Health and longevity of other cultures

May 2, 2022 by Joshua
in Awareness

We tend to think we live in the most free, healthiest, longest-living, most egalitarian, most stable culture humans have ever had. In some cases, yes, but in others, it turns out otherwise. It seems we project onto other times and cultures what will make us feel better about our own.

I like feeling good about myself, but an inaccurate view keeps me from improving my situation. I want to understand where we stand more accurately so I’m compiling relevant data and sources. I’ll start with a few and add more as I come across them.

Preindustrial workers worked fewer hours than today’s, MIT:

One of capitalism’s most durable myths is that it has reduced human toil. This myth is typically defended by a comparison of the modern forty-hour week with its seventy- or eighty-hour counterpart in the nineteenth century. The implicit — but rarely articulated — assumption is that the eighty-hour standard has prevailed for centuries. The comparison conjures up the dreary life of medieval peasants, toiling steadily from dawn to dusk. We are asked to imagine the journeyman artisan in a cold, damp garret, rising even before the sun, laboring by candlelight late into the night.

These images are backward projections of modern work patterns. And they are false.

. . .

Consider a typical working day in the medieval period. It stretched from dawn to dusk (sixteen hours in summer and eight in winter), but, as the Bishop Pilkington has noted, work was intermittent – called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap, and dinner. Depending on time and place, there were also midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. These rest periods were the traditional rights of laborers, which they enjoyed even during peak harvest times. During slack periods, which accounted for a large part of the year, adherence to regular working hours was not usual.

Medieval Peasants Worked Less And Vacationed More Than Modern Americans Do, AllThatsInteresting.com:

When professor Juliet Schor released her book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, the average American was shocked. According to her research, they were working more days and taking fewer vacation days than a medieval peasant.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ latest available data only supports this notion. Indeed, the average annual hours worked by Americans in 2017 reached 1,780, whereas an adult male peasant in the United Kingdom worked an average of 1,620.

. . .

The 70 to 80-hour work week for the average 19th-century laborer in the industrial revolution was actually a deviation from the ways of their medieval predecessors. Arguing for an eight-hour workday was not so much a push for the progressive, but a return to the ways of yore.

Indeed, medieval peasants enjoyed a less rigid workday. Meals weren’t rushed and the afternoon might call for a nap. “The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed,” said Schor. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”

. . .

a 13th-century laborer could have up to 25 weeks off per year. For reference, the average American worker has 16 days of vacation per year.

How many hours a day did hunter gatherers work?, Askinglot.com:

Huntergatherers have more leisure time. Some people say that the advent of farming gave people more leisure time to build up civilization, but huntergatherers actually have far more leisure time than farmers do, and more still than modern people in the industrialized world.

. . .

around 57% of huntergatherers reach the age of 15. Of those that reach 15 years of age, 64% continue to live to or past the age of 45. This places the life expectancy between 21 and 37 years.

Hunter-Gatherers (Foragers), by Yale:

among the Hadza of Tanzania, children 5 years of age and younger may be getting half their food on their own and by 6 years of age, 75 percent of their food. At 3, boys receive their first small bow and arrow and hunt for little animals. Perhaps to the amazement of many parents in North America, children as young as 4 build fires and cook meals on their own in their childhood groups.

. . .

Why are hunter-gatherer parents generally more affectionate?  Ronald Rohner’s (1975, 97–105) research suggests that warmth toward children is more likely when a mother has help in childcare. In the case of hunter-gatherers, fathers are generally much more engaged in infant care compared to food-producing fathers.

Hunter-gatherer, Wikipedia article:

According to Sahlins, ethnographic data indicated that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well. Their “affluence” came from the idea that they were satisfied with very little in the material sense.[41] Later, in 1996, Ross Sackett performed two distinct meta-analyses to empirically test Sahlin’s view. The first of these studies looked at 102 time-allocation studies, and the second one analyzed 207 energy-expenditure studies. Sackett found that adults in foraging and horticultural societies work, on average, about 6.5 hours a day, whereas people in agricultural and industrial societies work on average 8.8 hours a day.

