Ancient People Lived Longer Than You Think

Why most people misinterpret life expectancy
Ancient People Lived Longer Than You Think

Theres a very common misconception of the past that Id like to debunk right here, right now. A correction you can carry with you so that you may in turn debunk it some day in a future conversation, making your friends think, “Wow, you’re smarter than we thought!”

This is the idea that the human lifespan has dramatically extended over the course of history. Plenty of people seem to think that the idea of someone living up to and past the age of 70 would be unimaginable in Ancient Rome, or similar civilizations of the past. Which is just not true. Pliny the Elder in the 1st century A.D. mentioned people living past 100, and theyre not described as demons or supernatural beings, just people who are particularly old. 

Studying unearthed skeletons gives us evidence even further back, that humans have had long natural lifespans for over 160,000 years.

Old people are nothing new, in more ways than one.

So why do some people still insist on thinking that 30-year-olds from ancient times were probably holed up in bed, picking out burial plots and bequeathing such and such to their children? 

Its from a misinterpretation of a very misleadingly applied mathematical figure meant to show how long we live: life expectancy. It even runs up against a classical statistical frustration, which is the overuse of means, or averages, instead of median when trying to show middle values.

The shortcoming of using averages instead of medians is that they give outsized power to outliers. When were talking about life expectancy, theres one very prominent, and extremely dark outlier: infant mortality rates. One thing thats very true about ancient populations is that they were a whole lot worse at delivering babies than we are today, and had a much worse understanding of medicine. 

In Rome, for example, up to one-third of infants died before the age of one, and things got even worse from there — up to half of children died before age 10. Thats a lot of figurative stones on one end of the scale, yanking the needle to the few dozen years people think of when it comes to ancient age-of-deaths.

When we say that people are living longer now thanks to developments in medicine, its not wrong, but its not exactly what you think. Doctors arent spitting in the face of god and stretching our species lifespan longer and longer, theres just a lot more people dying of old age. The ceiling on a humans ability to stick around when in good health has remained remarkably stable.

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