It is generally thought that life expectancy in the past was less that it is today for our species as a whole and in the case of industrialized countries in particular. However, this belief counts as a falsehood not because it is untrue (it is, in fact, true) but because many people get this idea wrong in a few different ways. People often:

1) confuse life expectancy with lifespan;

2) underestimate the life expectancy of many past populations; and

3) think of the past compared to the present as a dichotomy, the present being one way, the past being the other way, failing to recognize diversity and variation in life history variables across our species and across time … life expectancy is seen as a measure of quality of life (which it may well be) that has tracked the one way progress of the human condition from a widespread past condition of short-lived misery to the present and much improved condition of living long and prospering.

As is the case with other bio-cultural variables such as stature, we often see the past as a particular (and often fairly immediate) past, which actually represents perhaps a few centuries at most and a few percent of the landscape across which our ancestors lived. And, in some of the most commonly conceived of ‘pasts’ … the English Middle Ages, Urban factory towns in the 19th century, some cave in France, etc. … it may well be true that short people experienced a life nasty brutish and short-lived. But in the meantime, in Australia, or South Africa, or the Amazon, or Mongolia, or Nebraska, or Kiribati, one thousand years ago or ten thousand years ago, entirely different things were happening.

Life expectancy is usually phrased as death expectancy, because it is often thought of as the average age of death of individuals of a certain age, estimated for a particular population and using empirical data. Technically, it is actually the number of years of life you have left, expressed as an estimated average for the individuals in your cohort and context. There are two commonly used frameworks for life expectancy: At birth and some later age, often 12 years old. In many populations, death is so common among infants and very young children that life expectancy from birth is a poor representative of what is really being considered, so life expectancy from a later (non-zero) age is more meaningful.

Life span is how long you live. Life expectancy and life span really are, in an informal sense, the same thing (or at least are often treated that way), but life span is usually conceived of by the human on the street as how old the old people are, or how long an individual person (or thing) potentially lives, as opposed to an average. In fact, sometimes life span is thought of as a maximum (the human life span is something like 120 years, because that’s about how long the oldest person ever lived). If you think of life span in any of these ways, then it is very different from life expectancy. Say the life expectancy (from birth or some older age) is 40 years. If you went to a place like this you might find plenty of old people over 70 or so, because 40 is the average age of death, not the actual age of death.

The statement “I’m 40 years old. If this was the Paleolithic I’d be dead by now” belies the confusion between lifespan and life expectancy, but it also, along with other statements of fact about “The Paleolithic” demonstrates widespread misconceptions about the past. (Another clue here is the use of the word “the” … the definite article signifying a lack of variation or diversity in that to which it refers … the “Paleolithic.”)

Consider the following estimates of female life expectancy in the US from Age 10:

1850: 47.2
1920: 55.17
1990: 70.1
2004: 71.3

These data (source)indicate a dramatic change over time, and might be used as the basis for a statement like “If this was antebellum US, and I was 50, I’d be dead by now.” Also, we see what might be a steady increase in life expectancy from the “old days” (1850) to modern times, with not a lot of change after that. Perhaps the Paleolithic ened around 1940 or so.

One reasonable estimate for life expectancy during the “Paleolithic” might be derived from estimating life expectancy for modern day foragers. It would be more convincing if life expectancy estimates did not vary a lot among modern foragers living in a diversity of environments (suggesting that the estimate is robust). This is in fact the case. Life expectancy of forager females at age of 15 in four different groups living in the New World and Old World, and arid vs rain forest conditions, range from about 52 to 58 years1. So now we see that the “Past” (1850) for US females was perhaps more brutal than the “Past” for our species in general, the former having a much shorter life expectancy prior to the Civil War. (I know: I’m comparing 15 years to 10 years of age, but if we switched from 10 to 20 for the US data the situation would become much more gruesome, and I don’t have data for age 15.)

Human forager females, according to the same data, tend to experience their last reproductive event between 37 and 42 years of age, leaving several years, on average, between having the last child and being unable to care for that child because of one’s own death. Early anthropologists assumed that this made sense because one would want to stop reproducing in time to increase the likelihood of being able to care for offspring for a few years, but in more recent years, evolutionary biologists pointed out that mammals in general don’t do this… they just keep reproducing up until they die, which makes more sense, because it is impossible to say that a certain offspring or litter will be left motherless. So why not give it a try.

Menopause is a biological phenomenon in which women literally shut down their reproductive functioning. The idea that female mammals should keep reproduction up until a death uncertain in its timing may make a lot of sense, but if so, menopause makes no sense. Menopause is not a common phenomenon among mammals: Only a few species have been shown to have a post-reproductive life stage in females. The total number of species in which it has been observed is probably fewer than a dozen. The total number of species in which it has been observed in the wild, and can’t be explained as a function of captivity, is probably two or three (humans included).

