond a specific point, according to Kyriazis.

Rough Trends for Ancient Human Life Spans

Researching the lifespan of ancient humans is challenging since there aren’t enough remains found in close proximity to draw definitive conclusions. However, some studies indicate that the life expectancy of early humans and Neanderthals found in western Eurasia was not significantly different. In contrast, other research suggests that the lifespan of Homo sapiens may have increased from the Middle Paleolithic to the later Upper Paleolithic, as the proportion of older to younger remains rose. This same study suggests that from the start of the Upper Paleolithic about 30,000 years ago, the average lifespan exceeded 30 years.

Another significant change occurred when humans transitioned to sedentary lifestyles about 10,000 years ago, settling into urban centers such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey. During this time, a more nomadic lifestyle was relatively healthier than living in dense towns because proper sewage systems and hygiene were lacking in urban areas. As individuals lived in close proximity to each other and their domesticated animals, diseases could easily spread between them. According to research conducted at Çatalhöyük, as the city became more crowded, people’s health declined, likely leading to a decrease in average life expectancy.

Kyriazis notes that people had the ability to live longer, but many perished due to diseases and poor diets.

During Roman times, records were more comprehensive in some cases. Scheidel studied census records from about two thousand years ago when Egypt was a province in the Roman Empire. The data showed that the average life expectancy was in the 20s.

However, many individuals lived longer than this average, which was mostly due to high infant mortality rates. Scheidel notes that for individuals who survived past the age of five, life expectancy increased to around the 40s.

Similarly, an analysis of Roman emperors, for whom extensive information is available, revealed comparable statistics. Scheidel states that “the ones that don’t get murdered, which is a minority, they have more or less the same life expectancy.”

Which Average?

As in the past, the current average life expectancy is not evenly distributed. Hong Kong has the highest at 85.3 years, while the Central African Republic has the lowest at 54.4 years due to factors such as COVID-19, diseases, and civil conflict. The global average life expectancy is 73.2 years, with females living to 75.6 years and males to 70.8 years. Advances in medicine have contributed to this increase, as the average life expectancy was only 47 years in 1950.

These improvements have also led to a shift in focus from having more children for survival to prioritizing personal survival. Kyriazis notes that this is the first time in human history where personal survival has become the primary concern.