Neanderthals and Homo sapiens

The oldest person proven to have walked the Earth was a French woman named Jeanne Louise Clement, who almost spent time in three centuries in her 122 years from 1875 to 1997. according to Guinness World Records.

Most of us won’t be so lucky, but life expectancy has increased significantly in just a few decades due to modern health practices, sanitation and other factors. But what was the life expectancy of ancient people?

In most cases, the answer is almost impossible due to the lack of detailed records of the populations and when they died – especially the further back you go in time.

Ancient people and our days

It is unlikely that human life expectancy—or how long a person can live unless violence, disease, or natural disasters creep into the picture—has changed in any measurable way in tens of thousands of years. But it’s hard to verify this one way or the other, because violence, disease, natural disasters, or a host of other problems tend to occur if you spend enough time on this planet.

“[Early humans] lived, had children, then died immediately from disease or predation,” says Marios Kyriazis, a biomedical gerontologist at the National Gerontology Center in Cyprus.

Although there have been reports of people living to 150 in the past, most of them are probably exaggerated, says Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford University who studies the demography of the Roman Empire.

Read more: When did people start to age?

“Nature designed the human body in such a way that we can have children, live a few more years to see our children grow up, and perhaps reach the age where we can see grandchildren,” says Kyriazis, who is author of the study “Aging throughout history: The evolution of the human lifespan”, published in Journal of Molecular Evolution.

However, the average number of people reaching the age to see their grandchildren has increased thanks to better hygiene, medicine and nutrition. But chronic degenerative diseases and other problems are harder to stop — nature doesn’t allow our bodies to make continuous repairs after a certain point, Kyriazis says.

Rough trends in human life expectancy in antiquity

Studying the lifespan of ancient humans is difficult because we haven’t found enough remains together to draw solid conclusions. But some research shows life expectancy was not that different between Neanderthals and early humans found in western Eurasia.

Other studies reveal that the life expectancy of Homo sapiens may have changed from the Middle Paleolithic to the later Upper Paleolithic as the ratio of older to younger remains increased. The same study shows that beginning about 30,000 years ago at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, the average life span began to exceed 30 years.

Another major change roughly coincides with the period between which humans began to adopt a sedentary lifestyle about 10 millennia ago, moving to urban centers such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey. A more nomadic lifestyle was relatively healthier than living in more densely populated cities back then, as urban areas lacked proper sewage systems and sanitation. As people lived in closer proximity to each other and to their livestock, disease could be transmitted more easily between humans and domesticated animals. Some research at Çatalhöyük suggests that as the city becomes denser, people are less healthy, possibly leading to a decline in life expectancy.

“People’s capacity to live longer was preserved, but many people died from disease and diet,” Kyriazis says.

In Roman times the records were much better in some cases. Scheidel studied the census records of Egypt when it was a province in the Roman Empire some two millennia ago. These records show that overall the average life expectancy was about 20 years.

Of course, a lot of people lived longer than that – the total number dropped largely because the infant mortality rate was high back then. For people past the age of five, life expectancy reaches somewhere in the 40s, Scheidel says.

An analysis of the Roman emperors about whom we have a lot of information reveals similar statistics. “Those who are not killed, which is a minority, have more or less the same life expectancy,” says Scheidl.

Which average?

Just as it must have been in the past, this lifespan is not evenly distributed. Hong Kong boasts the highest average life expectancy at 85.3 years, according to Worldometer. The Central African Republic suffered the lowest at 54.4 years, due to a combination of factors that included deaths from COVID-19 and other diseases and ongoing civil conflict. according to recent research.

The total life expectancy of people today is 73.2 years – 75.6 years for women and 70.8 years for men. This has increased greatly in just a few decades, partly due to advances in medicine. Data shows that in 1950 the average life expectancy was 47 years.

These improvements in life expectancy have led to a new focus, Kiriazis says. Whereas before people were primarily interested in having more children in order to survive, many people now have fewer children and focus more on their personal survival.

“For the first time in human history, we’re seeing the phenomenon where we’re going from the survival of children to our own survival,” he says.

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