One of the standard defenses uttered by those who desperately cling to the fast food and couch-potato lifestyle is, “why should I live like a hunter-gatherer? Their average lifespan was only 35 years.” Ipso fatso, if we clearly weren’t designed to live long, why make all those diet and exercise sacrifices?” This common faulty assumption that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived “nasty, brutish and short” lives has always bugged me. Research suggests that Grok and his family were actually generally healthy (robust is the term), productive – and even so appreciative of their lives that they felt the need to express themselves through art. There are recent studies that suggest there may even have been a selective benefit within tribal units for grandparents – meaning that getting older may have actually had a selective benefit far past procreating. So, if they were so robust and if our genes truly evolved to allow us to live long lives, then why was the average lifespan relatively short? I had always assumed that it was things like deaths during childbirth, infections, accidental poisoning, even tribal warfare that brought the average lifespan down. But then I got a real-life experience of what might have affected the average more than anything else. And it’s really mundane, folks.
I made an unusually bad dive while playing my favorite game “Ultimate Frisbee” last September, slamming my knee hard into the ground and driving my knee-cap down my shin. The result was a torn quadriceps muscle, a ruptured prepatellar bursa and a smashed nerve. An x-ray revealed no other damage and my orthopedist said the soft-tissue injury would heal in 8-12 weeks. He advised me to use pain as my guide and come back slowly. Since I had no pain at all (smashed nerve, remember) I felt like I was recovering fairly quickly – to the point of even resuming my beach sprints in early December. As everything was on track, I decided to go snowboarding six days in Aspen over Christmas break. But despite wrapping the knee every day and taking it fairly easy, (wink, wink – and again no pain) I came home with a very swollen, black and blue knee. By the end of the week, I was unable to bend it more than a few degrees. An MRI revealed a large “organized hematoma” over the quad and kneecap which needed to be removed surgically – otherwise I would carry it with me forever. I went under the knife on January 9. It turns out that the original torn quad muscle had never repaired itself and was leaking blood into the space causing the hematoma. So my surgeon removed the hematoma and stitched the quad back to the patellar tendon. Total recovery time now: 12 weeks.
I tell you all this to illustrate a perfect example of why Paleolithic people may have had such a short lifespan. Here I am 54 years old, with the body of a 25-year-old (and the mind of a 17-year-old) looking forward to living well past 100…but I am effectively incapacitated for over two months now by an injury caused by a random fall. Of course, I have the luxury of modern surgical procedures to repair the damage and get me back on my feet (more on that in a later post) – but had this been 10,000 years ago, my inability to run towards dinner or away from a predator or to stand my ground against an invading tribe might well have been the beginning of the end of me. A small accident that today we take for granted – a fall from a tree branch, off a cliff, a broken arm or a rolled ankle – may have been enough to seriously jeopardize an otherwise healthy older person. The fact that I don’t have the same testosterone levels I had in my 20’s (when I could recover from an injury in two weeks) puts added pressure on my being able to safely afford two or three months of relative inactivity before I am able to hunt and gather effectively once again. The big revelation for me was that our ancestors had all the genetic potential to live to 80, 100 or longer – the lifestyle almost by definition precluded death by any degenerative diseases – but that daily living presented so many obstacles that eventually your number was up. Hence the “average” lifespan dropped and ruined it for everyone.
Alfer22 Flickr Photo (CC)
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