Document Type

Open Access Article


Although difficult to estimate for prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations, demographic variables—population size, density, and the connectedness of demes—are critical for a better understanding of the processes of material culture change, especially in deep prehistory. Demography is the middle-range link between climatic changes and both biological and cultural evolutionary trajectories of human populations. Much of human material culture functions as a buffer against climatic changes, and the study of prehistoric population dynamics, estimated through changing frequencies of calibrated radiocarbon dates, therefore affords insights into how effectively such buffers operated and when they failed. In reviewing a number of case studies (Mesolithic Ireland, the origin of the Bromme culture, and the earliest late glacial human recolonization of southern Scandinavia), I suggest that a greater awareness of demographic processes, and in particular of demographic declines, provides many fresh insights into what structured the archaeological record. I argue that we cannot sideline climatic and environmental factors or extreme geophysical events in our reconstructions of prehistoric culture change. The implications of accepting demographic variability as a departure point for evaluating the archaeological record are discussed.