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The emergence of longevous populations

  1. James W. Vaupela,c,f,p,1
  1. aMax-Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Aging, University of Southern Denmark, Odense 5230, Denmark;
  2. bDepartment of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Southern Denmark, Odense 5230, Denmark;
  3. cMax Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock 18057, Germany;
  4. dInstitute of Sociology and Demography, University of Rostock, Rostock 18057, Germany;
  5. eDepartment of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense 5230, Denmark;
  6. fDepartment of Public Health, University of Southern Denmark, Odense 5000, Denmark;
  7. gDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544;
  8. hInstitute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya, 00502 Nairobi, Kenya;
  9. iDepartment of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, NC 28223;
  10. jDepartment of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011;
  11. kDepartment of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 1N4;
  12. lDepartment of Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708;
  13. mThe Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, GA 30315;
  14. nDepartment of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706;
  15. oDepartment of Biology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708;
  16. pDuke Population Research Institute, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708
  1. Contributed by James W. Vaupel, October 17, 2016 (sent for review July 26, 2016; reviewed by Michael Murphy and Deborah Roach)


Public interest in social and economic equality is burgeoning. We examine a related phenomenon, lifespan equality, using data from charismatic primate populations and diverse human populations. Our study reveals three key findings. First, lifespan equality rises in lockstep with life expectancy, across primate species separated by millions of years of evolution and over hundreds of years of human social progress. Second, industrial humans differ more from nonindustrial humans in these measures than nonindustrial humans do from other primates. Third, in spite of the astonishing progress humans have made in lengthening the lifespan, a male disadvantage in lifespan measures has remained substantial—a result that will resonate with enduring public interest in male–female differences in many facets of life.


The human lifespan has traversed a long evolutionary and historical path, from short-lived primate ancestors to contemporary Japan, Sweden, and other longevity frontrunners. Analyzing this trajectory is crucial for understanding biological and sociocultural processes that determine the span of life. Here we reveal a fundamental regularity. Two straight lines describe the joint rise of life expectancy and lifespan equality: one for primates and the second one over the full range of human experience from average lifespans as low as 2 y during mortality crises to more than 87 y for Japanese women today. Across the primate order and across human populations, the lives of females tend to be longer and less variable than the lives of males, suggesting deep evolutionary roots to the male disadvantage. Our findings cast fresh light on primate evolution and human history, opening directions for research on inequality, sociality, and aging.


  • ?1To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: jvaupel{at}health.sdu.dk or alberts{at}duke.edu.

Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.

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