The average age of menopause is about 42-58 years of age. If among foragers the average age of death is about 55, and the average age of last reproduction is about 40, and the average age of menopause is between these to dates, than it is possible that menopause is actually an evolved loss of reproductive function. This has been proposed and explained as older females shifting their efforts from reproduction to foraging on behalf of their offspring (and their offspring’s offspring)1 and in particular, foraging for plant underground storage organs, which are believed to be fallback foods very important in human evolutionary history2

What does all this have to do with falsehoods and lifespans? This: If menopause really is an adaptation facilitating the use of plant underground storage organs by humans, and it happens late in the life of human females, say around the age of forty-something, then this means that there is an entire life-history stage (infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, MENOPAUSE, death) that happens AFTER you falsely assume you would be dead had you lived in the “Palaeolithic.” The Palaeolithic … when this adaptation emerged. So now you know why I cringe when I hear people say that.

So, yeah, sure, life expectancy has gone up, both because the babies don’t die as much and because we have amazing pharmaceuticals and other medical things to reduce death rates all along a person’s life history and to extend death of the elderly well beyond what would happen either in a Paleolithic setting where everyone would have been eaten by a sabertooth cat on their 40th birthday or a post-Palaeolithic setting where everyone would die of hardening of the arteries much later in life. But much of that modern medical-caused variation in life expectancy is post-menopause onset.

Then there is the issue of variation in the past (and present). Simply put, it is not the case that there was A Palaeolithic and A Now. There was a lot of variation in the past, and there is a lot of variation in the present. Many things thought of as having trends in one direction did not. For instance, in many areas, when agriculture was introduced the overall health of the population with this new technology and diet seems to have gone down. Life expectancy probably went down, rate of infections disease may have gone up, various diet-related problems like anemia may have become common, and periods of starvation that often accompany lack of food diversity linked to seasonally rigid high-labor agricultural efforts may have occurred. In some areas where this has been archaeologically documented, things later improved, presumably as a combination of both genetic and cultural adaptations to a new kind of food stress.

The reason this is important is that simplifications of the past (or for that matter, the present) is often associated with a false belief in certain causalities. We live in a “modern” world with certain features, including agriculture, industrial production of goods, lots of time spent on education, and Smart Phones. We have a longer life expectancy. Therefore, Smart Phones, our industrialized world, agriculture, etc. gave us our longer life spans. It’s all good.

The problem is that it isn’t all so simple and it isn’t all so good. Adding agriculture caused disease and death and suffering and other bad stuff. More recently, adding industry does the same thing but worse. Of course, you realize that your Smart Phone and your running shoes and your other cool stuff probably do not affect your life expectancy much, but you must also know that it does affect other people’s life expectancy, and usually negatively. Those people working in the sweat shops in China and Indonesia making your stuff don’t just get underpaid for their hard work. They die younger. The US based women with the lowish life expectancy mentioned above included women working very hard on farms and cranking out unusually large number of babies (and that will kill you) and women working in industrial sweatshops (that can kill you too). The Industrial revolution in the US was not an improvement, overall, for anybody or anything except those who got rich off it.

Humans do not live on a one-way street with two addresses: “Then” (not so good) and “Now” (improved in all ways) and life expectancy is not a variable that maps our movement from a nasty brutish and short-lived past to an all round better present with no stops or turns along the way. The big recent increase in life expectancy notwithstanding, various different populations of humans have experienced numerous shifts in health and well being, some tracked by expected age of death for various cohorts.

And on another edition of Everything You Know is Sort Of Wrong, Greg Laden looks at common misconceptions about life expectancy.


1Kaplan, H, K. Hill, J. Lancaster, A. M. Hurtado. 2000. A theory of human life history evolution: Diet, intelligence, and longevity. Evolutionary Anthropology 9:156-185, 2000.

2Laden, G. and R. Wrangham. The rise of hominids as an adaptive shift in fallback foods. Journal of Human Evolution. (pdf


  1. #1 Kelly McCullough
    May 1, 2011

    I’m not entirely sure that’s the way that all people mean that statement. For example, when I say “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now,”โ€”a phrase I’ve used more than onceโ€”I’m not referring to life expectancy at all. I’m referring to the more than one occasion when modern medical technology has saved my life. If I lived in a time without IV fluids and modern antibiotics I would in fact be dead by now.

  2. #2 stillwaggon
    May 1, 2011

    Great article. My assumptions about life expectancy got a slap upside the head a few years ago when I discovered one of my ancestors, Elizabeth Poole Stillwaggon. Born in 1750, she died in 1853 quite by accident: her clothes caught fire when she was lighting her pipe and, according to the newspaper of the time, “the old lady burned to a crisp”. A friend of mine said it inspired her to switch from cigarettes to a pipe, but I don’t recommend pipe-smoking as part of a lifestyle if one is planning to live to 103.

