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GROWING OLD IN ANCIENT AMERICA

Scientific research on human aging has focused on changes in physiological and psychological functioning as part of what is considered the normal process of aging (Goldsmith 2014). As stated previously, life expectancy in nonindustrialized societies was likely in the 40s; since the 1800s it has doubled, and the rapid increases in life span within the last 50 years has been attributed to medical, cultural, and environmental factors (Finch 2012). It is not clear what the average lifespan was for precolonial groups in ancient America, but there is evidence that in some groups, individuals did live into their 60s (Martin et al. 1991). Anthropologists have a particularly focused view of aging that puts it largely within a biocultural framework, and a new review of anthropological approaches to understanding has recently forwarded a number of cross-cultural case studies to show the value of doing so (Rubenstein et al. 2014). Although biological wear and tear may explain some of the changes in functioning, it is becoming increasingly clear that cultural and lifestyle factors play an important role as well.

Simmons (1945) was among the first to look at aging in a cross-cultural manner. He examined 109 cultural traits for elderly in 71 societies using the Human Relations Area Files. His study provided the basis to begin to explore differences in how elderly individuals live, and it was an important study for pointing out the range of variability that exists in such areas as health care and the elderly, the role of the elderly in economic production, the distribution of wealth with regard to the elderly, and the organization of the family and the community as it affects the elderly. Sokolovsky (1983: 8) early on advocated for cross-cultural studies of aging to gain “an understanding of aging divorced from the narrow boundary of a single cultural perspective.” Although there are relatively fewer studies documenting aging in traditional societies, there is a growing literature that begins to address the distribution of elderly within communities, the degree of economic participation of the elderly, various living arrangements, and the effect of chronic health problems on family and community functioning (Rubenstein et al. 2014).

Historical and demographic information on the proportion of elderly in traditional Native American communities is difficult to find. Dukepoo (1978) compiled a general account of growing old in a variety of Native American groups, but these amount to little more than a few life histories recorded for some elderly and unfortunately do not provide much insight into what the normal expectation was for living past the 50s in ancient times. For living Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, Rogers and Gallion (1978) report a variety of sociocultural and health problems plaguing those who do not have access to resources and who live in conditions of poverty. Munsell (1972) describes various sociocultural functions of elderly Pima Indians. Those and other reports in the literature on aging in Native American societies speak more to the problems encountered after contact and colonization than to the role of elderly in traditional societies. Life expectancy, health problems, and social roles taken up by the elderly are not discussed in explicit terms; therefore,

An elderly woman mixing clay for ceramic production in the Puebloan world

FIGURE 6.1 An elderly woman mixing clay for ceramic production in the Puebloan world. “The potter mixing clay” circa 1921 by Edward S. Curtis. Originally published in The North American Indian, Suppl. v. 12, plate 419. Digital version downloaded via the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002711599/.

there is little in the way of precedents on which to base an analysis of prehistoric elderly Native Americans.

In the detailed ethnographic accounts presented by Eggan (1950) and Dozier (1970) for the Pueblo Indians who were studied by anthropologists more than most groups in the U.S., the elderly are presented as integral parts of the kinship and clan systems (Figure 6.1) . For example, Dozier (1970: 137) states that “the oldest woman of this household is the head of the clan" Individuals can occupy preeminent positions within the clan based on seniority. There are also accounts of the elderly performing a variety of ritual ceremonies and passing down to the children information concerning origin myths and religious stories. However, in neither of these accounts of Pueblo culture is there explicit information regarding health and lifestyle of elderly.

In a sense, this lack of ethnographic specificity about this age category may be interpreted as suggesting that to be old in traditional Native American societies simply was on a continuum with the roles and duties of adults in general. The term situated aging has been used in anthropology to suggest that aging is a dynamic and socially embedded process that is shaped by specific cultural contexts and not necessarily by developmental or chronological age (Perkinson and Solimeo 2013).

 
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