Demography and the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record

Abstract

Demographic change has recently re-emerged as a key explanation for socio-cultural changes documented in the prehistoric archaeological record. While the majority of studies of Pleistocene demography have been conducted by geneticists, the archaeological records of the Palaeolithic should not be ignored as a source of data on past population trends. This paper forms both a comprehensive synthesis and the first critical review of current archaeological research into Palaeolithic demography. Within prevailing archaeological frameworks of dual inheritance theory and human behavioural ecology, I review the ways in which demographic change has been used as an explanatory concept within Palaeolithic archaeology. I identify and discuss three main research areas which have benefitted from a demographic approach to socio-cultural change: (1) technological stasis in the Lower Palaeolithic, (2) the Neanderthal-Homo sapiens transition in Europe and (3) the emergence of behavioural modernity. I then address the ways in which palaeodemographic methods have been applied to Palaeolithic datasets, considering both general methodological concerns and the challenges specific to this time period. Finally, I discuss the ability of ethnographic analogy to aid research into Palaeolithic demography.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In this paper, I use the term ‘Palaeolithic’ to refer more broadly to the Pleistocene, recognising that there are continental variants used to describe the archaeological record of this period.

  2. 2.

    Although some estimates of changes in fertility and mortality rates have been (questionably) inferred from osteological remains (e.g. Buikstra and Konigsberg 1985; Buikstra et al. 1986; Greene et al. 1986; Konigsberg and Frankenberg 2005; cf. Bocquet-Appel and Masset 1982; Corruccini et al. 1989; Petersen 1975), and such parameters can be modelled (Sørensen 2011; Surovell 2000).

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Acknowledgments

Funding for this research was provided by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Doctoral Studentship and a Peterhouse (University of Cambridge, UK) Research Fellowship. Thanks to Paul Mellars, Robert Foley, Stephan Shennan and Christina Collins for useful discussions of many of the ideas included in this paper, and Paul Mellars, Dominic Walker and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.

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French, J.C. Demography and the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record. J Archaeol Method Theory 23, 150–199 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-014-9237-4

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Keywords

  • Demography
  • Palaeolithic
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Behavioural ecology
  • Cultural evolution