  3. #3 Sue Ann Bowling
    May 1, 2011

    Another way I’ve heard of putting the menopause argument: grandmothers are good for you. But I, too, would have been dead long before now in the Paleolithic: I’m a Type 1 diabetic. And I can’t help wondering how much the increase in my disease is due simply to the fact that we can now live long enough to have children.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    May 1, 2011

    Kelly, I’m sure people do mean many different things when they use a phrase like this, and here I’ve specifically addressed the issue of life expectant and what that means to people. But even the way you have meant it may apply here: Most people who get IV’s in a trauma setting were either in a car accident or a shooting incident (or a handful of other similar situations) none of which could have happened during the paleolithic! Most antibiotics are used to treat infections that only occur today because of post-agriculture and/or post-industrial changes in demography or movement of people. Measles, tuberculosis, most venereal diseases, malaria, etc. etc. are either zoonitic, occur because of large scale movement of people, or the development of agriculture. You would be perfectly happy in the Paleolithic! And I exaggerate only somewhat!

  5. #5 Giliell
    May 1, 2011

    My great-grandma died at age 80-something when she broke her neck. She was jealous of her husband chatting with “that young hussy” (a widow of 60+), leaned over a bit too far and fell down the stairs.

    @Life-expectancy fallacy
    I’ve heard this in refference to jobs, that college professors have a much higher life-expectancy than roofers and so on.
    Only, it’s pretty hard to be a college professor at 20, but to be a roofer at age 20 is entirely possible.

  6. #6 daedalus2u
    May 1, 2011

    I have another idea of why there is menopause in humans. So as to provide non-reproducing females for older males to be bonded to and have sex with so they don’t fight the younger males to the death for fertile females.

  7. #7 hoary puccoon
    May 1, 2011

    I’ve wondered if menopause could have anything to do with the patrilocal pattern (females, rather than males, wandering from their birth group to find mates.) That’s an unusual pattern in pimates, but occurs in both chimps and humans– so quite possibly could have started with our joint ancestors. The result of patrilocality is that a successful female will eventually find herself in a troupe where all the best breeding males are her sons and grandsons. Of course, it doesn’t seem to have caused menopause in chimps, but it might have been a factor.

  8. #8 anthrosciguy
    May 1, 2011

    On average you would be dead by now. You’d probably have died in infancy, but dead is dead. Although I’m sure lots of people don’t get the lifespan vs expectancy issue, the statement made is correct.

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    May 1, 2011

    An additional factor that Greg doesn’t mention distinguishes most near-modern foraging societies from those much farther in the past: the global prevalence of infectious diseases.

    For the fairly large number of them which are more or less human-specific (smallpox, polio, measles, mumps, …) the relatively large distances between groups and relative infrequency of contact made those diseases a relatively minor threat. By the 19th century, however, the epidemiological stats had changed pretty dramatically even in sparsely-populated areas. Witness the Plains smallpox epidemic of 1845.

    Infectious disease has been the #1 killer even in remote areas in recent times — but twenty thousand years ago the epidemiological picture was different, and quite likely somewhat less hostile.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    May 1, 2011

    anthrosciguy: I don’ think it is reasonable or fair to assume an exceptionally high infant mortality among paleolithic foragers. Most of the causes of high infant mortality among such folk today would not have been a factor; It may have been comparatively modest. Also, one of the main reasons to avoide LE at birth is because of high variability. IN other words, data based on LE at birth suck. So why make an argument based on it? Going past infancy, then, LE of foragers is not especially low.

    Putting it another way, the statement is a falsehood even if true because it usually involves multiple misconceptions that are important, including the assumption of high infant mortality rates among paleolithic foragers.

    It is true, though, that I didn’t mention in the OP that modern LE estimates are high not only because the old get older but because the young do also.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    May 1, 2011

    An additional factor that Greg doesn’t mention distinguishes most near-modern foraging societies from those much farther in the past: the global prevalence of infectious diseases.

    That’s a very important factor.

  12. #12 camusdude
    May 1, 2011

    When I think about how life expectancy has changed over time, and people who say or think that “they’d be dead in such and such a time already” or however they phrase it – I wonder instead of average life expectancy, what the median or mode life span was for a given time or place. That to me would be a better comparison it seems to me. Is this thinking mistaken? Is it consonant with what you’ve written here?

  13. #13 CherrybombSim
    May 1, 2011

    “…it is possible that menopause is actually an evolved loss of reproductive function. This has been proposed and explained as older females shifting their efforts from reproduction to foraging on behalf of their offspring…”

    Then again, it may be just that they have nothing better to do after menopause. Just because they are using this part of their lives to get food for their offspring does not make it an adaptation. I don’t have a background in reproductive biology, but it seems plausible that menopause is a side-effect of mucking around with the reproductive cycle in humans. Human females are not bizarre, but their reproductive cycle is not exactly typical of mammals, either.

  14. #14 Iain
    May 1, 2011

    Until Greg’s comment 10 I thought of suggesting that it would be valuable to compare LE at different ages for an individual and how that has changed through time. Of course, in response to comment 10, I would say that one of the reasons LE at birth is not necessarily a difficult measure to use is that perinatal death used to be common for children AND mothers. Once the mothers who were going to die at childbirth were out of the way, birth was a much less dangerous process for both. So modern medicine is responsible for many more children being born and living, and for many women bringing up children who would not have. But the more general point that these things are not only a contrast between an unimaginably remote then and a now which includes all of the history that we think is familiar. There was, in the 1970s, a nice paper about how rare menstruation was among some small group of recent people with strange beliefs. The point being that women were either breast feeding on demand with resultant amenorhea (spelling can’t check, not at home) or pregnant almost as soon as they ceased. The variation in reproductive practices and hence in LE are much more variable than the stereotypes of “Plaaeolithic versus us” would have us believe.

