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Myth busting – Part 9

This post is Part 9 of a continuing short series of posts tackling persistent myths in the world of healthy eating, with a particular focus on the consumption of animal foods as a source of ill health and environmental destruction.

If you like to cut through the b/s you see on social media these days and understand, in plain English, what’s really going on, then you may like to read the whole series starting from Myth busting – Part 1

Myth: All this talk of our ancient ancestors, how we evolved eating a lot of meat and this talk of ‘prehistoric man’ is all very interesting, but didn’t caveman die at like, 35 years old?


Truth: Prehistoric man didn’t die at 35. Infant mortality was very high, and a lot of people died from predators, communicable diseases and accidents. The rest lived to a good age. Cancer did exist, but as far as we know (from fossil evidence, which isn’t much), it was quite rare.

I blogged this whole piece a little while back, so if you regularly read my blog then you may have already seen this one, but it really fits with the other myths we are busting and paradigms we are shifting here in this mini-series, so I thought I would run it for you again as we transition from ‘animal consumption and human health’ to ‘animal agriculture and the environment’ which is coming up next.

‘Caveman’ didn’t always ‘die at 35’

Don’t believe everything you see on social media!

bullshit caveman meme

Recently, a friend of mine shared this image with me and asked me “So what can we say…?” and it’s a good point, this is something I am often asked about, it’s a common myth about our ancient ancestors. I could write a whole book on this, but I’ll keep it brief here.

‘Caveman’, our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors, didn’t all die at 35. Well, I am sure some did, but in reality, a third died in childhood, a third died at some point in adult life from accidents or predators or disease, and a third lived to old age. But when we look at the extrapolated data covering many 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 who ever lived, over a period of 180,000 years of non-written, non-recorded times (that’s why they call it pre-history), largely derived from the fossil record. We are covering hundreds of millions 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.

Coming up with any kind of single figure to cover all those people across all those tens of thousands of years, living in all areas of the planet and suffering through all manner of climatic hardship, massive volcanic eruptions, ice ages and more, becomes really quite meaningless. 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 and no post-natal care. Many babies died in birth or soon after, and many women died giving birth. No modern medicine to help with all the myriad complications of childbirth. Babies were born down in the dirt, to hunter-gatherer peoples who lived life on the move, searching for food and trying to avoid predators and bad weather.

A further 50% of those that survived birth and the first few weeks, likely would not have made it to adulthood.

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

With 40% dying in the first year, and then half of the remainder failing to reach full maturity (adulthood), that meant as much as 70% of humans born dying very young. This is what drags down the average life expectancy data.

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

Seriousness of injuries

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. There was no emergency department, no ambulance and no hospital, so when caveman broke bones he was in trouble. With no vaccinations, tetanus jabs, sterile dressings or even a Band-Aid, when caveman suffered cuts and lacerations, he was open to life-threateningly serious infections.

There were many hazards threatening our caveman ancestors’ safety. All these factors dragged down life expectancy data.

Rough data

In reality, and I don’t have the exact data to hand (it’s buried in a number of books on my over-crowded shelves) so these are my own estimates based on those books I have read on this topic, the real scenario was probably more like this:

  • 35% to 40% 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 survived birth and the first week, but never reached adulthood
  • Circa 17%-18% of all humans born died between 15 and 50 from injuries and predators (percentage is my estimate)
  • Circa 17%-18% lived to a ripe old age in their 70s, 80s and even 90s – we don’t have data, but there is no evidence of obesity, or heart disease, very little evidence of cancer, and we are fairly certain there was no diabetes. The fossil records show that men and women did live into their 80s and 90s, with no bone deformities, no dental cavities, and no obvious signs of nutritional deficiencies (again, data and percentages are estimated)

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

The net result of all this is that long-term 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 modern developed world 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 bones re-set. Our ancient ancestors had no such niceties, and hunting injuries may have often led to infections, loss of limbs and eventually death.

In modern times, we have eradicated most of the infectious agents that used to kill so many people, certainly in the developed world at least. Modern sanitation and healthcare have solved many more problems. In ancient times, people died from injuries and predators…then it was smallpox and plague…then it was world wars…given that all those things seem to be behind us now, we have truly reached an era where human health and longevity could potentially reach all-new highs.

What kills most of us now is non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These are chronic conditions that develop within us over time – including heart disease and stroke, cancers, respiratory diseases and diabetes.

Well done, you made it to the end of Part 9 of our Myth Busting mini-series! Now, for Parts 10, 11 and 12, we are moving on to the connections between animal agriculture and environmental pollution. This is a topic of great personal interest to me, the next 3 posts are very exciting indeed.


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