Western cultures' obsession with lifespan has existed for a very long time. The Bible cites people living for hundreds and thousands of years in ancient times. More recently, researchers were fascinated by claims of the Hunzakats commonly reaching ages of 120 and beyond (this myth is dispelled quite well by this website). On the other end of this spectrum, many experts and laymen agree that primitive humans' lifespan was nothing to be impressed about: old age during those times was thought to be around forty years old.
Recently, I came across a study that blows all these distortions, assumptions, and obsessions out of the water. The study is a meta-analysis -- meaning it draws off of the research of many other related studies, and is titled "Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination." I suggest you give the full study a read, as there are many fascinating tidbits in it. The authors, Gurven and Kaplan, assembled lifespan and mortality data from around the world that included isolated hunter-gatherers (the closest living relatives to our paleolithic ancestors that we have), acculturated hunter-gatherers, isolated neolithic cultures, Western modern civilizations, and even chimpanzees for comparison. The authors focused solely on reliable demographic data from a handful of cultures. The table below sums up the results of the study well:
This data may come as a surprise to both romanticists of the ancients' supposed longevity, as well as to those that claim primitive human beings lived a life that was "nasty, brutish, and short." Here we have numbers that secure a middle ground amidst these two extremes. The authors of the study sum up their compiled information as follows:
The average modal age of adult death for hunter-gatherers is 72 with a range of 68-78 years. This range appears to be the closest functional equivelent of an "adaptive" human lifespan.
So there you have it. Convincing research suggesting that our hunter-gatherer ancestors are not at all far-removed from modern civilized human beings in terms of lifespan.