  15. #15 gwen
    May 1, 2011

    Thanks! Great article. You used a word I have been looking for for weeks; zoonitic. I could not find it in any of my references or dictionaries. ๐Ÿ™‚ Now I will file this word where I can find it, if I need to use it again!

  16. #16 Don Wiss
    May 1, 2011

    Most mammals don’t have menopause, as most mammal offspring are independent from their mother in a year or less. You have to correlate menopause age with the length of time before offspring independence. Elephants, for example, take 20 years before they go out on their own. Menopause is around age 50, and elephants die at around age 70.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    May 1, 2011

    Iain: The problem is getting reliable information on the medical risks of childbirth when people (in all cultures) are busily interfering with that process.

    Don: Maybe. There are a dozen correlations like that one that have been proposed to explain ‘menopause’ at some level, and one or more may actually work, but that is still a proximate explanation at best. The elephant’s life history plan drags along human menopause in an explanatory way no better than the Orca’s relative brain proportions. But, I do think there may be something to the elephant story. Elephants and humans share something else: Reliance on generationally enhanced knowledge of diet, a kind of deference for “elder” and burial of the dead. Maybe.

  18. #18 daedalus2u
    May 1, 2011

    Another explanation for menopause is that there were evolutionary advantages for reductions of senescence in other organ systems but there were no advantages for reduction of senescence in female reproductive systems so it never evolved.

    One of the big killers was puerperal fever. That only went away with antibiotics. I suspect that blood loss during birth was a survival adaptation to reduce death from puerperal fever.

  19. #19 Dave X
    May 1, 2011

    Thanks for this article–MadeMeThink, at least a little bit.

    On a tangent, a large proportion of the 6.9B people alive today would be dead with pre-agricultural and pre-oil levels of technology. A quick wikipedia glimpse says 1-15M people, so perhaps 99.8% of us depend on and wouldn’t be here without such tech.

  20. #20 Steven
    May 1, 2011

    “For instance, in many areas, when agriculture was introduced the overall health of the population with this new technology and diet seems to have gone down. ” – An important fact a lot of people don’t know.

  21. #21 Joshua Zelinsky
    May 1, 2011

    Some people use this line in a way that isn’t addressed in the post, if one has been actually saved by modern medicine. I have that multiple times over. I’m not using bad statistics to make the claim, just my own medical history.

  22. #22 Anyone
    May 2, 2011

    I don’t think the “I was saved by modern medicine” idea works because you have to take into account why you needed it to begin with, whether it was a modern affluent health issue or something spanning across the whole of human history.

  23. #23 Joshua Zelinsky
    May 2, 2011

    Anyone, valid points. In my case, the health probles had nothing to do with modern affluence.

  24. #24 gwen
    May 2, 2011

    Joshua, I and at least one of my sons would be dead by now,if we lived in a preindustrial age. Even had I lived two generations earlier, I would have died..several times.

  25. #25 DRK
    May 2, 2011

    Yep, I’d be dead, because of severe pneumonia when I was a kid, combined with severe asthma my whole life, combined with the high-risk birth of my first child, which would have left me with a fistula at the very least.

  26. #26 Giliell
    May 2, 2011

    I don’t think the “I was saved by modern medicine” idea works because you have to take into account why you needed it to begin with, whether it was a modern affluent health issue or something spanning across the whole of human history.

    A friend of mine needed her two C-sections because her babies were too big to get out the normal way.
    But: She’s big, too and that means she also ate quite a lot during pregnancy. In any pre-industrial time, would she have had the ability to gain that much weight, both she and the fetuses that she wouldn’t have been able give birth naturally?
    I had severe problems breastfeeding because my boobs are too big (and that is only funny if you’re not suffering from baby-blues and feeling like shit because you’re not able to even feed the crying baby). Without formula and safe ways to prepare it, there’s a chance they would have starved or suffered damage from malnutrition.
    But I doubt the whole situation would have come up 10.000 years ago.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    May 2, 2011

    In discussing the things that would kill you if this was the paleolithic, please keep in mind the following, in order of importance:

    1) Some things only seem like they would kill you in the paleolithic but really are a function of the current context. Birth size and other childbirth related problems are probably much more linked to context than people think, for instance.

    2) You were supposed to die in the Paleolithic because you lost the lottery in some sort of interesting polymorphism or tradeoff. But don’t worry, your parents had a higher inclusive fitness. Sorry, best we could do.

    3) Some of your ancestors would have been weeded out but were not (they were saved by medical intervention). There has been some meaningful (in terms of this conversation) evolution since the origin of agriculture, metallurgy, etc. and that’s why you exist at all.

