Death in the Neolithic

I’ve been reading lately about grave sites that were discovered near Lake Baikal. Most of the men buried there seem to have been around 35 years old at their death. (Women and children were also found there, in smaller numbers.) No cause of death was given in the reports I was reading.

So, you’re a hunter-gatherer. You’re living in a colder climate (the climate near Baikal then was roughly similar to today’s climate, by all accounts). But the food sources (mostly fish, plus some deer, seal, other small land mammals) are abundant. You have sophisticated stone and bone tools, fishhooks made of both materials, and even jewelry and other ornaments made from animal teeth, bone, or jade.

How did you likely die, at age 35?

I always assumed that such deaths for men would be caused by
(a) intertribal warfare (as is common in many of the remaining Amazon tribes)
(b) infection (specifically, infected wounds, etc., since many other deadly contagious diseases were byproducts of animal husbandry)

I have always thought (again, judging by some of the Khoi-San and other African “Bushmen” tribes, among whom anthropologists have met individuals who are in their 80s and 90s, and accounts of well-known ancients who lived into their 70s) that even though we always talk about “life expectancy” of human beings in the prehistoric (or, often, simply the premodern era) being about 35 years, that the number was derived based on (a) high infant mortality and (b) high rates of death from disease and war, and not from people somehow “aging” faster than they do now. In other words, I would expect a neolithic hunter-gatherer, who survived childhood and managed not to get killed in warfare or by an infected cut or from starving to death in a bad year, would live to be around 70.

Am I wrong, and the men of Baikal were elderly at 35? Or is it likely that they died young from infection/trauma?

Flu? TB? Starvation? Food poisoning? There were germs back then, weren’t there? I’d guess war wounds, war and aggression are built into mankind.

Childbirth would be a factor also.

It’s also possible that by this time in history many of them had not yet built up the hereditary immunities to many common diseases that are no longer issues.

Food may not have been as abundant as you’d think. They had famines, natural disasters (including volcanoes on the other side of the world that could interfere with flora and fauna), insects, etc., that could interfere. I would think that parasites in the food they did ingest was a major problem and pollution in the water supply were major problems as well.

Before plumbing, whenever a relatively sizeable group of people lived together for a long period of time their waste would eventually begin to pollute the groundwater.* There are records of American towns and even large plantations where this occurred and the place had to be essentially abandoned until the cess pits were dealt with, and in the Neolithic era they probably would not have yet known about lime and lye and other things used much later to dissolve it. Many of the epidemics that spread through urban areas were passed along by communal waste areas and epidemics (on a smaller scale obviously) probably occurred all the time in the neolithic world. (The germ theory of disease has only been around for a century and a half; the neolithics would have had little notion of how to ward off infection once a single member of the tribe got sick.)

*Even with their advanced-for-the-ancient-world plumbing, can you imagine what Rome, a city with hundreds of thousands of people producing Jove knows how many tons of sewage per day in a warm country and with most of them using public toilets to either relieve themselves or empty their chamberpots, must have smelled like on a hot day?

Yes, for females. (Not so much for males. Unless it was your baby with someone else’s wife…)

This is possible for some. That area was depopulated for almost 1,000 years between settlements—apparently due to a warming and drying of the climate.

So we’re guessing mostly disease, then?

Has no cause of death been found yet because they haven’t done autopsies with full lab work, or has no cause of death been found after a thorough research? Your OP doesn’t say if it was mummies / bodies with skin and meat or only skeletons, but if only bones were left, while some causes (war usually leaves marks, some diseases, too, but not all) can be ruled out, a lot - like most bacterial infections e.g. - would still be possible.

Also, what do the anthropologists think is the reason for this? If all were victims of a raid by a neighbor tribe, they would get a communal grave, while the old people might be buried elsewhere. Maybe the old people went off to the mountains when their time came and died there.

Imagine the smell of big vats of urine rotting in the sun - because the cloth makers needed the ammonia as only bleaching agent known then, but to get it, the urine had to go foul. Eeech! :frowning: :eek: (where’s the smiley holding it’s nose?)

I’m not a forensic anthropologist (but I have seen one on TV). I would guess that there is a lot more evidence out there than you have seen. If someone has gone to trouble of established an age of death, and then do a statistical analysis to give a significant age of death of 35, then someone has done some work on cause of death. That information might not be available online, but it’s out there somewhere.

I think we take for granted how much medical science improves the lives of even very healthy people.

In the Neolithic there would be no dental care, no antibiotics, the water questionable and no notion of keeping wounds really clean by our standards. Even a century and a half ago it wasn’t uncommon for people to be plagued with parasites - worms, fleas, lice, bedbugs - even in the most medically advanced nations. And so on.

So… add up the damage - periodic famine/nutritional deficiencies, tooth damage (even if you avoided cavities prehistoric teeth tended to get a lot more wear and tear than today, and if they broke or cracked there was no repair), infected cuts and scrapes from soil bacteria, intestinal worms… on top of that, a deep gash or broken leg that today is an inconvenience could be fatal or crippling back then. Bad appendix? You probably died.

On top of all that (as if that wasn’t enough) there was probably more personal risk in daily life. Smokey cooking/heating fires to mess up your lungs, human and animal filth everywhere, total lack of refrigeration so you were probably eating meat that was “off” frequently, more manual labor by which to screw up your body, if your village had domestic animals you might have to deal with injuries from them…

Really, you start to wonder how folks lived so long as 35 years back then. Sure, a very few people lived to be 70 or 80 or even older but it was a definite minority.