On the other extreme, there is the long-standing belief that people who lived in ancient times — before the advent of modern medicine and other conveniences — hardly ever reached advanced ages. As English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) wrote, "the life of man" is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
The truth lies somewhere in between, at least for Anglo-Saxons who died during the period from 475 and 625 AD. A new study on their burials, published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, found that some men and women then lived over the age of 75, with women overall tending to live longer than men.
"To be sure, the advent of modern medicine, and a range of social developments, has led to the greater proportion of humanity living to old age," co-author Marc Oxenham of the Australian National University's School of Archaeology and Anthropology told Seeker.
"However," he added, "it is clear that thousands of years ago, humans were also living well into their 80s and 90s; just not a particularly high proportion of their communities managed that."
He and co-author Christine Cave looked at Anglo-Saxon burials in the UK cemeteries Greater Chesterford in Essex, Mill Hill in Kent, and Worthy Park in Hampshire.
The majority of adult age-at-death estimation techniques rely on the observation that as people age, parts of the body degenerate in a more or less predictable way. This approach only works up to about the age of 50 years, however, after which degeneration of the teeth and skeleton becomes highly variable.
"What this means is that we cannot accurately estimate the age-at-death of any individual skeleton after they reach an age of around 50 years, thus rendering the elderly — or those aged 60, 70, 80, 90 — in an archaeological population essentially invisible. In order to render these older people visible, we developed a simple new methodological approach," Oxenham said.
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He explained that the new method involves seriating, or ordering, a collection of skeletal remains from a cemetery from youngest to oldest. The ordering can be based on any meaningful indicator of age. In this case, they used tooth wear as a proxy for age in order to seriate the targeted Anglo-Saxon population.
Once this was achieved, they obtained data on another population with known demographic parameters to act as a model for the archaeological sample. By fitting the seriated sample to the model, they said that they were able to specifically identify the ages of the deceased individuals in the three UK cemeteries.
They determined that 7 women and 2 men buried in the cemeteries were older than 75 when they died. Ten women and 6 men died between the ages of 65–74. The majority of people, however, died between the ages of 30–44.
Cave initially did her honors research on Anglo-Saxon burials of children, but there are not very many to study, so she basically ran out of material after a while.
"Instead, I moved to the other end of the age spectrum, the elderly, which is a much under-theorized area of archaeological study," she said. "The reasons for this include the difficulties of skeletal aging, but also relate to modern attitudes to the elderly, where they are often marginalized into their own areas, retired from mainstream society and even de-gendered, infantilized and patronized."
Such negative attitudes toward the elderly were even seen in the Anglo-Saxon burials, but mostly in the graves of women.
The researchers found women were more likely to be given prominent burials if they died young. These graves often included jewelry, like brooches, beads, and pins, along with other items associated with enhanced beauty. This suggests that attractiveness, often tied to youth, was valued in women.