    (And, finally, remember that LE is an average. Statistics don’t care if it was you or someone else who died any more than they care if it is you or someone else of fails or succeeds in some free market event or another… The Aggregate, The Average, etc. …. these are cruel friends.)

  28. #28 Ralf Muschall
    May 2, 2011

    @Greg: “Most people who get IV’s in a trauma setting were either in a car accident or… ”

    Can we really assume that getting hit by a car (or, for Americans, a bullet) in an industrial society is more probable than getting hit using a spear of biface in the paleolithic? AFAIK 30% of deaths in natural societies around the world are homicides (source: Pinker’s TED talk about the history of violence), and the number of (initially) nonfatal wounds might be even higher.

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    May 2, 2011

    Can we really assume that getting hit by a car (or, for Americans, a bullet) in an industrial society is more probable than getting hit using a spear of biface in the paleolithic?

    Yes, we can assume that. Pinker is wrong. Homicide rates in foraging societies are probably very low, and the data he uses are not the appropriate data to the extent that I have to question his sanity or his ethics. His choice, I suppose. This is part of a trend that is very worrisome and annoying among evolutionary psychologists.

    Why would the number of non-fatal wounds be higher?

  30. #30 anandine
    May 2, 2011

    Socrates was 70 when he was executed 2500 years ago.

  31. #31 Ralf Muschall
    May 2, 2011

    The guess about non-fatal wounds was purely mine.

    Concerning Pinker: Might he be stuck with a selection bias? The peoples which really were relatively untouched by the thing we call civilization (until now or at least until recently enough to be documented reliably) might be those who were the fiercest warriors (e.g. Yanomani), and everybody else has been murdered, colonialized, or at least culturally modified by Westerners.

  32. #32 Diane
    May 2, 2011

    This confusion about LE is used by the foes of social security who claim that when it was established the average LE was about 65 so the assumption was that most people would never collect! A useful counter is the chart on for LE by age 1850-2004. Around 1940 a 60 yr. old white male had a LE of about 15 years, ie. 75. He would now have about 21 years of LE. So the difference is not nearly as great as is usually stated.
    Another frequent confusion is LE versus old age. One reads that a “Stone Age” man would have been quite decrepit at 38 (or whatever) because that was his LE. And conversely, that we should work longer because 65 is no longer old. This may be true for professors but plumbers, carpenters, nurses, etc. who depend on their bodies aren’t any younger at 65 than they were 50 years ago.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    May 2, 2011

    Ralf, the Western effect can’t be ignored, but Pinker is i this case struck by simple ignorance. The Yanomamo are not foragers. Period. Using their way of life, which is based primarily on an economy of growing plantains and other plants is incorrect. Plantains take over a year to mature, are a highly vulnerable resource that requires protection and allows one to do serious damage to an enemy (by destroying their garden) and requires that movements of a village be coordinated way in advance and done carefully because of the long time cycle on which they grow. And, they are introduced from Asia.

    The evidence for the Yan is that they descend from “Foot Indians” of the region, foragers, and adopted the horticultural lifestyle some time between around 1890 and 1940. To me, the Yanomomo lifestyle resembles what one would expect if a group of foragers suddenly obtained these resources, which promotes the “fierce” approach to local politics, as it were, but had not settled down yet to an equilibrium of mutually assured asshatitutde that seems to reduce homicide rates in other cultures.

    The data used by Pinker is the same data set used recently by evolutionary psychologists who for some reason want the human condition for the entire Pleistocene to be one of continuous warfare. They have selected fierce societies and claimed that they represent the forager society. They are simply making this all up.

    There is no reliable data on homicide rates for modern human foragers of the Pleistocene or Holocene. The ancient record of violence we read about in the fossil record pertains mainly to archaics and is not widespread for our species. The homicide rates for the Ju/’hoansi, Efe, Aka, Ache, etcl is almost impossible to calculate. The total number of living foragers that have been studied systematically with carefully collected data on demography and death rates is probably less than five thousand individuals over fifty years on three continents.

    But those of us who have lived for long periods of time with foragers have mainly seen a lack of violence and a tendency to avoid violence. I’m going with what I’ve seen and not with what Pinker makes up.

    He has good hair, though.

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    May 2, 2011

    Diane: “One reads that a “Stone Age” man would have been quite decrepit at 38 (or whatever) because that was his LE.”

    That is a very good point, and I’m sorry I did not address it in the post. Next re-write, I will. Adding to this is the interesting and quirky fact that one of the main groups representing “ancient foragers” is, of course, the Ju/’hoansi (Bushmen/!Kung) who have this interesting local adaptation (I think, to being outside in the sun all the time) of skin that gets all wrinkly earlier in life than other groups.

  35. #35 Iain
    May 2, 2011

    The other example of violence in fgh societies is from Australia. Again, the figures are massively distorted by observations after the introduction of alcohol.
    But there is an unbiased data set which derives from the skeletal material. Here there are large numbers of skeletons with defensive injuries on the forearm and fractures to the skull. But the significant point here is that these were mostly healed fractures in both locations. So the ethnographic accounts of “ritual” violence seem to be born out.
    There is a good chapter on traditional violence in Peter Sutton’s book Sutton, P. 2009 The politics of suffering. Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. (Which I reviewed for American Anthropologist)
    But violence it was. And there was also a lot of genital mutilation as part of initiation.

