New Research Dispels the Myth That Ancient Cultures Had Universally Short Lifespans

Teeth are key to identifying elderly remains

The truth is in the tooth (iStock/Drbouz)
smithsonian.com

After examining the graves of over 300 people buried in Anglo Saxon English cemeteries between 475 and 625 AD, archaeologist Christine Cave of the Australian National University made a discovery that might surprise you. She found that several of the bodies in the burial grounds were over 75 years old when they died.

Cave has developed a new technique for estimating the age that people died based on how worn their teeth are​. The work is dispelling myths that ancient cultures had universally short lifespans, Stephanie Dalzell reports for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

 "Teeth are wonderful things. They can tell us so much about a person, they are simply marvelous," Cave tells Dalzell.

While archeologists have long been able to estimate the age at time of death for younger people based on their skeletal development, techniques for dating older people have been inconsistent. "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,” Cave explains in a statement released by the university. But because the degradation from aging impacts skeletons in such a diverse range of ways, it’s harder to come up with a single universal comparison point.

"We normally just lump our age of death estimates into young, middle-aged, and old adult categories," biological anthropologist Justyna Miskiewicz tells Dalzell of ABC.  This can result in lumping anyone over 40 into a single group. 

Over at "Bones Don't Lie," the blog of anthropologist Kathryn Meyers Emery, she highlights why that's such a problem and calls attention to a 2011 paper authored by C. G. Falys and M. E. Lewis, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, which points to the lack of international standards for the analysis of remains in bioarchaeology.

Caves hopes to use her technique to further investigate elderly populations in historical cultures, particularly debunking the persistent myth that most people died before their 40th birthday during the Middle Ages. "I want to examine the invisible elderly — that's what I call them — people who don't get noticed in most cemetery reports," she says, instead of just those with unusual pathology indicating they required special care.

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