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Testing

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We measured the wear on the teeth of these people, and then seriated the population from those with the most worn teeth – the oldest – to those with the least worn. We did this for the whole population, not just the elderly, to act as a control. We then matched them against a known model population with a similar age structure, and allocated the individuals with the most worn teeth to the oldest ages. By matching the Worthy Park teeth to the model population, the invisible elderly soon become visible. Not only were we able to see how many people lived to a grand old age, but also which ones were 75 years or older, and which were a few years past 50.

Seeing the invisible elderly has led to other discoveries. It has often been suggested that more men than women lived to older age in the past because of the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, but our study suggests otherwise. We applied our method to two other Anglo-Saxon cemeteries as well – Great Chesterford in Essex and the one on Mill Hill, in Deal, Kent – and found that, of the three oldest individuals from each cemetery, seven were women and only two were men.

Although not conclusive proof, this suggests that older age spans for women might be part of the human condition.

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