  36. #36 intercostal
    May 2, 2011

    The infant mortality thing is big. Far, far too many people who should know better think people actually died of old age at 30 or 40. (I was taught in school that ‘people in the Dark Ages died of old age at 30 because they had so many children’.)

  37. #37 Greg Laden
    May 2, 2011

    … and, although Australia is very important, every single thing (but one) behavioral/ethnographic/ethnoarchaeological trait of foragers that I can think of that is found in multiple cultures outside the obvious cultural sympleiseomporhies is different in Australia (generally).

    I’m not arguing, by the way, that any human group is not capable of violence or even sustained day to day violence. I am, however, arguing that the multiple cases of high homicide rate cited by Pinker are not foragers. They aren’t.

    In the broader sense, the evidence for violence at this level (approaching Highland PNG and 1980s Detroit) are not universal to human foragers and there is no reason to expect these things to be universal to the Pleistocene after some point in time. Before some point in time, the evidence is a bit stronger. Even settlement patterns seem to change prior to the last interglacial in Africa suggesting the emergence of a more cooperative San-like strategy.

    During various periods of warfare in the Congo, it has proven almost impossible to turn Pygmies into soldiers of any kind. One would think a murderous violent group would not be so hard to recruit. Similarly during the Namibian conflict, the SADF had a very difficult time getting Bushmen on board. The best they could do was to spread rumours as to how dangerous bushmen special forces soldiers were and go with that. Decades of warfare in SE Asia converted foraging mountain Hmong to soldiers, but I’m close to a couple of people who had that job in the early 60s (training them) and it took a generation to get real results there. Native American basal culture (trending in a number of way to various similarities) tends to have a strong warrior-like thing going, but you don’t see actual evidence of this manifest in the Amazonian foragers and similar overall cultural patterns as seen with the Efe and other African groups seem to have been common to Native American foraging groups (in contrast to non-foraging groups).

    This is a complicated issue. The simplified assumption that everyone in the paleolithic was beating on everyone else’s head is kinda 19th century. As is the simplified Rousseauian assumption. Especailly the Rousseauian assumption as applied, say, to Polynesia!

  38. #38 travc
    May 2, 2011

    Random side note:

    Height is actually a pretty good indicator of quality of life (at least availability and quality of early childhood food). In the statistical sense of course.
    Also, there are good records for height in at least some populations going way back… notably military.

    My favorite factoid… During the American Revolution, American soldiers had, on average, 4 inches on their British counterparts. The Brits were mostly people from a background of “join the military or starve”, while the Americans included an awful lot of landowners (and children of landowners).

    Ok, tangential to the OP, but as my Chinese history prof in college said… Historians who don’t use statistics are wusses (of course China has been doing a census for a very long time, so it was easy for him.)

  39. #39 CherryBombSim
    May 2, 2011

    Hehe, travc.
    My mom is really into researching her French ancestry, and one day she told me how remarkable it was that all those soldiers in Napoleon’s army were so short. I told her that it was because of the metric system; when the Revolution adopted the meter, they re-defined a foot as being 1/3 of a meter for all the people who still wanted to measure things in feet. So all those people who were 5’4″ in their enlistment records were actually 5’9″ tall. She still doesn’t quite believe me, as math is not her strong point.

  40. #40 Samantha Vimes
    May 3, 2011

    I’m with the first commenter. My experience with that phrase is not in reference to life expectancies, but people talking about their life-saving operation or medication. Mind, some of the things people were treated for probably wouldn’t have happened if they had been living a Paleolithic life, but then again, no one in the modern era gets trampled by mammoths.

  41. #41 Alan
    May 3, 2011

    “The reason this is important is that simplifications of the past (or for that matter, the present) is often associated with a false belief in certain causalities. We live in a “modern” world with certain features, including agriculture, industrial production of goods, lots of time spent on education, and iPods. We have a longer life expectancy. Therefore, iPods, our industrialized world, agriculture, etc. gave us our longer life spans.”

    Good grief, I’ve seen you build strawmen in the past but this one takes the cake, who the hell thinks ipods are responsible for our longevity? – And you have the gall to claim Pinker is misrepresenting the past when you write utter shite about the present like the quote above?

    Vaccines, antibiotics, and public sanitation are the things people are thinking about when they say our “modern world” has given us a longer life expectancy. I suspect the reason you can’t see that obvious truth is because you have your head too far up your arse on this one.

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    May 3, 2011

    Alan, the iPod reference was an obvious joke. The argument overall is not as straw man. I’m a teacher. I encounter misconceptions on the ground on a daily basis. You may chose to ignore them if you like but I don’t have that luxury.

    Samantha and Alan: The comments about why people actually say “I’d be dead by now” that you two have made and others have cause me to rethink my post.