Man the Hunter Wikipedia page:

Man the Hunter was a 1966 symposium organized by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore. The symposium resulted in a book of the same title and attempted to bring together for the first time a comprehensive look at recent ethnographic research on hunter-gatherers.

. . .

given that hunting was humanity’s original source of livelihood, any theory of society and the nature of Man would require a deep knowledge of how hunters live.

Original affluent society Wikipedia page:

Affluence Without Abundance, by James Suzman
Affluence Without Abundance, by James Suzman

The “original affluent society” is the proposition that argues that the lives of hunter-gatherers can be seen as embedding a sufficient degree of material comfort and security to be considered affluent. The theory was first put forward in a paper presented by Marshall Sahlins at a famous symposium in 1966 entitled ‘Man the Hunter‘. Sahlins observes that affluence is the satisfaction of wants, “which may be ‘easily satisfied’ either by producing much or desiring little.”[1] Given a culture characterized by limited wants, Sahlins argued that hunter-gatherers were able to live ‘affluently’ through the relatively easy satisfaction of their material needs.

At the time of the symposium new research by anthropologists, such as Richard B. Lee‘s work on the !Kung of southern Africa, was challenging popular notions that hunter-gatherer societies were always near the brink of starvation and continuously engaged in a struggle for survival.[2] Sahlins gathered the data from these studies and used it to support a comprehensive argument that states that hunter-gatherers did not suffer from deprivation, but instead lived in a society in which “all the people’s wants are easily satisfied.”

. . .

By stepping away from western notions of affluence, the theory of the original affluent society thus dispels notions about hunter-gatherer societies that were popular at the time of the symposium. Sahlins states that hunter-gatherers have a “marvelously varied diet[4] based on the abundance of the local flora and fauna. This demonstrates that hunter-gatherers do not exist on a mere subsistence economy but rather live among plenty. Through knowledge of their environment hunter-gatherers are able to change what foreigners may deem as meager and unreliable natural resources into rich subsistence resources. Through this they are able to effectively and efficiently provide for themselves and minimize the amount of time spent procuring food. “[T]he food quest is so successful that half the time the people do not know what to do with themselves”.[4] Hunter-gatherers also experience “affluence without abundance”[4] as they simply meet their required ends and do not require surplus nor material possessions (as these would be a hindrance to their nomadic lifestyle). The lack of surplus also demonstrates that they trust their environment will continuously provide for them.

Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination, by Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan:

We summarize our main findings to this point:

Post-reproductive longevity is a robust feature of hunter-gatherers and of the life cycle of Homo sapiens. Survivorship to grandparental age is achieved by over two-thirds of people who reach sexual maturity and can last an average of 20 years.

Adult mortality appears to be characterized by two stages. Mortality rates remain stable and fairly low at around 1 percent per year from the age of maturity until around age 40. After age 40, the rate of mortality increase is exponential (Gompertz) with a mortality rate doubling time of about 6–9 years. The two decades without detectable senescence in early and mid-adulthood appear to be an important component of human life span extension.

The average modal age of adult death for hunter-gatherers is 72 with a range of 68–78 years. This range appears to be the closest functional equivalent of an “adaptive” human life span.

Departures from this general pattern in published estimates of life expectancy in past populations (e.g., low child and high adult mortality) are most likely due to a combination of high levels of contact-related infectious disease, excessive violence or homicide, and methodological problems that lead to poor age estimates of older individuals and inappropriate use of model life tables for deriving demographic estimates.

Illnesses account for 70 percent, violence and accidents for 20 percent, and degenerative diseases for 9 percent of all deaths in our sample. Illnesses largely include infectious and gastrointestinal disease, although less than half of all deaths in our sample are from contact-related disease.

. . .

Our results contradict Vallois’s (1961: 222) claim that among early humans, “few individuals passed forty years, and it is only quite exceptionally that any passed fifty,” and the more traditional Hobbesian view of a nasty, brutish, and short human life (see also King and Jukes 1969; Weiss 1981). The data show that modal adult life span is 68–78 years, and that it was not uncommon for individuals to reach these ages.

[More to come . . . ]

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  1. Pingback: Solo Episodes, volume 18 » Joshua Spodek

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