Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

What life was like, or wasn’t like

One of the first things I wrote when I was thinking about starting this little blog project was about living in the past.

It’s one of the most frequent questions we get asked as archaeologist: What was life like in the past?

This simple question is one of the hardest to answer. It’s hard because our data on what the ‘average’ individuals life was like  is almost non-existent. Archaeologists, like most social scientists, have to use one of two data-sets when we talk about day-to-day life. The first is when we’re lucky enough to find something that gives us specifics. Like Otzi, the famous Ice-man found in the Alps.

But mostly its the second kind of data-set we use the most, and it’s not very specific. This set comes from the collection and analysis of large amounts of data that gives us a very general picture of life in the past. Like average life span, average diet, average family size. Stuff like that. So I can tell you that the average life span of a British present  during the medieval times was around 30 years, and they ate mostly porridge and beer. But that doesn’t tell you what an individual’s life was like. It tells you what the average person’s life was like. In Canada, right now, the average person makes about 34,000 dollars a year, will live to 77 if they’re a male and 81 if they’re female, and have 3 children.

I’m guessing that doesn’t describe you.

That’s not because you’re not average. It’s because no one is.

It all depends on how you describe averages. Mostly it has to do with math, graphs, and estimations. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a line of best fit, but we use them all the time. It has to do with averaging out data in order to make predictions from it. Here is one about pizzas:

Stats are more fun when they’re about food. Source.

The line is basically what we used to make these average estimates. So, in the example above, the average family who buys 6 pizzas a month spends 5$ on the pizza. But even in the data-set provided this isn’t true- it’s just the average. In these kinds of graphs, the tighter the cluster of dots around the line of best fit, the more likely it is that a single data point will correspond to it. If the graph cluster tends tightly, and you become more likely to conform to the norm. It doesn’t mean you do, just that I have a better chance of predicting where you sit in the graph. If the graph was about some other incredibly variable factor, I would have a much harder time predicting your position in it.

And that’s with data taken from people we can talk to, it gets even harder when you can’t ask the questions.

The average life span of a British person in the Medieval period was 30, but you need to know more if you want to get at an individuals life. For example: what is this the average of? Is it of everyone who was born in England in the Medieval period? (I should say that it’s more specifically everyone who was buried- since we get most of this info from cemeteries)

If that’s the case then the average lifespan or an adult is a lot higher. This is because the high infant mortality rate drags down the averages. It’s the problem with estimating average lifespan from birth.  Like how the kid who gets 2% on the exam drags the average down, and the kid who gets 99% drags it up. If you survived past 15 years old, the likelihood of you reaching your mid-thirties was much higher than our ‘average’ suggests. In 16th century England, if you made it to 20 you could reasonably expect to hit your 70s. But the average life span was only 35. Because something like two-thirds of all children died before they died.

So I guess, the real answer about what your life would have been like 400 years ago is dead. The chance you would survive childhood is slim. But if you did, you could expect to live a good long while.

Well, you couldn’t personally- because averages don’t work like that. Who knows how long you would personally live. You could be hit by a bus. Or a horse if you’re in Medieval England. But the point is that the average life expectancy of an adult doesn’t change that much from culture to culture. Even in modern tribal societies adults die between 70 and 80. The reason life expectancy increases in modern populations is we have got rid of most of the stuff that used to kill us early in life.

The same goes or health in the past- we just don’t have enough resolution to talk about a persons life.

Okay, so that’s not true. Sometimes we can talk about the health of a person. Like Otzi,  or Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, or any number of the bog people. Mummies can give us remarkably close insight into the health and life of an individual in the past. Even a well preserved skeleton can let us know about individuals health. I had a friend during my undergraduate degree who spent months looking into the health of a single young female skeleton. By the end my friend knew what she had died of, how long she had been sick for, even exactly how old she was when she died.

Their are really interesting stories about these individuals, and they are likely as close as we are going to get to as far as looking at what life was like.  But they only give the picture of what life was like for that person. Its like if I grabbed someone off the street and wrote their biography. Would that represent your life? I doubt it.

In fact, it’s probably not even as accurate as that. These preserved individuals were probably more unique than the average person. The fact that their are so few of them would seem to back that up. Also, the situations that preserved them are pretty damn unique.

Did everyone in the Alps 5000 years ago spend their time running through high mountain passes like Otzi did? Probably not. Did all European people get sacrificed and thrown in a bog? I know the answer to that is no. Did all members of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi’s family travel 30 kilometres a day through the alpine areas of Northern British Columbia? I’m guessing the answer is still no.

By the way- if you don’t know the story of Kwäday, go get the article by Heather Pringle. It’s an amazing story.
The problem is that I feel like people want a judgment call when they ask these types of questions, which returns us to our first question- what was life like in the past.The answer, when you break it down to what people really care about, is subjective- it entirely depends on your own perspective. The real truth is that we know what life was like for a society as a whole, or for a few select individuals, but we can’t tell you what life was like for any one single randomly selected individual.

So, when you want to know what your life would have been like 500 years ago, I can’t tell you. Forget that you wouldn’t be you if you were born that long ago, as we are a product of our unique life-histories; even if I sent you back in time I couldn’t tell you what will happen- life is just to unpredictable.

What I can tell you is that people appear to have a ‘set point of happiness’. Even life changing events apparently don’t change your happiness. Win the lottery, get married to the person of your dreams, climb Everest- if you were unhappy before, you’re likely going to be unhappy after. You can change your own happiness point of course- but it doesn’t appear to be affected by external events. So even if I picked you up and moved you to Medieval England, you’d likely be the same person. If you were generally happy, you would still be.

I suspect that life 500 years ago wasn’t to different than life is now. Their were good days and their were bad days. And we just lived through them as best we could.


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