    First, leading off with the “I’d be dead by now” phrasing was a bad idea because what I was thinking (and other people do in fact think this … even if you don’t) is not the same as what a fair number of people (as indicated in the comments) are thinking. SO, at least, I should revise to help people past that bit.

    Second, another level of fallacy has been revealed, which I do address to some extent but which has been missed and could be more emphasized. The lucky break you got that kept you alive may well have killed you in the palolithic, but it is not that simple.

    Many, many of the things that didn’t kill you because of modern medicine would simply not have happened in the paleolithic (which is, I re-stress, NOT a monolithic thing). We know that there have been shifts in morbidity and mortality. A lot of dental work that actually saved your life (most people don’t realize how often their dentist or oral surg. save their lives!) treat conditions that are common now but rare before the Neolithic. Etc. A second facet of this part of the fallacy is that what you think will kill you and what you don’t think will kill you is, as Alan would put it in his inappropriately crude way, you with your head up your arse. Most people don’t have the information needed to really assess that at all. As I just noted, few people will mention in this sort of conversation that their dentist has saved their life many times, but rather focus on a heart-related treatment that would not have been necessary if they had been consuming a healthy paleolithic diet and experiencing healthy levels of paleolithic exercise all their lives. (Unless, of course, they lived in one of the unhealthy versions of the Paleolithic, which is, again, not a monolith.)

    In fact, I’d venture to say that there is a very poor relationship between what people think is killing them vs. saving them and what is actually happening to them. Added to the point of the OP, that people have little clue as to what would have been happening in “the paleolithic” and you have a Major Fallacy Complex.

    Finally, Alan: “And you have the gall to claim Pinker is misrepresenting the past when you write utter shite about the present like the quote above?” I didn’t realize that I needed to pass some test you have in your head to be allowed to call Pinker on what is clearly a misuse and misunderstanding of data. I’ll be sure to check with you next time I have a thought about my main field of research and study. If you want to throw support behind Pinker’s argument, why don’t you try doing it with information or reasoned argument or something rather than this strange back handed withholding of permission?

  43. #43 Douglas Watts
    May 3, 2011

    Thanks Greg. First of all, unless you want to go WAY BACK (50-100,000 years?) there is no “Paleolithic person” of some uniform archetype and I’m not sure about even then. There is no reason to believe that cultural groups were not as diverse 20,000 years ago as today, and ‘we’ are probably less diverse in lifestyle today than any human population in history. In a substantial sense humans today are more helpless than any time in history — think of how many people do not even know how to swim or stay afloat in the water. We were all taught in grade school about the ‘short, harsh, brutish lives’ of our early ancestors, but are there any facts to support it? Or are we just telling ourselves a story to make us feel better about our own station in life? I think the latter is more plausible.

  44. #44 Douglas Watts
    May 3, 2011

    As one short add. While inferring the past from modern ‘hunter-gatherer’ cultures is always risky, examples of optimum physical conditioning, prowess and stamina are well reported. Colin Turnbull’s time with Pygmies in the Ituri in the 1950s contains remarkable accounts of the kids and young adults running for miles and miles in the rainforest without any signs of getting tired, ie. optimum physical conditioning. Southwestern U.S. cultures, same thing, ie. a fascinating passage in Jim Thorpe’s biography about Hopi kids in the late 1800s running non-stop for 40 or 60 miles on a lark (one of Thorpe’s college roommates was Hopi and was with him on the 1912 U.S. Olympic team). If we infer health and longevity as connected to optimal physical conditioning, the ‘longevity’ trend line might be go in the opposite direction from what most people assume today.

  45. #45 Shadeburst
    May 3, 2011

    ?? What is this BS that Stone Age ended with introduction of agriculture?????? This casts severe doubt on the credibility of this article.

    Plenty of Egyptian mummies and bonesets showing plenty of disease causing stunting and early death. Seems to me a better method of calculating average age of death at that time than by extrapolating from present-day foraging societies. Admittedly I’m not up on the data on age at death of bonesets from other countries than ancient Egypt.

    BTW Douglas Watts, Hobbes wrote that the life of man in a society without law would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

  46. #46 Greg Laden
    May 3, 2011

    What is this BS that Stone Age ended with introduction of agriculture?????? This casts severe doubt on the credibility of this article.

    No one is saying that. I’m not convinced from your comment, though, that you are totally on board with what the “Stone Age” is. Like this: “Plenty of Egyptian mummies and bonesets showing plenty of disease causing stunting and early death. Seems to me a better method of calculating average age of death at that time than by extrapolating from present-day foraging societies.”

    You seem to be implying that Egyptian mummies represent “stone age” populations. They don’t.

    Anyway, I’m not sure I get what you are driving at here.

