Humans Achieved Old Age Prior to Modern Medicine

A study of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries suggests two seemingly timeless truths: Some people reach advanced ages likely due to good genes and biological factors, and women tend to live longer than men.


Information on human longevity in the historical record represents two extremes. On the one hand, there are the extreme claims in religion and myths: Methuselah in the Hebrew Bible supposedly lived to be 969 years old, early Christians indicated that Saint Servatius was 375, and a tombstone in the United Kingdom claims that a man named William Edwards died at age 168.

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.

Replica of the "Saxon Princess" bed burial at the Kirkleatham Museum in Redcar, UK | Wikimedia Commons

Oxenham explained that to avoid bias in determining what was considered a "normal" burial in the past, he and Cave looked for common grave attributes.

"For instance," he said, "it may be normal for children to be buried with toys, old females to be buried with one brooch and young males to be buried with a dagger in a hypothetical cemetery," he said. "Once we know what is 'normal,' we can then search for unusual burial practices, such as a child buried with a sword and an old male with the thimble."

In terms of normal burials, it appears to have been common for high status men to be buried with weapons, like a spear and a shield, or occasionally a sword. Such artifacts were present whether the men died relatively young, in their 30 or 40s, or at more advanced ages.

Women were more likely to be found in "non-normative" burials. Grave 103 at Great Chesterford, for example, contained the remains of a middle-aged woman who was buried face down close to the wall, with a dark stain occupying the space beside her and her belongings deposited in a corner.

The face down, or prone, position, is theorized to be associated with so-called "cunning women" who were labeled as witches. Such labeling was often done to diminish the financial and other powers of women in patriarchal societies.

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Two other prone burials, graves 43 and 78 and Worthy Park, contain no grave goods. The former contained the remains of a 25 to 30-year-old woman who appears to have been bound and "carelessly placed in a too-short grave," according to the authors.

Grave 78 contained the remains of a possible 13 to 15-year-old rape victim, as evidenced by femoral injuries. She went to her grave with her feet and hands bound.

"The possibility that they were bound, and their placement face down, without grave goods, suggests either some form of post-mortem punishment by the community, or, conversely, extreme fear of these individuals by the community that necessitated this positioning and binding in order to prevent their resurrection and subsequent return to the community," Oxenham said.

"A third possibility,” he continued, “is that these were victims of community sanctioned murder or execution, or perhaps even sacrifice. Without additional evidence for a 'smoking gun' — evidence for trauma or the preserved garrottes seen in some bog bodies, for instance — it is very difficult, if not impossible, to support such an interpretation, although the possibility cannot obviously be ruled out."

As for why anyone would even bother to bury a maligned individual, the researchers explained that sanitation, moral, social and religious reasons compelled the ancients to do so. During superstitious times, failure to bury someone could have been linked with bad harvests, plagues, wars and other feared repercussions.

Graves 94 and 95 at Mill Hill held the remains of older women, both who were over 65 years at death.

"They may have been the last two individuals buried in the cemetery, and who also may have been the last two pagans in the community," Cave said.

Illustration of Grave 94 contents at Mill Hill, Deal, Kent, UK | Geraldine Cave

Even though women, and particularly older women, did not seem to be as valued as men during Anglo-Saxon times, they nonetheless tended to have greater longevity, a pattern seen globally today. This adds to the growing body of evidence that genetic and biological factors greatly affect human longevity.

"However, a range of social or cultural factors, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, can conspire to either lengthen or shorten average life expectancy between males and females in different communities and at different periods in history," Oxenham said.

While men tend to die earlier, women experience increased morbidity, which means that they usually have no more productive years than men.

"It also means that women are more likely to be disabled, in pain, difficult to look after, or often complaining," Cave said. "This may contribute to the likelihood of their being given a non-normative burial."

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