It was common for people to live to old ages in cultures throughout history, a study has found, dispelling the myth that most humans did not survive past 40 prior to modern medicine.
Christine Cave from Australian National University (ANU) has developed a new method for determining the age-of-death for skeletal remains based on how worn the teeth are.
Using her method, which she developed by analysing the wear on teeth and comparing with living populations of comparable cultures, she examined the skeletal remains of three Anglo-Saxon English cemeteries for people buried between the years 475 and 625.
The research, published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, determined that it was not uncommon for people to live to old age.
“People sometimes think that in those days if you lived to 40 that was about as good as it got. But that’s not true,” said Cave.
“For people living traditional lives without modern medicine or markets the most common age of death is about 70, and that is remarkably similar across all different cultures,” she said.
Cave said the myth has been built up due to deficiencies in the way older people are categorised in archaeological studies.
“Older people have been very much ignored in archaeological studies and part of the reason for that has been the inability to identify them,” she said.
“When you are determining the age of children you use developmental points like tooth eruption or the fusion of bones that all happen at a certain age,” she added.
“Once people are fully grown it becomes increasingly difficult to determine their age from modern medicine, which is why most studies just have the highest age category of 40 plus or 45 plus,” she added.
“So effectively they don’t distinguish between a fit and healthy 40-year-old and a frail 95-year-old.
Cave said the new method will give archaeologists a more accurate view of past societies and what life was like for older people.
For those in the three cemeteries she studied, she found a marked difference in the way male and female people of old age were buried.
“Women were more likely to be given prominent burials if they died young, but were much less likely to be given one if they were old,” she said.
“The higher status men are generally buried with weapons, like a spear and a shield or occasionally a sword.
“Women were buried with jewellery, like brooches, beads and pins. This highlights their beauty which helps explain why most of the high-status burials for women were for those who were quite young,” she said.