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Don’t believe everything you see on Facebook!

The other day, a friend of mine shared this image with me bullshit caveman memeand said “So what can we say…?” and it’s a good point, this is something I am often asked about, but it’s not come up for a while, so it’s worth me covering today.

I could write a whole book on this, but I’ll hit it here in super-brief form.

Frankly, it’s a common myth.

‘Caveman’ didn’t die at 35. Well, I am sure some did, but in reality, a third died in childhood, a third died young from accidents or predators or disease, and a third lived to old age. But when we look at millions of people over thousands of years, we arrive at a single figure for life expectancy, and many people then wrongly believe that this meant ‘the age that everyone lived to’, rather than a broad statistical average.

The trouble with data

Life expectancy figures are vast generalisations. Anthropologists look at a big base such as ‘the entire human race’ over a period of time such as ‘the paleolithic era’ which means “everything from 190,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago”.

So we are looking at ALL people, over 180,000 years of NON-written history, largely derived from the fossil record, and covering billions of lives over huge stretches of time, tens of thousands of years, spread across all climates and geographies around the planet. When statistical data for “caveman” is talked about, the time frame covered spans multiple ice ages, multiple times when the entire of Europe and North America was entirely uninhabitable, covered in 40 meters of ice, and times when the Sahara desert was grasslands, and the landmass in the Southern hemisphere was twice the size it is now, due to much lower sea levels. Comparing such data to a snapshot like “today” is not really comparing like-with-like.

In reality, average lifespan data is/was massively dragged down by incredibly high infant mortality rates.

Infant mortality

40% of humans born in ‘caveman times’ wouldn’t survive to their 1st birthday. There were no midwives, no ‘gas and air’, no maternity wards, no pain killers. Many babies died in birth, and many women died giving birth. No modern medicine to help with all the myriad complications of childbirth.

A further 50% of those that survived would not reach adulthood.

Tropical spiders and snakes, poor sanitation (we defecated on the same ground where we ate and slept), infectious tropical diseases and a lack of any kind of child safety measures…all led to massively high child mortality rates, diseases and accidents.

However, of those who reached adulthood, then the main game to living was avoiding injuries and predators - not avoiding diabetes, heart disease and cancer as it is today.

A broken ankle meant you couldn’t hunt, and you would likely die of starvation. So falling out of a tree while foraging for eggs may have led to life-threatening injuries. Folks lived down in the dirt, and didn’t have guns, so large predatory animals such as lions, bears and wolves - as well as snakes, scorpions and spiders - were a serious hazard.

All these factors dragged down life expectancy data.

Rough data

In reality, and I don’t have the exact data to hand, so these are my own estimates based on the many books I have read on this topic, the real scenario was probably more like this:

  • 35% of all humans born never made it to their 1st birthday (in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa today, sadly, such loss can still happen today)
  • 30% of all humans born reached 1, but never reached adulthood
  • 17% of all humans born died between 15 and 50 from injuries and predators
  • 18% lived to a ripe old age in their 70s, 80s and even 90s - no heart disease, no cancer, no diabetes. The fossil records show that men and women did live into their 90s, with no bone deformities, no dental cavities, and no obvious signs of nutritional deficiencies

Numbers are approximate, as I do not have to time to go through all my books and provide references for all this, sorry! I am merely trying to get you to see how the high infant mortality rates led to low overall average life expectancy.

‘Average caveman’ dies at 35

So the net result of all this is that average population data makes it look like ‘the average person died at 35’ but in fact, that’s a classic statistical weakness, and not an accurate portrayal of the facts.

Modern medicine, modern maternal care, modern midwifery and modern health and safety have taken child mortality in the West down to about 1% or less, and most babies that survive the first week, go on to adulthood (hence our global over-population problem). Globally, child mortality (children that die under 5 years of age) is at about 4.6% now, but again it’s sub-Saharan Africa that is three times as bad as the rest of the world, so skewing the global average.

These days, far fewer people die of injuries from accidents. When we hurt ourselves, we go to hospital and have wounds cleaned out, and sterile dressings applied, and boned re-set. Our ancient ancestors had no such niceties, and hunting injuries may have often led to infections and loss of limbs or death.

I will keep this short, I hope that has given you some insight. I have blogged about various aspects of ‘caveman life’ a few times before, try these links if you are interested in reading more.

Training hard to resist aging and weakening -

Avoiding injuries, training and eating ‘caveman style’ -

Paleo-Reality Part 1: What’s right and wrong about paleo diets. -…/paleo-reality-part-1-whats-r…/

Various tags for ‘caveman’ here -

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