, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 300-311

Demographic Continuities and Discontinuities in Neolithic Europe: Evidence, Methods and Implications

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Abstract

Observations of continuities and discontinuities in the archaeological record depend in important ways on the spatial and temporal scale at which we make the observations, which are in turn affected by the observational tools we have available. Nowhere is this more important than in matters of chronological resolution and its impact on our sense of stability and change. But theoretical considerations are also relevant and specific theoretical positions and observational tools tend to go together. A variety of new methods have made it possible to attain levels of chronological resolution not previously accessible and also to obtain information about aspects of past societies that were not previously available, such as the genetic make-up of their members. These developments have undermined the long-standing view in Anglo-American archaeology that change is gradual and autonomous and are leading to a view of the past that is much more dynamic. The implications of these new developments are examined in relation to the demographic patterns of the European Neolithic. It is argued that demographic fluctuations—‘boom-bust’ patterns—play a key role in accounting for patterns of cultural change over the course of the Neolithic and that a variety of methods can inform on them, including the use of summed radiocarbon probability distributions, which have the advantage that the information to construct them is very widely available. Given the speed with which demographic processes operate, it is important that the temporal resolution of our methods is sufficient to characterise the patterns that result from them. While the demographic patterns are becoming clearer, much more work needs to be done to understand the cultural, social and economic processes at work following regional collapse in populations, where this does not simply lead to reoccupation by new groups from elsewhere.