An Early American “Blue Zone”?

Vern Scott
7 min readOct 20, 2020


Escaping the germ-infested cities of Europe, getting survival assistance from Native Americans, forced to eat game animals and new vegetable varieties in stew-pots, largely immune from ag diseases, and even benefitting from the better elements of alcohol and tobacco use, 1600s Colonists began to live long lives

When the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, they were not aware how lucky they were to be arriving in a comparative health “Blue Zone”

Early American Colonists began arriving on our East Coast about 400 years ago. Not everything is known about them, and thus their lives and habits flatten out compared to our dynamic modern perspectives. Yet research into their lives reveals some startling facts, among them that if you survived beyond the age of childhood disease (about 12 years old), you had an excellent chance of living into your 90s, even in an age when medical knowledge was very crude. How was this possible? Much credit goes to the Native Americans, who taught the Colonists survival skills (the benefits of corn, squash and advanced hunting methods) even as they were being ravaged by the Colonist’s diseases. There begins also the mystery of why Native Americans did not live as long as the Colonists, which may imply certain advantages of grain, dairy, and farmed meat in the Colonist’s diet. These elements of “Western Diet” have proven to be bad if eaten in excess, but were perhaps advantageous when moderated (by the East Coast climate and terrain, forbidding to grain and consequently large scale beef and poultry production).

Much of the basis for estimates of the human lifespan throughout history comes from USC Evolutionary Biologist Caleb Finch, in a 2010 article published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”. He estimates that during Greek and Roman times, the average lifespan was about 30 years, and that even during Renaissance Europe (and until about 1800), the average human lifespan had only increased to about 40 years (he made these estimates from studying old cemeteries). In the old days, infant mortality was 10% (even at best) since the sterile method and antibiotics had not yet been invented. After that, diseases killed up to 50% of youths under 15, while adults had a much better chance of survival (note here that anti-vaxxers have a very distorted view of history and epidemiology). It was only after the late 1800s that longevity numbers began to climb (to 50 yrs worldwide, due to sterile method, some epidemiology and advanced OB/GYN), and about 60 yrs by 1950 (due to vaccines and antibiotics). Currently, some European countries, Australia, and Japan boast average life expectancies into the 80s, as infant mortality, disease, smoking, alcoholism and obesity have been greatly diminished. (Max Roser et al, Life Expectancy, 2013).

The standard conclusion from all the life expectancy data (mostly gathered since 1850) is that the wealth of a nation, and thus “access to healthcare” is the main predictor of longevity. However, there is evidence that this may only part of the picture, and that diet, sanitation, safety, and genetics are also at work. First, since infant mortality skews average longevity numbers, a better measure of longevity might be “modal longevity”, which measures the age of death most commonly recorded in a population. Per the Gurvin-Kaplan “Longevity Among Hunter Gatherers” study, the modern US modal longevity is 85 years, while that of “acculturated hunter gatherers” is about 74 years (similar to that in 18th century Sweden), and that of regular hunter gatherers about 67 years. The study notes that though there are far higher rates of early death among hunter gatherers as compared to modern US citizens (about 15% mortality compared to 2% at age 15), the percentages reaching above the mode are similar (about 30%).

These numbers suggest the natural hazards of living a hunter gatherer life, plus a kind of natural upper limit for all humans, regardless of lifestyle (around 95–100 years). This study further implies that although primitive people suffer more dangers and have less medical care, the difference in lifespan is due more to relatively poor nutrition that accumulates among the primitives. Another conclusion that can be drawn is that the “Western Diet” gives us proper nutrition (important) and a generally longer lifespan, but it increases certain obesity/inflammation related diseases later in life (diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, etc) decreasing quality of life. Interestingly the inflammatory markers in the primitive diet are even greater (due to early nutritional deficiency), while anthropologist Jared Diamond (in “The World Until Yesterday”) has noted that hunter gatherers do not adapt well to the Western diet (as though their genetics produce an even worse epidemic of Western metabolic diseases later in life). The examples of the oldest people in both societies suggests that the potential in the homo sapiens genome is similar among all races.

