The empirical case against the ‘demographic turn’ in Palaeolithic archaeology

Mark Collard* (Corresponding Author), Krist Vaesen, Richard Cosgrove, Wil Roebroeks

*Corresponding author for this work

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Recently, it has become commonplace to interpret major transitions and other patterns in the Palaeolithic archaeological record in terms of population size. Increases in cultural complexity are claimed to result from increases in population size; decreases in cultural complexity are suggested to be due to
decreases in population size; and periods of no change are attributed to low numbers or frequent extirpation. In this paper, we argue that this approach is not defensible. We show that the available empirical evidence does not support the idea that cultural complexity in hunter–gatherers is governed by population size. Instead, ethnographic and archaeological data suggest that hunter–gatherer cultural complexity is most strongly influenced by environmental factors. Because all hominins were hunter–gatherers until the Holocene, this means using population size to interpret patterns in the Palaeolithic archaeological record is problematic. In future, the population size hypothesis should be viewed as one of several competing hypotheses and its predictions formally tested alongside those of its competitors.
This article is part of the themed issue ‘Major transitions in human evolution’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20150242
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1698
Early online date13 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding. M.C.’s work is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs Programme, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund and Simon Fraser University. K.V. received support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (VIDI-grant 016.144312). R.C. and W.R. are supported by the Australian Research Council (discovery grants nos DP120100580 and DP150100586).

Acknowledgements. M.C. is grateful to Rob Foley, Marta Lahr, Lawrence Martin and Chris Stringer for inviting him to participate in the Major Transitions in Human Evolution meeting. We thank the following people for their assistance with this paper: Claes Andersson, JeanMarc Argentin, Raymond Corbey, Andre Costopoulos, Helen Eaton, Rob Foley, Denis French, Lola Greeno, Rex Greeno, Huw Groucutt, Peter Hiscock, Curtis Marean, Jim O’Connell, Dwight Read, Eleanor Scerri, George Serras, Christian Tryon, Pierre Vermeersch, Patrick at the Sawtooth ARI Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania and two anonymous reviewers. We also thank the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Aboriginal Reference Group
for permission to work on the material from Oatlands Shelter, Tasmania. Lastly, we thank the National Museum of Australia and the La Havre Museum for giving permission to reproduce some of the images used in this paper.


  • palaeolithic archaeology
  • cultural change
  • cultural complexity
  • hunter-gatherer technology
  • population size
  • demography


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