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How long did prehistoric people live?

caveman family

Whenever I read through posts criticizing the paleo diet I always see the same argument presented. Why would anyone want to mimic the diet of our prehistoric ancestors, when their average lifespan was only 25 – 30 years? There is of course, a very simple answer to this question (Otherwise I wouldn’t be on Paleo myself!) , cavemen (and cavewomen) lived a lot longer than this.

So why is this figure quoted? , surely we can trust major scientific journals when this information is quoted? The trick here is in understanding the statistics, and then also in understanding the causes of death. In fact after proper analysis , you may be surprised to know that a recent peer reviewed journal estimates the modal age of death for people in hunter-gatherer societies to be around 68 – 72.

If you’re wondering why there is such a difference in mortality figures quoted then let me explain.

The over-arching factor here is in the high infant mortality rate. Nearly 40% of hunter-gatherers died before the age of 15, and a large proportion of these died before the age of 5. Of those who reached adulthood, their expected lifespan was much higher than 30 (easily 60) and the cause of death was generally infection or trauma (not heart disease or cancers such as those which plague our modern culture).

If we look at modal age of death we get a much higher figure. Corrected modal age of death means the age at which most people died who lived past 15 years of age. By using this figure we correct for the higher rates of trauma and infection which skew the results when looking at ‘average’ life span in hunter gatherers and by correcting for infant mortality we get a better understanding of exactly how long our prehistoric ancestors really lived.

These figures are similar in modern hunter – gatherer societies and are also evidenced by estimates from fossil records from our prehistoric ancestors.

What’s even more interesting is that following the transition to an agricultural society, the average life span actually dropped (yes – dropped!) to 20 years. Not only did lifespan decrease, after we changed our diet, we became shorter AND had reduced bone mineral density (which gives a fairly strong argument against critics who say we need dairy for our bones). Average (corrected) life span then remained below prehistoric levels until well into the 20th Century and the advent of modern medicines such as antibiotics.

In other words, we might not want to mimic prehistoric approaches to medicine, but mimicking their diet provides health, vitality AND longevity.

So, if you’re concerned about your health and want to live a fuller longer life, then consider Paleo, and if you need an image to help convince you then check out the picture below of aborigines (take special note of the middle man) prior to the introduction of western foods into their diet. My grandfather never looked that healthy!