The HLD is part of the Human Mortality Database (HMD) Project and a sister database of the main database. The project began in autumn 2000 at the initiative of John R. Wilmoth, at the time Professor at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), and James W. Vaupel, at the time Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock (Germany). It was established as a bilateral scientific project to be jointly developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (Department of Demography) and the Max-Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR).

From the beginning, the HMD was thought of as a major data resource to foster research on the longevity revolution that resulted in a greater increase in life expectancy during the last 100 years than during all preceding human history. It was especially important to make sure that the HMD enabled demographers to investigate the progress in longevity that began in the late 1970s by an unexpected and robust mortality decline at old and very old ages. This, in turn, led to questioning former speculations about the limits to human longevity and population aging.

Demographers address this fundamental question by an in-depth analysis of mortality including survival to advanced ages. Thus, the mortality and population data for such investigation had to include ages beyond 100 for as many countries as possible, be reliable and precise even at advanced ages, be consistent across time and space, cover long periods without gaps and ruptures, and provide fine details in terms of age, time, and birth cohort. In 2000, none of the existing international databases met all these criteria. HMD successfully filled this challenging gap.

In 1997, John R. Wilmoth at the University of California, Berkeley, launched the Berkeley Mortality Database (BMD) that provided mortality estimates by single-year of age from birth up to age 110 for France, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. The HMD adopted data presentation formats and several calculation methods from the BMD. At the same time, HMD methods for ages 80+ were strongly influenced by the Kannisto-Thatcher Database on Old Age Mortality (KTD) that was founded in 1993 at Odense University Medical School in Denmark by K.Andreev, V.Kannisto, R.Thatcher under the supervision of J.W.Vaupel. This way, HMD combined the best of these earlier efforts into a single project. It was anticipated that the database would eventually include around 40 to 45 countries with reliable vital registration and censuses systems.

Due to very strict data quality requirements, the HMD is limited to countries with good quality population data. Therefore, countries and areas in the HMD are relatively wealthy industrialized countries. To (partly) compensate for this shortcoming, the HMD Team has built a companion database named the Human Life-Table Database (HLD). The HLD includes life tables for many national and sub-national populations from both developed and developing countries. The HLD life tables originate from official and non-official publications and are very diverse in the methods implemented and the data quality. The HLD was launched in June 2002.

Vladimir Shkolnikov, Jacques Vallin, France Meslé, John Wilmoth, Evgueni Andreev and Dmitri Jdanov took part in extensive discussions on the HLD design and methodology in 2001-2. Vladimir Shkolnikov wrote the first version of the Methods Protocol. Evgueni Andreev wrote computer programs for various data adjustments and the re-computation of life tables. Dmitri Jdanov created the database structure.