Prehistoric demography

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Log-log graph depicting estimates of the world population from 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE

Prehistoric demography, palaeodemography or archaeological demography is the study of human and hominid demography in prehistory.[1]

More specifically, palaeodemography looks at the changes in pre-modern populations in order to determine something about the influences on the lifespan and health of earlier peoples.[citation needed] Reconstructions of ancient population sizes and dynamics are based on bioarchaeology,[2] ancient DNA, and inference from modern population genetics.[citation needed]


Skeletal analysis[edit]

Skeletal analysis can yield information such as an estimation of age at time of death. There are numerous methods that can be used;[3] in addition to age estimation and sex estimation, someone versed in basic osteology can ascertain a minimum number of individuals (or MNI) in cluttered contexts—such as in mass graves or an ossuary. This is important, as it is not always obvious how many bodies compose the bones sitting in a heap as they are excavated.

Occasionally, historical disease prevalence for illnesses such as leprosy can also be determined from bone restructuring and deterioration. Paleopathology, as these investigations are called, can be useful in accurate estimation of mortality rates.

Genetic analysis[edit]

The increasing availability of DNA sequencing since the late 1990s has allowed estimates on Paleolithic effective population sizes.[4][5][6] Such models suggest a human effective population size of the order of 10,000 individuals for the Late Pleistocene. This includes only the breeding population that produced descendants over the long term, and the actual population may have been substantially larger (in the six digits).[7] Sherry et al. (1997) based on Alu elements estimated a roughly constant effective population size of the order of 18,000 individuals for the population of Homo ancestral to modern humans over the past one to two million years.[8] Huff et al. (2010) rejected all models with an ancient effective population size larger than 26,000.[9] For ca. 130,000 years ago, Sjödin et al. (2012) estimate an effective population size of the order of 10,000 to 30,000 individuals, and infer an actual "census population" of early Homo sapiens of roughly 100,000 to 300,000 individuals.[10] The authors also note that their model disfavours the assumption of an early (pre-Out-of-Africa) population bottleneck affecting all of Homo sapiens.[11]

Estimates of habitable land area[edit]

According to a 2015 study, the total land area of Africa, Eurasia, and Sahul that was habitable to humans during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) was around 76,959,712.4 km2. Based on a dataset of average population density of hunter-gatherer groups collected by Lewis R. Binford, which indicate a mean density of 0.1223 humans per km2 and a median density of 0.0444 humans per km2, the combined human population of Africa and Eurasia at the time of the LGM would have been between 2,998,820 and 8,260,262 people. Alternatively, if a human population density based on that of modern medium to large-bodied carnivores, whose median density is 0.0275 individuals per km2 and whose mean density is 0.0384 individuals per km2, is used, a total Afro-Eurasian human population of 2,120,000 to 2,950,000 is obtained. Sahul's population density was significantly lower than that of Afro-Eurasia, being calculated as only 0.005 humans per km2 during the time just prior to the LGM. As a consequence, assuming Sahul possessed an estimated total habitable land area of 9,418,730.8 km2, its population was at most 47,000 at the time of the LGM, and probably less than that given that its population is believed to have declined by as much as 61% during the LGM,[12] a demographic trend supported by archaeological evidence,[13] and it thus would have possessed an even lower actual population density than the calculated density from just before the LGM.[14]

Hominid population estimates[edit]

