Length of Life: Short and Not So Merry

  • A. J. Jaffe


How long might a newly born human infant live? No one knows how long it will live because some infants die almost at birth and others live to be over a century of age and see their pictures published in the local newspapers. So we average (so to speak) the number of years lived by a group of people—a cohort—for example, all those born in 1910 or 1970 or any other specified time period, and that is length of life. That is how long the new infant might live.


Life Expectancy Life Table Skeletal Remains Physical Anthropologist Physical Ailment 
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  1. 1.
    For a brief summary of the anthropologists’ interest in prehistoric demography, see Armelagos and Medina (1977).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For sources of information on life expectancy of early people, see, for example, United Nations (1973); Acsadi and Nemeskeri (1970); and Vallois (1981). One can devote a lifetime (if so driven) to pursuing and perusing the multitudes of articles and books, if one can find them.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For example: Boserup (1965) and Cohen (1978).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Much of our sample of nonagriculturalists comes from sites of the Archaic period, some 3,000 years or so before the arrival of the Europeans. That of the agriculturalists is between 500 and 1,000 years prior to Columbus’s arrival. The difference is 2,000 years, or about 20 centuries.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The reader who is interested in pursuing this topic can begin with medical texts and follow with materials written by physical anthropologists. See, for example, the writings of Angel (1971a,b), Ubelaker (1978, 1980), Cybulski (personal communication), and Zimmerman (1980).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    An example of diversity that he reports is that for Breslau, at the end of the seventeenth century. Halley had calculated life expectancy of 33.5 years. Hishinuma (1977) recalculated and decided that 23.7 years was more probable. Hishinuma explains: “The numbers of death by age ... in the years 1722, 1723, and 1724 were added together and is a completely different material from the one used by Halley. However, there is no marked difference for a person aged 20 years and over between (us). However, with life expectancy at birth the figure given by Halley of 33.5 is 10 years longer than that given by me of 23.7” (p. 69). Apparently differences in estimating the death rate of young children (where death reporting is far from complete) was a major reason for the difference in life expectancy at birth.Google Scholar
  7. Perhaps also, the difference is due in part to a difference in timing. Halley used deaths by age and sex for the years 1687–1691. Hishinuma introduced data for the years 1722, 1723, and 1724 with no further explanation.Google Scholar
  8. See also Halley’s Degrees of Mortality of Mankind, reproduced by the Johns Hopkins Press, 1942, in its series Reprint of Economic Tracts. Lowell J. Reed edited the original Halley statement that appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1693, vol. xvii. and wrote the introduction to the Johns Hopkins reprint.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. J. Jaffe
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Columbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.National Museum of the American IndianNew YorkUSA

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