General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Oct 2017/3 Deer
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Dr. Mark Van Stone

Question for May 2017

How rare was it to reach the age of 52? Asked by Farleigh School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Mark Van Stone.

A Mexica (Aztec) family - artist’s illustration
A Mexica (Aztec) family - artist’s illustration (Click on image to enlarge)

When you count everyone, the many young children who die in their first year or two lower the average considerably. If one survives to, say, age six, one has a very good chance to live to 80. Japan has two holidays, to honor kids who make it to 3 years old and 5 years old; this reflects the relief parents always felt, once their child survived that long. Childhood mortality was far worse before antibiotics and sanitary water supplies, and that is the main reason you hear that Ancient and Medieval people had “a life expectancy” in, say, their late 40s and early 50s. The expected life-span for those who excaped childhood perils and grow to adulthood was much higher: Even in Biblical times, folk could expect “threescore and ten” (70) years.

Mourning the death of Motecuhzoma at 52
Mourning the death of Motecuhzoma at 52 (Click on image to enlarge)

So, I think it was fairly common for a healthy adult to continue to live to her or his full years of at least 70. Aztec Emperor Motecuhzoma was 52 – His “Birthday-Year-Repeat” in 1519, when Cortez arrived. That was part of the reason he expected disaster; he thought Quetzalcoatl (who ruled his birthday) might be returning, like Jesus’ Second Coming.
As with most ancient records, we have only a sampling of data, and only for the rulers, who marked the events in their lives; nobody else seems to have done so. (At least not on stone monuments…). I think the Guinness Book of World Records says that the history of the British Peerage has the most complete vital-statistics records anywhere in the world… and, by the way, the Queen Mother Elizabeth was the very first Peer to have lived to 100 years old. …In a 1000-year-old history!
So, the rich tend to live longer than the average (though living in drafty castles, as many Peers do, may have cut their life-expectancy a few years). Several Maya rulers made it over the age of 80, and at least one lived past 100. They had the best health care, both as children and adults, and were probably also taller, stronger, and better-looking than the everyday peasant.

Image sources:-
• Aztec family: drawing by Alberto Beltrán, from The Sun Kingdom of the Aztecs by Victor W. von Hagen
• Death of Motecuhzoma: (detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City.

Dr. Mark Van Stone has answered just this one question

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