Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Most cavemen never lived past 35!"

One of the most common objections to the Paleo diet resolved around the life expectancy of Paleolithic humans. It is not infrequent to hear comments like "but most cavemen never lived past 35!"

I recently responded to such an assertion on a forum. My response was as follows:

The assertion that "most paleolithic humans never lived beyond 35 years old" is misleading; it would be more accurate to say that the median life expectancy of Paleolithic humans is about 35 years.

A slightly better way to frame the question is "How does the health and longevity of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers compare with that of the Neolithic farmers who succeeded them?" This question is very well addressed here: Longevity & health in ancient Paleolithic vs. Neolithic peoples

The short summary of the article is that:

  • Paleolithic humans have a median lifespan of 30 to 35 years depending on gender, with a certain stature (body height) and frame size (a loose indicator of strength).

  • As agriculture is developed (i.e. the diet becomes no longer Paleo), the life expectancy became shorter, and people became shorter with smaller frames.

  • The life expectancy did not recover until close to 1500 B.C., when it went back up to about 35 to 40 years depending on the gender. However, people continue to remain short with smaller frames.

  • The life expectancy hovered at around 40 years all the way to some time in the middle of the 20th century. However, people were never again as tall or strong as they were in the Paleolithic times.

Basically, as people transitioned away from a Paleo diet toward a grain-based Neolithic diet, they became weaker and shorter, and died sooner. Some other non-dietary factors that came along much later were able to gradually recover the life expectancy, but not the height and strength.

For those who insist on comparing the life expectancy of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers with that of modern 21st century humans, realize that the differences are due mostly to technology and societal change, not to diet. These include:

  • Clean and reliable sources of drinking water

  • Vaccinations, antibiotics, surgeries

  • Reduced rates of trauma (no longer need to run from predators or to hunt)

  • Reduced rates of violence (homicides, warfare)

But even with all the benefits of technology and societal change, babies born today are expected to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Reason? The diet.


  1. Hi Gary,

    Gotta seriously question that vaccines have had any overall impact on our longevity (altough they have shortened a hell of alot of individual lives...) - a simple examination of the vaccine introduction timeline vs the bell curve of each disease pretty much says it all - vaccines were introduced in the last stages of our cumulative immune systems mopping up the end of the disease vector in EVERY instance. the holy cow of modern medicine is actually the social achievements of modern nutrition and sanitation around the turn of the 1900's. the medical field just co-opted that for themselves and called it vaccine victory.

    Now the corporate machine has turned diet against us and our children can expect to live shorter lives because of the piss poor food being peddled.

  2. Hi Ravi,

    I am of the perspective that on the whole vaccines have been quite beneficial for the health and longevity of the modern day society by preventing and/or eradicating many diseases (e.g. polio, smallpox, pertussis, etc.). However, if you have good data that suggests otherwise, I am certainly willing to take a look and see whether I may learn something new.

  3. don't recommend vaccines, please. one truth and onto another lie