Most people would agree that quality of life and life expectancy have improved drastically since the Pre-Industrial era. We hear of the average life expectancy in previous centuries as sitting somewhere in the 25 to 40 year range, and that manifests in the notion that people living in the 16th to 17th centuries had a cap on the number of years they could live.
It's not that those number are wrong — it's that infant mortality occurred at much higher rates back then, and those occurrences skew the average. If a man survived to age 20 in the 16th century, his chances of surviving for another 40 years were much higher. Life expectancies sharply increased during the 1900's due to public health developments, most notably vaccines.
As I was doing this research, I was surprised to learn just how long some notable individuals lived, with some living longer than 80 years.
This grid represents the 2016 global life expectancy at birth — 72 years, according to the World Health Organization.
From now on, we'll refer to the latest global life expectancy as GLE.
It will vary depending on the person's age and is susceptible to skew if, say, a population is hit with the plague.
the maximum amount of time that an individual can live
There's no substantial evidence showing that life span has significantly increased for the human population — a person could live to be over 100 in the 16th century, and they still could now.
Let's zoom out and start from the 1500 to 1700 period. We'll start by looking at life expectancy back then.
In England, an individual had an average life expectancy of 39.7 to 40 years at birth. The blue row represents the life expectancy at birth. It's about half of the 2016 global life expectancy.
But if this same individual lived to age 30, they could expect to live to 59. The purple row represents this adult life expectancy.
These reported figures are loaded for many reasons — they are Eurocentric, they don't factor in women as much as they should, they may be based off of inaccurate reportings of one's age. The list goes on. But it is one of the best measures we have for life expectancy from this time period.
Let's unpack the lives of some individual historical figures from this time.
The pink rows represent her life span, as a fraction of the GLE.
Though Disney portrays Pocahontas as a young women, she would have met John Smith when she was 10 to 12 years old.
The most fascinating thing to me was looking at the life spans of individuals I had learned about throughout history, and comparing them. Voltaire and Sir Isaac Newton lived longer than 72 years, whereas Pocahontas and Anne, Queen of Great Britain died on the earlier side.
Another interesting thing: we often learn about these individuals in isolation, or as part of the curriculum for a single subject, but here, we can see how their lives overlapped.
Sir Isaac Newton