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Background and some things to consider

In traditional societies, the label of “elder” is culturally determined, and it does not correspond directly to chronological or biological age. Individuals labeled as elderly may in fact be only 45 years old in some cultures and 85 in others. In small-scale subsistence-based communities, approximately 10% of any given community is composed of elderly individuals (Sokolovsky 1983). Approximately 1% to 4% of “Third World” populations are made up of individuals aged 65 and older. For example, 2.6% of the population in Honduras and 2.7% in Ethiopia are over the age of 65.

For ancient populations, an estimation of the number of elderly is extremely difficult. Techniques for the assignment of age to skeletal remains are problematic for individuals over the age of 50. For most skeletal series, an unbounded category of “50+” is utilized for all older adults (Lovejoy et al. 1985; White et al. 2011). It is likely, however, that individuals much older than 50 existed, but techniques for the accurate assessment of chronological skeletal age do not presently exist. A new study by Buk and colleagues (2012) confirmed, using almost 1,000 pelves from different populations of known age and sex, that accurate age assessments are possible within three major age categories. These include adults younger than 30, adults aged between 30 and 60, and adults who are older than 60. Specificity within those categories decreases in reliability. Boddington and colleagues (1987) also had demonstrated that in older adults, there was an increasingly poor correlation between the traits on the pelvis used to age individuals and their actual chronological age. Bioarchaeologists have referred to this age category and life-history stage as the “invisible elderly,” and new methods are being devised to facilitate providing ages for individuals that previously would have simply been placed in the 50+ age category (Cave and Oxenham 2014).

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