Did Anyone Live To 100 Years Old In Ancient Times?

Our likelihood of celebrating a century of birthdays has increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution, yet the absolute number of centenarians still remains low, with less than 100 per million people globally. With that in mind, receiving a congratulatory letter from the King on one’s hundredth birthday seems more than warranted, although whether or not any ancient emperors had cause to toast such long-lived subjects remains a matter of debate.

In their search for prehistoric super agers, scientists have noted that the human lifespan roughly doubled over a period of about 300,000 years of evolution, with Homo sapiens and Neanderthal skeletons generally showing more signs of old age than earlier hominid species. Life expectancy then doubled again after 1800, as the industrial age heralded major medical advancements and improved living standards.

At this point, it’s worth highlighting the distinction between life expectancy – which provides a measure of the average age at death within a population – and lifespan, which denotes the maximum age attainable by a given individual. The former is thought to have been remarkably low throughout the vast majority of human history, largely thanks to high rates of infant mortality.

In Ancient Rome, for example, only 50 percent of children are thought to have survived until adulthood, while similar rates of early deaths have been calculated based on skeletons from Bronze Age Europe and ancient Peru. As a result, life expectancies prior to the seventeenth century are estimated to have been as low as 24 years.

However, this doesn’t mean that people couldn’t reach a ripe old age, and those who did make it past puberty often went on to have pretty decent innings. For example, a study of almost 300 Greco-Roman men whose lifespans were recorded on their graves revealed that the average age of death was 72 years.

According to the study authors, the oldest of these individuals lived to be 107, although it’s impossible to validate the ages presented on the ancient epitaphs. Disputing the existence of this ancient centenarian, one often-cited statistical study has claimed that the possibility of any human reaching 100 years of age before the nineteenth century was naught.

However, a separate analysis concluded that, based on ancient life expectancies, it’s likely that at least one person had reached the age of 100 by about 2500 BCE, when the world’s population was around 100 million. The identity of this hypothetical first centenarian is unknown, although an ancient Egyptian papyrus claims that the Sixth Dynasty pharaoh Pepi II reigned for 94 years after taking the throne at the age of six in 2281 BCE – thus meriting a letter from himself on his hundredth birthday.

Later, the famous Roman author Pliny the Elder named numerous exceptionally old individuals in his text Natural History. Among these is Terentia, wife of the poet Cicero, who is said to have reached the age of 103, while Clodia, wife of Ofilius is listed as 115 years old. 

Once again, however, the reliability of these claims is difficult to ascertain, and statistical analyses have suggested that so-called super-centenarians – denoting those older than 110 – could not have existed prior to about 300 years ago.

Leave a Comment