Longevity & health in ancient Paleolithic vs. Neolithic peoples
by Ward Nicholson
Special update as of April 1999: LATE-BREAKING ADVANCES IN PALEOPATHOLOGICAL AGE-ESTIMATION TECHNIQUES have suggested that studies based on earlier techniques (as in the paper discussed here) may underestimate the age at death of older individuals and overestimate that of younger individuals. It's possible the range of estimation errors involved could be substantial. Thus, the profile of age-distribution results in compilation studies like the one discussed below may be flattened or compressed with respect to "true age."
How does the health/longevity of late Paleolithic hunters-gatherers compare with that of the Neolithic farmers who succeeded them? Periodically one will hear it stated in online discussion forums devoted to raw foods and vegetarianism that Paleolithic peoples only lived to be 25 (or 30, or 35) years, or whatever age. (The lack of exactitude in such figures illustrates how substantiating one's "scientific facts" is not usually a very highly emphasized value in these forums.) The intended point usually being that those terribly debauched flesh-eating cavemen--and women, presumably--were not living very long due to their consumption of meat.
As is often the case with such "facts," however, if one looks at the documented sources, one sees a different picture. Here we present a summary of a classic paper on the health and longevity of late Paleolithic (pre-agricultural) and Neolithic (early agricultural) people. [Source: Angel, Lawrence J. (1984) "Health as a crucial factor in the changes from hunting to developed farming in the eastern Mediterranean." In: Cohen, Mark N.; Armelagos, George J. (eds.) (1984) Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture (proceedings of a conference held in 1982). Orlando: Academic Press. (pp. 51-73)]
Note that these figures come from studies in the field of "paleopathology" (investigation of health, disease, and death from archaeological study of skeletons) of remains in the eastern Mediterranean (defined in Angel's paper to also include Greece and western Turkey), an area where a more continuous data sample is available from ancient times. Due to the unavoidable spottiness of the archaeological record in general, however, samples from the Balkans, the Ukraine, North Africa, and Israel were included for the earliest (Paleolithic and Mesolithic) periods. While the populations in the region were not always directly descended from one another, focusing the study within the eastern Mediterranean minimizes bias in the data due to genetic change over time.
The table below is adapted and condensed considerably from Angel's full table included in the above paper. Angel comments on the indicators given in the table below that archaeologically, lifespan is the simplest indicator of overall health. Growth and nutrition status can be generally indicated by skull base height, pelvic inlet depth index, and adult stature--the latter two of which are shown here in addition to lifespan.
|30,000 to 9,000 B.C. ("Late Paleolithic" times, i.e., roughly 50/50 plant/animal diet--according to latest figures available elsewhere.)||177.1 (5'9.7)||166.5 (5'5.6)||35.4||30.0|
|9,000 to 7,000 B.C. ("Mesolithic" transition period from Paleolithic to some agricultural products.)||172.5 (5'7.9)||159.7 (5'2.9)||33.5||31.3|
|7,000 to 5,000 B.C. ("Early Neolithic," i.e., agriculture first spreads widely: As diet becomes more agricultural, it also becomes more vegetarian in character--relatively much less meat at roughly 10% of the diet, and much more plant food, much of which was grain-based.)||169.6 (5'6.8)||155.5 (5'1.2)||33.6||29.8|
|5,000 to 3,000 B.C. ("Late Neolithic," i.e., the transition is mostly complete.)||161.3 (5'3.5)||154.3 (5'0.7)||33.1||29.2|
|3,000 to 2,000 B.C. ("Early Bronze" period)||166.3 (5'5.4)||152.9 (5'0.2)||33.6||29.4|
|2,000 B.C. and following ("Middle People")||166.1 (5'5.4)||153.5 (5'0.4)||36.5||31.4|
|Circa 1,450 B.C. ("Bronze Kings")||172.5 (5'7.9)||160.1 (5'3.0)||35.9||36.1|
|1,450 to 1,150 B.C. ("Late Bronze")||166.8 (5'5.7)||154.5 (5'0.8)||39.6||32.6|
|1,150 to 650 B.C. ("Early Iron")||166.7 (5'5.6)||155.1 (5'1.1)||39.0||30.9|
|650 to 300 B.C. ("Classic")||170.5 (5'7.1)||156.2 (5'1.5)||44.1||36.8|
|300 B.C. to 120 A.D. ("Hellenistic")||171.9 (5'7.7)||156.4 (5'1.6)||41.9||38.0|
|120 to 600 A.D. ("Imperial Roman")||169.2 (5'6.6)||158.0 (5'2.2)||38.8||34.2|
|Medieval Greece||169.3 (5'6.7)||157.0 (5'1.8)||37.7||31.1|
|Byzantine Constantinople||169.8 (5'6.9)||154.9 (5'1.0)||46.2||37.3|
|1400 to 1800 A.D. ("Baroque")||172.2 (5'7.8)||158.0 (5'2.2)||33.9||28.5|
|1800 to 1920 A.D. ("Romantic")||170.1 (5'7.0)||157.6 (5'2.0)||40.0||38.4|
|"Modern U.S. White" (1980-ish presumably)||174.2 (5'8.6)||163.4 (5'4.3)||71.0||78.5|
One can see from the above data that things are rarely as clear-cut as dietary purists would like them to be. For any period in time, there is good and there is bad.
