Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mortality and Lifespan of the Inuit

One of the classic counter-arguments that's used to discredit accounts of healthy hunter-gatherers is the fallacy that they were short-lived, and thus did not have time to develop diseases of old age like cancer. While the life expectancy of hunter-gatherers was not as high as ours today, most groups had a significant number of elderly individuals, who sometimes lived to 80 years and beyond. Mortality came mostly from accidents, warfare and infectious disease rather than chronic disease.

I found a a mortality table from the records of a Russian mission in Alaska (compiled by Veniaminov, taken from Cancer, Disease of Civilization), which recorded the ages of death of a traditionally-living Inuit population during the years 1822 to 1836. Here's a plot of the raw data:

Here's the data re-plotted in another way. I changed the "bin size" of the bars to 10 year spans each (rather than the bins above, which vary from 3 to 20 years). This allows us to get a better picture of the number of deaths over time. I took some liberties with the data to do this, breaking up a large bin equally into two smaller bins. I also left out the infant mortality data, which are interesting but not relevant to this post:


Excluding infant mortality, about 25% of their population lived past 60. Based on these data, the approximate life expectancy (excluding infant mortality) of this Inuit population was 43.5 years. It's possible that life expectancy would have been higher before contact with the Russians, since they introduced a number of nasty diseases to which the Inuit were not resistant. Keep in mind that the Westerners who were developing cancer alongside them probably had a similar life expectancy at the time. Here's the data plotted in yet another way, showing the number of individuals surviving at each age, out of the total deaths recorded:


It's remarkably linear. Here's the percent chance of death at each age:


In the next post, I'll briefly summarize cancer data from several traditionally-living cultures other than the Inuit.

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