Jan. 4 (UPI) -- An Australian archaeologist has developed a new, more accurate method for estimating the age-of-death for ancient human remains. Researchers believe the technique and its results will improve their understanding of the elderly throughout human history.
The method was developed by Christine Cave, a postdoctoral researcher at the Australian National University. Cave showed the lifespan of skeletal remains can be accurately measured based on how worn the teeth are.
Cave used the new technique to analyze the remains of people buried at three Anglo-Saxon English cemeteries between 475 and 625 AD. Her analysis showed survival into old age was more common than previously thought.
"People sometimes think that in those days if you lived to 40 that was about as good as it got. But that's not true," Cave said in a news release. "For people living traditional lives without modern medicine or markets the most common age of death is about 70, and that is remarkably similar across all different cultures."
The remains of old people are often ignored during archaeological studies, as they are difficult to identify and estimate the age of. Analysis of adolescent remains is much simpler.
"When you are determining the age of children you use developmental points like tooth eruption or the fusion of bones that all happen at a certain age," Cave said. "Once people are fully grown it becomes increasingly difficult to determine their age from skeletal remains, which is why most studies just have a highest age category of 40 plus or 45 plus."
Because archaeological surveys often fail to distinguish the remains of a fit 40-year-old from an aging 65-year-old, studying the elderly among ancient cultures is quite difficult. Cave hopes her new methodology -- detailed in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology -- will change that.
Cave's work has already revealed differences in the way elderly were treated in Anglo-Saxon English communities. Her analysis of buried remains suggests women who died young received more prominent burials that those who were old.
"Women were buried with jewellery, like brooches, beads and pins," she said. "This highlights their beauty which helps explain why most of the high-status burials for women were for those who were quite young."