How Long Did they Have? Life Expectancy in History

Every semester a student asks me this question: how long did people live in ancient times? Was it really only 35 years?

General life expectancy across the world for most of history was, indeed 35. However, “life expectancy” is a terribly imprecise term, giving the impression that any particular person could only expect to live roughly 35 years.

What is should be called is average life span. The number – in this case 35 – is the average of the ages of people at death. Doesn’t that mean most people’s ages should still hover around 35? After all, surviving is harder for old people than young people.

Actually, not so much.

Childhood Life Expectancy

Until the 19th century, only half of children survived to adulthood, with the majority of those deaths happening before the age of five. Therefore, there’s a lot of single digits in the mix; for every child with an age of zero, someone gets to live until 70 and still end up with an average of 35.

And there’s lots and lots of zeros.

Human babies are ridiculously fragile creatures. They have poor immune systems, are so weak they can’t hold their head up for several weeks, and can’t move around for several months. They have zero common sense. It takes years for a human to reach a level of maturity where he has a chance of surviving on his own, unlike animals, which generally reach such a level in weeks or months.

Honestly, I have no idea how any of us survive.

Babies don’t die like they used to because of modern medicine and sanitation, both of which are largely 19th and 20th century developments. We consider the existence of these things as normal, so we think of the elderly as being the fragile ones, because luckily most of us won’t die until we are elderly.

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Childhood was the biggest threat to survival. For women, childbirth continued to be a substantial threat. I don’t know specific maternal mortality rates in history, but in Afghanistan today one in eight mothers die as a complication of pregnancy or childbirth.

One in eight. That might actually be even worse than the middle ages.   I don’t know. What I do know is Afghanistan is an awful place to live and pretty much always has been. Give me the middle ages. At least it has cathedrals.

Life Expectancy Past Childhood

One’s 20s, 30s and 40s are the safest period of a person’s life. Thus, while life expectancy might be 35, there’s actually relatively few people dying around the age of 35. Once you get past childhood, there’s a very reasonable chance of you making it into your 50s or 60s, and there were certainly people who lived past that. Michelangelo died at about the age of 90, for example.  So did Ramesses the Great.  Plato was 80.  Emperor Augustus was 76.

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