Document Type

Open Access Article


Archaeological demography investigates the structure and dynamics of past human populations using evidence from traces of human activities and remnants of material culture in the archaeological record. Research in this field is interdisciplinary, incorporating findings from anthropology, paleogenetics, and human ecology but with a remit that extends beyond the primarily biological focus of paleodemography. Important questions addressed by archaeological demography include the establishment of methods for inferring past population structure, the timing of the emergence of modern human demographic systems, the relative importance of attritional and catastrophic patterns of mortality, and the search for adaptive explanations for demographic transitions, colonization events, and population extinctions. Archaeological evidence, including the extent of settlements and site catchment areas as well as measures of the exploitation, consumption, and discard of materials and artifacts, have traditionally been used as proxies for estimating past population size and density. In recent years this evidence has been supplemented by increasingly large data sets compiled from radiocarbon dating programs. These data sets have been used to investigate demographic waves of advance during continental-scale periods of colonization and cultural change and to detect episodes of population decline, extinction, and hiatuses in settlement history. By considering studies of human genetic diversity that indicate temporary but drastic reductions in effective population size, I hypothesize that catastrophic mortality may have had an important role in long-term population processes and may have limited long-term rates of growth, particularly in prehistoric populations.