Did Cavemen really die young?

It’s a valid question. If the Paleo Diet is so good for you, then why didn’t the cavemen live longer?

Published February 21, 2022

5 minute read

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If the Paleo Diet is so great, why did the cavemen die so young?

If you’ve ever started or talked about starting, the Paleo Diet with someone you know, you may have heard a rebuttal question similar to the one above. It’s a valid question. If the Paleo Diet is so good for you, then why didn’t the cavemen live longer? Valid question, but it is positioned with many fallacies in the argument. Let’s examine the question at face value. If someone truly believes that the Paleo Diet (the name coming from the Paleolithic Era style of eating) is faulty because the cavemen eating it didn’t live longer, are they really looking at the macro view of life back in those days? Simple answer – no. There are a few reasons why the average age of people living in the early eras didn’t survive long, but their diet of lean meats, green leafy veggies, nuts and seeds, and some fruit wasn’t what killed them. The truth is, many people lived well into their later years (50s and 60s) during that time. The factors that aren’t immediately placed into consideration with the Paleo Diet vs Caveman survival argument are extremely high infant mortality rates, death from infectious disease due to a lack of modern medicine, vulnerability to predators, and inferior shelter that exposed humans to extreme elements. We’ll briefly discuss each individually. 

A brief lesson in statistics

Before diving into the various dangers that humans faced, let’s take a look at how these statistics came into the argument in the first place. Average vs. Mode. Understanding two basic, yet very important formulas in statistics will help alleviate some confusion about early human lifespan data. Take a look at the following statements: “The average caveman lived to be 30” “The average age of death for a caveman was 30” The first statement uses the word “average” in the cultural norm sense. It positions the statement to read that the average caveman would live to 30, but not much more. The second statement uses the term average as more of mathematical formula for determining lifespan. In the second statement, you are finding the average of a group of numbers by adding all of the numbers together and dividing by the number of numbers that you used. Put another way, if you took two people from that era, one who lived to the age of 55, and the other who only lived to the age of 5, and found the average lifespan, you would come up with an age of 30, so the average isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the true lifespan. (55+5=60/2=30) To find a more accurate representation of the average lifespan, it would be more accurate to find the MODE.

In statistics, the mode is the value that occurs most frequently in a given set of data.

In other words, if we took the ages of all cavemen during that time and found the age value that was most frequent at the time of death, we would have a better representation of the lifespans during that time, as opposed to taking the average and assuming that to be the typical lifespan across the board. But why was the data so skewed towards earlier deaths? It had more to do with external elemental factors than their diet.

Extremely high infant mortality rates

With the absence of modern medicine, infant mortality rates were very high. Going back to the discussion on average, the high infant mortality rate brings down the average lifespan age, and diet during that time is not a defining factor. Many humans who survived birth, the infant years, and lived into their 20’s often went on to live much longer lives. Deaths from infectious diseases led to a much higher mortality rate than we see today. Unfortunately, the lack of immunizations, antibiotics, and modern medical procedures led to a large number of infant deaths, which creates a much lower average lifespan statistically.

Vulnerability to predators

Eating lean meats, green veggies, nuts, seeds, and some fruit doesn’t protect you from predators. We obviously have the resources and technological advancements to protect ourselves in the wild against other animals. Firearms, explosives, protective gear, and other weaponry was not readily available for cavemen, so their ability to be the dominant force in nature was hindered. Predators were a real threat and were a common cause of death for cavemen.

Inferior housing and shelter made life tough

Today, we have the luxury of having 4 walls, a roof, heating, and shelter from the elements. This wasn’t the case for cavemen. Anyone who has lived in the northeast for any stretch of time between the months of November and April knows that it gets cold with the likely chance of terrible driving conditions. Imagine not being able to protect yourself from the elements during that time. The inferior shelter was a real issue for cavemen, and it is an often overlooked part of the lifespan argument.

So, did they really die young because of diet?

At this point, you should have a few counter-arguments in your arsenal for the Paleo Diet versus lifespan debate. Just remember that correlation does not imply causation. Statistics have a funny way of being able to tell you whatever you want them to, but remember that a Paleo type diet has extremely important health benefits and the average lifespan of those living during that time was often cut short for reasons outside of what they ate. Inadequate medical technology, predators, and inferior shelter were major contributors to a shortened lifespan. Next time someone knocks your clean eating habits because of a myth they heard, you’ll be ready with a rebuttal that goes beyond just how great you look and feel.  

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