The main thing to note here about the short average lifespans compared to modern times is that the major causes are thought to have been "occupational hazards," i.e., accidents, trauma, etc., stresses of nomadism, and so forth. It is not always clear how strongly other conclusions can be drawn about the effect of diet from these figures, but all other things being equal
• Median longevity decreased slightly during the first several millennia after the introduction of agricultural foods during which plant foods became a greater part of the diet, and meat a lesser part, than previously. This would seem to indicate that meat/protein consumption itself would not have been the factor responsible for decreased longevity (since less of it was being eaten after the late Paleolithic).
• From some of the later time periods involved where civilizations were on the rise and fall, it appears that social factors have the biggest impact on longevity, particularly since longevity never rose above about age 45 for long, often falling below that figure for centuries at a time, until the 1900s, since which time it has almost doubled. Perhaps the most reliable conclusion to be drawn from the data here is that while diet is a significant influence on longevity, it is only part of the mix, and perhaps not as powerful a determinant as other factors. Angel himself comments on the interplay among them:
The table shows two differing breakdowns of health with subsequent advances. [Note: in the original table, there were additional data besides the above that indicated health status as based on skeletal indices.]
First, there was a fairly sharp decline in growth and nutrition during the confusions and experiments of the transformation from hunting to farming, with its many inventions and increasing trade and disease between about 10,000 and 5,000 B.C. Partial recoveries and advances in health occurred during the Bronze Age rise of civilization; then real advance (e.g., a 7 to 11-year increase in longevity) occurred with the rise of Hellenic-Roman culture.
Second, there was an increase in disease and crowding during the decline and religious metamorphosis of the Roman Empire, eventually leading to an irregular breakdown of general, but not nutritional, health under a complex disease load, from about A.D. 1300 to 1700. (p. 58)
Other interesting tidbits on diet and health from Angel's paper relating to the Paleolithic/Neolithic transition:
• In prehistoric times (which would include Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods in the table above), human infant mortality was 20-30%. (For wild animals, the figure is 60-80%.) Few people lived much past the end of their fertile reproductive period.
• Paleolithic females died younger than males due to the stresses of pregnancy and childbirth while still carrying the burdens of food-collecting and moving camp.
• "The best explanation for relatively short [Paleolithic] life span is the combination of stresses of nomadism, climate, and warfare. The latter is especially clear in the Jebel Sahaba population, where projectile wounds affecting bone are very common and 'almost half the population probably died violently.' [Wendorf 1968]" (pp. 59-60) [Note: violence/trauma as a major cause of death was also true of the Mesolithic as well.]
• A somewhat more sedentary pattern during the Mesolithic increased longevity of females slightly due to lessened migration stress. On the other hand, the incipient decreases seen in stature indicate a somewhat increased level of disease (such as malaria, hookhorm), likely resulting from more settlements near water and marshes. (Increased seafood consumption in lieu of red meat may also have had the effect of reduced caloric consumption, a contributor to nutritional stress as well.)
• Drop in stature due to nutritional stress begins appearing in places during the Mesolithic although in general it is still good. One site shows signs of seasonal growth arrest. [Note: Growth arrest lines in bone are seen in the young of populations experiencing seasonal food shortages and consequent nutritional shortfall.] There are also a few site-specific (i.e., localized, not widespread) indications of anemia (i.e., porotic hyperostosis, which is bone marrow-space thickening and porosity), possibly due to thalassemia, a new disease which apparently evolved a few thousand years earlier. Hunting continued at a high enough level, however, so that protein and vitamin D levels were maintained at sufficient levels to sustain relatively healthy growth, and only small losses in adult stature are seen overall compared to the Paleolithic.