Necessity and the help of the native Wampanoags contributed to greater health among the Pilgrims, The Wampanoags were not so lucky, nearly dying out by 1700

Ok, now after that lengthy backdrop on human lifespans, consider the document from, entitled “Raising Children in the Early 17th Century: Demographics”, which states first that men and women in England lived to an average age of 40 years (with 12% infant mortality, in the 1600s), while New Englanders lived to their early 60’s on average. This source goes on to explain that up to 60% of Londoners would die before the age of 16, due to crowded conditions and contaminated water, while in the New World these conditions did not exist. On average, New Englanders married earlier (age 20 vs age 23), had more children (8 vs 6), and over a longer period (23 vs 20 years) than their British counterparts. Most strikingly, an average of 7 of those 8 children reached adulthood (quite an improvement in childhood survival). The modal lifespan comparison is not available, but judging from the advanced ages on Colonial tombstones, it was comparable (or even higher than) today’s, about 80 years compared to perhaps 70 years in London (see previously mentioned 18th century Sweden for reference).

Having read a great deal about Colonial America (particularly “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, War” by Nathaniel Philbrick and “The Times of their Lives: Life, Love, Death in the Plymouth Colony, by James and Patricia Scott Deetz) I might add that there were critical lifestyle changes by the New Englanders, born of necessity. First, the Pilgrims brought their oats and peas with them, but famously the first year’s crops failed and the Native Americans bailed them out by showing them how to grow corn and harvest the bounty of the sea (shellfish and fish were then plentiful in the area). In addition, the New Englanders (now relatively free of the disease and strife of England) learned how to hunt (again with the help of the Native Americans) with fewer restrictions than they faced in the mother country. After their crops succeeded, and the various ingredients were placed in the “stewpot” (a kettle placed over the fire, as they had no kitchens) the Colonists had a much greater variety of sources and nutrients. They benefitted from the micronutrients of foraging game meats (sometimes squirrel and raccoon, mostly venison) plus occasional seafood and a bounty of fiber-laden vegetables (remember too that the parsnip and turnip were commonly used instead of rice and potatoes, containing much more fiber). Though grains and wine grapes were harder to grow in New England, they found that apples grew wonderfully, so that apples became a kind of staple, including the frequently consumed apple jack. Even the Colonist’s “junk food” (popcorn) was healthier, as it was a high-fiber snack.

Oddly, archeologists have found many long-stemmed clay pipes in the rubble of Plymouth Plantation, and it is speculated that just about everyone smoked tobacco, albeit in a different form. It’s possible that this form of smoking may have even benefitted the Colonists, as tobacco is a known inflammation inhibitor and relatively safe when consumed through a long clay stem (which cools the tobacco smoke and mixes it with air). Certainly the beer and apple jack didn’t hurt either, as this got them through the Winter (among other things, these were the ways to preserve grain and apples back in the day…better than starving). Communal living, relative freedom, Puritan fidelity and the emerging “Yankee Spirit” may have been additional life extending properties. Most notably, table sugar was not introduced in large quantities until the proliferation of West Indies sugar plantations in the 18th century, so they were even spared of obesity and diabetes (in addition to tooth decay).

It should be said here that the Native Americans were not so lucky when it came to disease, alcohol, firearm use and basic freedoms. Sadly, they were sold firearms and alcohol, while catching diseases such as smallpox from the Europeans and getting crowded out of their lands. The details of this are partially covered in another famous Jared Diamond book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. About 60 years after the European colonization, the relative crowding and poor sanitation of the East Coast began catching up with Colonials, with the 1677 Boston smallpox, the 1692–1702 East Coast Yellow Fever, and the 1713 Colonial Measles, followed by several more smallpox, flu, diphtheria, and typhus epidemics. Later more likely to live in cities, there was still a poor understanding of the dangers of standing water and the importance of waste separation. There began to be higher infant mortality numbers, but never as high as the European capitals since the Colonists achieved better overall sanitation and a much better diet.

There are doubtless many other reasons why the early Colonials lived longer lives. For starters, they didn’t have many “doctors” and yet their childhood survival rates were much higher than Englanders. This may be a testament to the skills of Puritan lay workers (such as midwives), cleaner water, new methods or herbs gained from the Native Americans, better diet in utero and after, being “better off without a doctor” (in an era of limited medical knowledge), some or all of the above. In any case, the population may have increased an average of fifty-fold after three generations (if all seven children had seven children) and may be responsible for the survival of Europeans in the New World. It is sad that their survival came upon the backs of others (first Native Americans and later slaves), but that is a vast subject best dealt with in other articles.



Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health