In fact, we can state certainly that paleolithic diets supplied humans with all the nutrients humans require, because if they did not, the human species would have expired due to malnourishment. Further, as I showed in my post Primal Diet On A Shoestring, a paleo diet composed of modern foods can easily supply required nutrients. This means that even if paleo people did have a short life expectancy, it was not due to some nutritional weakness of the paleolithic menu.
In short, "everyone knows" this the same way that "everyone knows" that cereal grains are essential to nutrition -- it is not knowledge, it is simple mythology.
Recent Hunter-Gatherer Evidence
According to Between Zeus and Salmon: The Biodemography of Longevity, a publication of the National Academy of SciencesCommission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (National Academy Press, 1997) (pages 176-179):
"The most reliable estimates of adult mortality rates available for a pre-contact hunting and gathering group are derived from Aché research (Hill and Hurtado, 1996), because of the research focus on producing accurate measures of age and accounting for all adults that lived during the twentieth century."
So what can we learn from the Aché?
Well, among them, 30-40% of people die before the age of 10-15 (most of these before 5).
Among both ancient and modern hunter-gatherers, these and most adult deaths occurred from hazards of childbirth, infections, accidents (e.g. falling from a tree, drowning, etc.), animal attacks (insects, snakes, etc.), poisonings (toxic plants), inclement weather (floods, snowstorms, etc.) and other dangers affecting all age groups but especially children growing up in a wild environment. They did not occur from diseases of civilization, like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and the like.
“Adult mortality rates remain low and do not rise significantly until the seventh decade of life, where the rate climbs to 5 percent per year and reaches 15 percent per year by age 75.”
So modern hunters live well past 45. What about ancient people?"Although sample size and methods of data collection vary among the four human groups, the survival curves show remarkable convergence, Although infant mortality rates vary, with Hiwi being the highest and Yanomamo the lowest, adult mortality rates between the ages of 20 and 45 are almost identical, about 1.5 percent per year. For that reason the survival curves are parallel to one another during the adult period. Chimpanzee survival curves, however, diverge dramatically from the human curves, due to a quite distinct adult mortality profile. For example, while both Hiwi and chimpanzees have about equal probability of reaching age 15, the conditional probability of reaching age 45, having reached age 15, is near zero for chimpanzees in the wild and about 75 percent among the Hiwi."
Migration and Population Expansion Evidence
In preagricultural times (between 50, 000 and 10, 000 years ago), humans migrated out from Africa around the globe. By 10, 000 years ago, humans had reached and populated the Americas. Given human reproductive function, this could not have occurred if people died at 30 years of age.
The Menopause Evidence
Further evidence that paleo people, at least women, reached ages well beyond 50 years of age exists right now in the phenomenon of menopause, a reproductive milestone unique to humans among primates (elephants also have a menopause, and can live 70 years in the wild).
According to evolutionary theory, menopause would not exist unless it conferred some survival advantage for offspring. The fact that human females go through menopause around 50 years of age tells us that our ancestral mothers did in fact make it to 50 years and beyond, and that those mothers who ceased menstruating at about 50 years of age left more offspring (children and grandchildren) than those who continued to menstruate.
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1. Frisch RE, Fatness and Fertility, Scientific American1988 Mar;258(3):88-95.