Sunday, May 26, 2024

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

— PSALM S 90:10

Strange but true: The average height expectancy of prehistoric humans was about three feet, so a four-foot tall man was considered a giant.

Does that fact alter your image of prehistory? Are you picturing a diminutive race of bonsai people living in mini-caves, chasing rabbits into holes, cowering in fear of foxes, being carried off by hawks? Does this cause you to rethink what a challenge a mammoth hunt must have been for our half-pint ancestors? Does it make you feel even luckier to be living today, when our superior diet and sanitation have doubled the average person’s height expectancy?

Well, don’t get carried away. While it is technically true that the average “height expectancy” of prehistoric men was about three feet, it’s a misleading sort of truth. Like overconfident declarations about the universality of marriage, poverty, and war, it’s the sort of assertion that sows confusion and results in a harvest of misleading data.

Take the average height of a full-grown man living in prehistoric times (using skeletal remains as a guide): about six feet tall (72 inches). Then take the average size of a prehistoric infant’s skeleton (let’s say about 20 inches). Then extrapolate from the ratio of infant-to-adult skeletons at known archaeological burial sites and presume that in general, for every three people who lived to adulthood, seven died as infants. Thus, owing to the high rate of infant mortality, average human height in prehistory was (3 × 72) + (7 × 20) ÷ 10 = 35.6 inches. Roughly three feet.1

Absurd? Yes. Misleading? Yup. Statistically accurate? Well, kinda.

This height expectancy “truth” is no more absurd or misleading than what most people are led to believe about human life expectancy in prehistory.

Exhibit A: In an interview with NBC Nightly News,2 UCSF biophysicist Jeff Lotz was discussing the prevalence of chronic back pain in the United States. The millions of people watching that night heard him explain, “It wasn’t until two or three hundred years ago that we lived past age forty-five, so our spines really haven’t evolved to the point where they can maintain this upright posture with these large gravity loads for the duration of our lives [emphasis added].”

Exhibit B: In an otherwise solid book about women in prehistory (The Invisible Sex), an archaeologist, an anthropologist, and an editor of one of the world’s leading science magazines team up to imagine the life of a typical woman they call Ursula, living in Europe 45,000 years ago. “Life was hard,” they write, “and many, especially the young and the old, died of starvation in winter and accidents of one sort or another, as well as disease.… Ursula [having had her first daughter at age fifteen] lived long enough to see her first granddaughter, dying at the ripe old age of 37 [emphasis added].”3

Exhibit C: In a New York Times article,4 James Vaupel, director of the laboratory of survival and longevity at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, explains, “There is no fixed life span.” Dr. Vaupel points to the increase in life expectancy from 1840 to today in countries where the figure is rising quickest and notes that this increase is “linear, absolutely linear, with no evidence of any decline or tapering off.” From this, he concludes, “There’s no reason that life expectancy can’t continue to go up two to three years per decade.”

Except that there is. At some point, all the babies who can survive to adulthood, do. Further advances will be slight.

Money & Banking

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