Old age in ancient Egypt
By rmjllil, on 2 March 2015
People in ancient Egypt did not grow very old. Very high infant death rates due to high risks of infections resulted in an average age at death of 19 years. However those who survived childhood had a life expectancy of 30 years for women* and 34 years for men. Most ancient Egyptians were unlikely to live beyond 40 years of age and, for example, King Tutankhamun died at the age of about 18 years. This can be compared to today’s life expectancy of 83 years for women and 79 years for men in the UK. Nowadays we routinely collect mortality data making it easy to estimate life expectancy but how do we find out about life expectancy of ancient Egyptians?
Human remains in the form of skeletal remains and mummified bodies (that would be wealthier Egyptians) are primary sources used to calculate age and life-expectancy. There are few written and visual sources that refer to age. Occasionally the age at death can be found as an inscription part of the mummy label attached to the bodies but many bodies to which the labels were attached have not survived or not been recorded. Secondary evidence of ageing includes legal documents where they sometimes have referred to the person as ‘aged’.
In ancient Egypt elders were defined as older adults who were no longer able to contribute labour. Egyptian writings indicate a social norm of respecting older people, but there was no special position in society for the elderly. Older adults were seen as venerable advisers, which is reflected in Instruction of Ptahhotep. This literary work provides both a positive and the dramatised negative aspects of growing old. Very briefly, in Instruction of Ptahhotep, the king, who is old, is requested to retire and consents to this request but he also observes that the young need the old, for “none can be born wise”. Another example is a small number of documents which refer to a ‘wise woman’ who could assist in supernatural ways with unsolved cases although it is unclear if she was any special age.
Although estimated life expectancy was just over 30 years, it’s hard to say whether a 30-year-old person in ancient Egypt had wrinkles similar to many older people today. However we do know that ancient Egyptians were as concerned about their appearance as we are. Youthfulness was the idealised norm, representing eternity. Manuscripts for good health include recommendations such as remove grey hairs and cosmetic prescriptions for face and skin. This is the reason nearly all persons are depicted as young adults and could explain why there is little art showing older adults. However for those interested in getting a closer look of an older adult in ancient Egypt there is a head of an old man (UC 16452) in black granite (pictured) at the Petrie Museum.
*Women often had numerous children and these successive pregnancies could be fatal. Even after giving birth successfully, women could still die from complications such as puerperal fever. Such deaths were not prevented until the 20th century when standards of hygiene during childbirth were improved.
Find out more about old age in ancient Egypt here.
10 Responses to “Old age in ancient Egypt”
Ann wrote on 18 March 2015:
Hi Dylan, Thank you for your comment. Average age of death and life expectancy at birth are based on research on 257 skeletons from 1700-1550 BC by Winkler and Wilfing. I think your comment is important and I agree these numbers should be interpreted with caution. Thank you for pointing this out.
Reference: Eike-Meinrad Winkler & Harald Wilfing (1991) Tell el-Dab’a 6, Anthropologische Untersuchungen an den Skelettresten der Kampagnen 1966-69, 1975-80, 1985/ Vienna
NeuroLogica Blog » Mummies and Cancer wrote on 30 June 2016:
[…] is possible we are just having a hard time detecting the tumors, but also the short life expectancy of the ancient Egyptians is also likely a huge factor. Those who survived childhood in ancient Egypt had a life expectancy […]
Parshat ha Shavuah Verses – Vayigash – Noshing Across the Nation wrote on 5 January 2017:
[…] of his ancestors. Truly this family was divinely blessed! After all, 110 was considered an extremely blessed old age for Egyptians (longevity later ascribed to Joseph, Genesis […]
millaya wrote on 24 May 2017:
really helpful to me and mabe others
millaya wrote on 24 May 2017:
so good omg i’m doing a projects
I Hope You Have a Heart Attack – Mindfully Investing wrote on 6 September 2017:
[…] Lucky to be here and now – You probably also don’t give much thought to your great luck to be living in an industrialized nation in the 21st century. Instead, you could have been born in a developing country, where the child mortality rates are 27 times higher. Or you could have been born 3000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where only one in three babies survived and the average life span was about 30 to 35 years. […]
Ben St. Martin wrote on 4 January 2018:
When did you publish this?
Arendse I Lund wrote on 21 February 2018:
March 2, 2015
Stephan wrote on 3 June 2018:
Anyone knows the average age or mortality during 1800 BCE?
Hi Ann, I wonder where you get such precise statistics on mortality? From what era do these come? Old Kingdom? New Kingdom? Late Period? Ptolemaic period? Our estimates of the age of the death of Tutankhamun are likely to be reasonably accurate because aging of younger mummies is not so terribly inaccurate as it is in older people. There is no real method for determining age over 50, and estimates on remains of people in middle age can be 10-20 years out. I posted something on Facebook too, so apologise if you have received several messages.