Analysis of ancient texts by USC Davis School of Gerontology professor Caleb Finch reveals that some writers believed the diet influenced longevity.
In a recent article published in the Journal of Aging, Humanities and the Arts, Finch examines ancient writings such as The Histories of Herodotus and the Roman Pliny’s Natural History for clues on the association of longevity with superior nutrition and low incidence of infectious diseases.
“Herodotus, the ‘father of history,’ was the first in Greco-Roman literature to associate specific diets with long lifespan,” said Finch, the ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Professor in the Neurobiology of Aging.
In Histories, written in the 5th Century BCE, Herodotus described the tale of a spy mission to the upper Nile carried out by the Persians, invaders of Egypt in the 6th Century BCE.
On their journey, the scouts encountered the Ethiopians, also called Aithiops, meaning “burnt face” (no relation to modern Ethiopians) in what is today the northeastern part of The Republic of Sudan.
The Ethiopian king inquired about the Persian diet and the longest lifespan of their country’s men. The spies answered that they drank wine and ate bread, which they explained was made from grain that had been fertilized with dung; their longest lifespan was 80 years.
Although the Ethiopians admired the Persian wine, they responded that it “was no wonder” they had such short lives with dung as part of their diet. They claimed their men regularly lived to the age of 120 and beyond due to a diet of boiled flesh and milk. Amazed, the Persians returned home and told the story of their “healthy” southern neighbors. Herodotus also added to this collection of tales that “The Athiops’ land produced much gold, enormous elephants … and men who are the most tall, handsome and long-lived.”
Finch and other bio-demographers dismiss the notion of ancient lifespans extending beyond 100 years as highly unlikely and unable to document. Nonetheless, he allows that, “Quite possibly, some ancients enjoyed exceptional lifespans in favorable environments.”
The claim of people frequently living into their hundreds in ancient times partly can be explained by the meaning of the word “year,” Finch said, which had less specificity than in modern societies where the exact age routinely determines pensions and retirement age.
Still, ancient Greeks who lived to the age of 30 could have a reasonably good chance to reach age 70 and maybe even age 90. This would have allowed 10 to 20 percent of the adult population of that era to be 60 or older. Although it would be extremely rare to find a centenarian before the year 1800, Greco-Roman populations included people that by today’s standards would be recognized as “elderly.”
As for the Ethiopians of Herodotus’ Histories, Finch theorized that reduced infections may have led to greater longevity as a result of a smaller burden of chronic inflammation, which shortens lifespan by accelerating aging of the arterial and immune systems and by increasing cancer risk.
“Because childhood infections are strongly linked to growth stunting, the ‘tallness’ of the ancient Ethiopians suggests that they incurred fewer chronic infections during childhood,” Finch said. Their improved “hygiene” may have been the result of not using dung in fertilization of crops. The Greek word kopros does not specify whether the dung was from cattle or from human night soil. As for the purported “handsomeness” of the Ethiopians, Finch deduced it could be the result of the absence of pox marks or other disfigurement from infections.
Finch calls for further study of the “fragments of ‘gerontology and geriatrics’ ” in Herodotus and other pre-Socratics texts as a precursor to scientific or rational medicine, which was emerging at the end of Herodotus’ life in the Hippocratic writers.
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