Life Expectancy and Growth of Paleolithic vs. Neolithic Humans

If paleolithic people were healthier than us due to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, why did they have a shorter life expectancy than we do today? I was just reminded by Scott over at Modern Forager about some data on paleolithic (pre-agriculture) vs. neolithic (post-agriculture) life expectancy and growth characteristics. Here's a link to the table, which is derived from an article in the text Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture.

The reason the table is so interesting is it allows us to ask the right question. Instead of "why did paleolithic people have a shorter life expectancy than we do today?", we should ask "how did the life expectancy of paleolithic people compare to that of pre-industrial neolithic people?" That's what will allow us to tease the effects of lifestyle apart from the effects of modern medicine.

The data come from age estimates of skeletons from various archaeological sites representing a variety of time periods in the Mediterranean region. Paleolithic skeletons indicated a life expectancy of 35.4 years for men and 30.0 years for women, which includes a high rate of infant mortality. This is consistent with data from the Inuit that I posted a while back (life expectancy excluding infant mortality = 43.5 years). With modest fluctuations, the life expectancy of humans in this Mediterranean region remained similar from paleolithic times until the last century. I suspect the paleolithic people died most often from warfare, accidents and infectious disease, while the neolithic people died mostly from chronic disease, and infectious diseases that evolved along with the domestication of animals (zoonotic diseases). But I'm just speculating based on what I know about modern populations, so you can take that at face value.

The most interesting part of the table is actually not the life expectancy data. It also contains numbers for average stature and pelvic inlet depth. These are both markers of nutritional status during development. Pelvic inlet depth is a measure of the size of the pelvic canal through which a baby would pass during birth. It can be measured in men and women, but obviously its implications for birth only apply to women. As you can see in the table, stature and pelvic inlet depth declined quite a bit with the adoption of agriculture, and still have not reached paleolithic levels to this day.

The idea that a grain-based diet interferes with normal skeletal development isn't new. It's well-accepted in the field of archaeology that the adoption of grains coincided with a shortening of stature, thinner bones and crooked, cavity-ridden teeth. This fact is so well accepted that these sorts of skeletal changes are sometimes used as evidence that grains were adopted in a particular region historically. Weston Price saw similar changes in the populations he studied, as they transitioned from traditional diets to processed-food diets rich in white wheat flour, sweets and other processed foods.

The change in pelvic inlet depth is also very telling. Modern childbirth is so difficult, it makes you wonder why our bodies have evolved to make it so drawn-out and lethal. Without the aid of modern medicine, many of the women who now get C-sections and other birth interventions would not make it. My feeling is that we didn't evolve to make childbirth so lethal. It's more difficult in modern times, at least partially because we have a narrower pelvic inlet than our ancestors. Another thing Weston Price commented on was the relative ease of childbirth in many of the traditional societies he visited. Here's an exerpt from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration:
A similar impressive comment was made to me by Dr. Romig, the superintendent of the government hospital for Eskimos and Indians at Anchorage, Alaska. He stated that in his thirty-six years among the Eskimos, he had never been able to arrive in time to see a normal birth by a primitive Eskimo woman. But conditions have changed materially with the new generation of Eskimo girls, born after their parents began to use foods of modern civilization. Many of them are carried to his hospital after they had been in labor for several days. One Eskimo woman who had married twice, her last husband being a white man, reported to Dr. Romig and myself that she had given birth to twenty-six children and that several of them had been born during the night and that she had not bothered to waken her husband, but had introduced him to the new baby in the morning.
Now that's what I call fertility!


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