Paleodemography of Extinct Hominin Populations

  • Janet Monge
  • Alan Mann
Living reference work entry


Paleodemography is the study of past population structure . The demographic structure of the population is both the outcome of evolutionary processes operating on groups of individuals and the basis on which future evolutionary forces can potentially operate. This review is concerned with a critical evaluation of paleodemographic studies of the hominin lineage prior to the development of agriculture. Because of the potential this research has for the generation of data about birth spacing, mortality , lifespan, sex ratio, patterns of fertility , and maturation , the study of the demography of earlier human populations has attracted much attention. Very limited and fragmentary sample sizes, however, combined with many uncertainties about depositional patterns, have led to major difficulties in the development of generally accepted hypotheses. Because of the nature of the preservation of skeletal materials, oftentimes past population structure has been modeled on known living populations. In the remote past, for example, at the inception of the human lineage, the choice of comparative living samples from which to derive models is problematic. Are the data from chimpanzees or modern humans more appropriate in these reconstructions? Or are the past and extinct populations completely different from any other population model constructed from living species?

Since many population parameters are based on life history variables, and vice versa, the assessment of population parameters in the past must be based on an effective evaluation of those key features that influence virtually every aspect of population structure : mortality , fertility , and longevity , to name just a few. Published reevaluations of a number of widely accepted concepts, such as the simple association of life history variables with structures like gross body or brain size, have made these earlier studies increasingly untenable. Further, recently collected data on modern humans and free ranging chimpanzees has cast doubt on the idea that these two primates experience dramatically different timing in their maturation and lifespan events. Other life history parameters of extinct populations, however, such as life expectancy , age at maturation and age at weaning may be retrievable.

While there are many useful variables of past population structure that can be analyzed, most social/cultural parameters (see Layton et al. 2012) cannot be retrieved from the earliest phases of human evolutionary history. These include settlement size and household size and especially changes in population size over time, growth, decline, and even population collapse.


Sexual Dimorphism Modern Human Aging Aging Skeletal Material Fossil Sample 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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