• Mesolithic subsistence was characterized by four new practices and inventions: (1) The use of "composite" tools fashioned from multiple rather than simply single materials, including harpoons, arrows, and sickles; (2) the bow-and-arrow (which partially replaced spears and atlatls [an atlatl is a spear-throwing device]; (3) domestication of the dog for hunting (which also became pets); and (4) harvesting of wild grain (prior to actual cultivation later). A 100m rise in sea level at this time due to climatic warming led to encroachment of water further inland promoting a northward spread of malaria into populations not yet adapted. The rise in sea level tended to restrict migration; however, trading for obsidian (a type of volcanic stone/glass prized for sharp-edged tools) helped offset this, and promoted knowledge and spread of farming practices and also sailboats and fishing.
• During the Neolithic, population density increased from 10 to 50-fold over the Paleolithic, supported by the spread of grain-farming. Angel estimates meat consumption fell to 10-20% of the Paleolithic level with this transition in subsistence.
• Neolithic sites show an increasingly settled way of life as exemplified by evidence of food storage. However, farming was hard work, and skeletal evidence shows signs of the heavy effort needed, which--combined with a diet adequate in calories but barely or less than adequate in minerals from the depleting effects of phytate (phytates in grains bind minerals and inhibit absorption)--led to a state of low general health. The considerable decrease in stature at this time (roughly 4-6 inches, or 12-16 cm, shorter than in pre-agricultural times) is believed to have resulted from restricted blood calcium and/or vitamin D, plus insufficient essential amino acid levels, the latter resulting from the large fall in meat consumption at this time (as determined by strontium/calcium ratios in human bone remains).
• Most disease stressors in evidence at this time came from crowded settlement, and included hookworm, dysentery, and malaria consequent upon more frequent location of settlements near marshes/streams without tree cover. Also at this time, genetic adaptation to endemic infectious diseases such as malaria began to occur.
• Low nutritional and health status continued from the late Neolithic with only slight fluctuations until Classical times 5,000 years later, as told in the evidence of skull base height 15% below the Paleolithic norm, a pelvic inlet depth index 7% below, and 3 to 4 times higher rates of dental disease. (Efficient early childhood growth is reflected in skull base height and in evidences of dental health, while pelvic inlet depth index and long-bone roundness are indicators of the degree of late childhood nutrition.) Strontium/calcium ratios point to low levels of red meat consumption. However, zinc levels were on a par with those of modern times (a mineral that typically is gotten in the largest quantities from animal foods) strongly suggesting it was coming from fish, since red meat consumption was low, and the zinc levels found are beyond the amounts possible from plant-food consumption only.
Given this animal food source for critical skeletal-building minerals--which would normally also be reflected in good values for skull base height, pelvic inlet depth, and adult stature--the poor mineral status reflected in these measurements points to part of the explanation as the effect of continued phytate intake from grains, a substance which binds minerals preventing efficient absorption.
Angel sums up the Paleolithic-to-Neolithic-and-beyond transition as follows [p. 68]:
Disease effects were minor in the Upper [Late] Paleolithic except for trauma. In postglacially hot areas, porotic hyperostosis [indicative of anemia] increased in Mesolithic and reached high frequencies in Neolithic to Middle Bronze times. [Reminder note: The end of the last Ice Age and the consequent melting of glaciers which occurred at the cusp of the Paleolithic/Neolithic transition caused a rise in sea level, with a consequent increase in malaria in affected inland areas which became marshy as a result.] Apparently this resulted mainly from thalassemias, since children show it in long bones as well as their skulls. But porotic hyperostosis in adults had other causes too, probably from iron deficiency from hookworm, amebiasis, or phytate, effect of any of the malarias. The thalassemias necessarily imply falciparum malaria. This disease may be one direct cause of short stature.
The other pressure limiting stature and probably also fertility in early and developing farming times was deficiency of protein and of iron and zinc from ingestion of too much phytic acid [e.g., from grains] in the diet. In addition, new diseases including epidemics emerged as population increased, indicated by an increase of enamel arrest lines in Middle Bronze Age samples....
We can conclude that farmers were less healthy than hunters, at least until Classical to Roman times. [Due to the difficulty in disentangling all relevant factors, as Angel explains a bit earlier] [w]e cannot state exactly how much less healthy they were, however, or exactly how or why.