  47. #47 Douglas Watts
    May 3, 2011

    The most obvious meaning of ‘stone age’ is a culture which does not fabricate metals from natural ores via smelting and forging. The use of metals in their native form (gold & copper) is a different matter. The concept of ‘agrarian’ poses similar problems of interpretation. For example, the best way to ‘cultivate’ tree nut crops is to do selective burning. The squirrels do all the planting. Much is made by New England archaeologists about the lack of corn cultivation until 1,000 AD or so; but corn is still not an easy plant to grow today in northern climes, which is not surprising since it did not evolve in NE. Acorns (soaked, of course) are as easy to gather as picking up pebbles on the beach and they are highly nutritious and storable as flour or what-not. Not to mention the American chestnut. So even the line between ‘agrarian’ and ‘gatherer’ is really ill-defined when you look closely.

  48. #48 Alan
    May 4, 2011

    Greg, I’m glad to see you can respond to agressive critisisim and revaluate your claims, self-skepticisim is a rare and highly admirable personality trait.

    Personally, I credit the “modern world” with saving my life 3 times since the age of 35 – one tooth abscess, and two bouts of pneumonia. Of course that’s just speculation, there is a slim chance I may have survived without antibiotics.

    PS: I would be delighted to edit your thoughts for you, you have my email. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  49. #49 Greg Laden
    May 4, 2011

    Alan, you may or may not have survived those three encounters without antibiotics, but you may well have not gotten them in the Paleolithic. Tooth abscess is one of those things we can see in bones and they are almost non-existant in the “paleolithic” and among modern foragers, compared to among agricultural groups. With the pneumonia, it depends. Strep (a common cause of the most serious pneumonias) is probably widely available to humans today as a result of globalization and other processes and may not have been a wide spread forager thing. That may be true of viral pneumonia as well.

    So that could be good example of the phrase used in modern context having some ambiguity in what it really means.

    I’ve been saved by dentistry at least three times (assuming my upside down wisdom teeth would have led to abscess, though maybe not, and two other abscesses no, wait, three… so three or four times by the dentist). The injury I suffered to my knee a year ago would have left me as one of those corpses indicating that others brought me food and drink for a time before I died years after the stump heeled. You and I were both probably saved by modern medicine via vaccines a number of times. Most of those vaccines, though, are for diseases that we would not have gotten during the “paleolithic”

  50. #50 Alan
    May 4, 2011

    Greg, you seem to think I’m defending Pinker, I’m not and in fact haven’t even watched his ted talk (yet). My original statement was meant as a “stones and glasshouses” comment.

    I do however believe that humans had a significantly shorter life expectancy before the advent of germ theory and the technologies that came from it. I’m also pretty sure that the degree to which LE was shorter varied from one society to another and was affected by other things such as culture, and access to natural resources.

    I readily admit that I’m not well versed in the subject of mortality rates in paleolithic foragers. AFAIK the main differences between a troglodite, a medieval peasant, and a modern urbanite, are the level of technology and the size of the tribes we belong to.

    Perhaps we will lose the deep rooted tribal “us and them” instinct one day, stop fighting over territory and resources, and become more like our bonobo cousins, but I’m not holding my breath.

  51. #51 Greg Laden
    May 4, 2011

    Alan, remember, the whole point of the “falsehoods” series is to take commonly held beliefs and use them to expose a more nuanced and interesting reality that often partly (but not necessary wholly) serves as part of a critique of said belief. So, in that spirit:

    “I do however believe that humans had a significantly shorter life expectancy before the advent of germ theory and the technologies that came from it.”

    But the germs that many of our anti-germ technologies address would not have affected most “Paleolithic” populations. So, while what you say here may be partly true, there is an important missing element. One could say that police are killed less often today than they were in the palolithic because they have bullet proof vests.

    “I’m also pretty sure that the degree to which LE was shorter varied from one society to another and was affected by other things such as culture, and access to natural resources.”

    Absolutely, and not getting that is one of the common ways in which this whole concept is typically misunderstood.

    I’m not sure what a troglodite is in this context.

    Anyway, you may enjoy the podcast when it comes out!

  52. #52 TheBrummell
    May 4, 2011

    This is a fascinating post, and discussion in the comments. Thanks for putting this up.

    I’d love to see a follow-up about the sources of mortality in various times and places for our species. The point about modern deadly things simply not occurring prior to the advent of agriculture in a population is well made, I’m wondering what did kill foragers 20 000 years ago.

    As a bit of speculation, while the nasty infectious diseases that killed so many humans up until the widespread adoption of vaccination and antibiotics (and decent sanitation & sewage disposal – how many lives were saved by the flush toilet?) were primarily related to livestock and human population density, some of the ways to die that have been tamed by modern medicine include opportunistic infections. It’s hard for me to imagine a lifestyle at any technological level in which minor cuts and scrapes on hands and forearms are really, really rare. Similarly, there are opportunisitc pathogens such as the organism that causes tetanus in pretty much any environment, agricultural or otherwise. Do deaths from such infections show up in fossilized skeletons?

  53. #53 Greg Laden
    May 4, 2011

    I’m not sure about deaths from those infections in skeletal material, but infections like this certainly show up in forager populations.

  54. #54 brad
    March 3, 2015


  55. #55 Andrew Planet
    January 4, 2016

    Today is someone else’s stone age in the future

  56. #56 Roger
    United Kingdom
    April 16, 2016

    A first rate bit of thinking.