It is estimated by J. Lawrence Angel [15] that the average life span of hominids on the African savanna between 4,000,000 and 200,000 years ago was 20 years. This means that the population would be completely renewed about five times per century,[citation needed] assuming that infant mortality has already been accounted for[clarification needed]. It is further estimated that the population of hominids in Africa fluctuated between 10,000 and 100,000 individuals, thus averaging about 50,000 individuals[clarification needed]. Multiplying 40,000 centuries by 50,000 to 500,000 individuals per century yields a total of 2 billion to 20 billion hominids that lived during that approximately 4,000,000-year time span.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ French, Jennifer C. (2016-03-01). "Demography and the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record". Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 23 (1): 150–199. doi:10.1007/s10816-014-9237-4. ISSN 1573-7764. S2CID 55729093.
  2. ^ De Witte, Sharon N. (2018-10-04), "Paleodemography", in Trevathan, Wenda; Cartmill, Matt; Dufour, Dana; Larsen, Clark (eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Biological Anthropology, Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp. 1–8, doi:10.1002/9781118584538.ieba0360, ISBN 978-1-118-58442-2, S2CID 240089460, retrieved 2021-05-20
  3. ^ Anil Aggrawal (2009). "Estimation of age in the living: in matters civil and criminal" (PDF). Journal of Anatomy. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7580.2009.01048.x. PMID 19470083.
  4. ^ Drummond, A. J.; Rambaut, A.; Shapiro, B.; Pybus, O. G. (2005). "Bayesian Coalescent Inference of Past Population Dynamics from Molecular Sequences". Mol. Biol. Evol. 22 (5): 1185–92. doi:10.1093/molbev/msi103. PMID 15703244.
  5. ^ Reich, D. E.; Goldstein, D. B. (1998). "Evolution Genetic evidence for a Paleolithic human population expansion in Africa". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 95 (14): 8119–23. doi:10.1073/pnas.95.14.8119. PMC 20939. PMID 9653150. The maximum preexpansion population size for the NorthCentral African population is 6,600, the lower bound for the postexpansion population size is 8,400, and the allowed dates are between 49,000 and 640,000 years ago
  6. ^ Nikolic, Natacha; Chevalet, Claude (June 2014). "Detecting past changes of effective population size". Evolutionary Applications. 7 (6): 663–81. doi:10.1111/eva.12170. PMC 4105917. PMID 25067949.
  7. ^ Eller, Elise; Hawks, John; Relethford, John H. (2009). "Local Extinction and Recolonization, Species Effective Population Size, and Modern Human Origins". Human Biology. 81 (5–6): 805–24. doi:10.3378/027.081.0623. PMID 20504198. S2CID 27753579. The relationship between census size and effective size is complex, but arguments based on an island model of migration show that if the effective population size reflects the number of breeding individuals and the effects of population subdivision, then an effective population size of 10,000 is inconsistent with the census size of 500,000 to 1,000,000 that has been suggested by archeological evidence. However, these models have ignored the effects of population extinction and recolonization, which increase the expected variance among demes and reduce the inbreeding effective population size. Using models developed for population extinction and recolonization, we show that a large census size consistent with the multiregional model can be reconciled with an effective population size of 10,000, but genetic variation among demes must be high, reflecting low interdeme migration rates and a colonization process that involves a small number of colonists or kin-structured colonization.
  8. ^ Sherry, Stephen T.; Harpending, Henry C.; Batzer, Mark A.; Stoneking, Mark (1997). "Alu Evolution in Human Populations: Using the Coalescent to Estimate Effective Population Size". Genetics. 147 (4): 1977–82. doi:10.1093/genetics/147.4.1977. PMC 1208362. PMID 9409852.
  9. ^ Huff, Chad D.; Xing, Jinchuan; Rogers, Alan R.; Witherspoon, David; Jorde, Lynn B. (2 February 2010). "Mobile elements reveal small population size in the ancient ancestors of Homo sapiens". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (5): 2147–2152. Bibcode:2010PNAS..107.2147H. doi:10.1073/pnas.0909000107. PMC 2836654. PMID 20133859.
  10. ^ Sjödin, Per; Sjöstrand, Agnès E; Jakobsson, Mattias; Blum, Michael G. B. (2012). "Resequencing data provide no evidence for a human bottleneck in Africa during the penultimate glacial period". Mol Biol Evol. 29 (7): 1851–60. doi:10.1093/molbev/mss061. PMID 22319141. A small human effective population size, on the order of 10,000 individuals, which is smaller than the effective population size of most great apes, has been interpreted as a result of a very long history, starting ? 2 mya, of a small population size, coined as the long-necked bottle model (Harpending et al. 1998; Hawks et al. 2000). Our findings are consistent with this hypothesis, but, depending on the mutation rate, we find either an effective population size of NA = 12,000 (95% C.I. = 9,000–15,500 when averaging over all three demographic models) using the mutation rate calibrated with the human-chimp divergence or an effective population size of NA = 32,500 individuals (95% C.I. = 27,500–34,500) using the mutation rate given by whole-genome trio analysis (The 1000 Genomes Project Consortium 2010) (supplementary figure 4 and table 6, Supplementary Material online). Not surprisingly, the estimated effective mutation rates ? = 4NAµ are comparable for the two mutation rates we considered, and are equal to 1.4 × 10?3/bp/generation (95% C.I. = (1.1–1.7) × 10?3). Relating the estimated effective population size to the census population size during the Pleistocene is a difficult task because there are many factors affecting the effective population size (Charlesworth 2009). Nevertheless, based on published estimates of the ratio between effective and census population size, a comprehensive value on the order of 10% has been found by Frankham (1995). This 10% rule roughly predicts that 120,000–325,[0]00 individuals (depending on the assumed mutation rate)
  11. ^ Sjödin et al. 2012, In contrast to the bottleneck theory, we show that a simple model without any bottleneck during the penultimate ice age has the greatest statistical support compared to bottleneck models.
  12. ^ Williams, Alan N. (22 June 2013). "A new population curve for prehistoric Australia". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 280 (1761): 1–9. doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.0486. PMC 3652441. PMID 23615287.
  13. ^ Williams, Alan N.; Ulm, Sean; Cook, Andrew R.; Langley, Michelle C.; Collard, Mark (December 2013). "Human refugia in Australia during the Last Glacial Maximum and Terminal Pleistocene: a geospatial analysis of the 25–12 ka Australian archaeological record". Journal of Archaeological Science. 40 (12): 4612–4625. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.015. Retrieved 16 October 2022.
  14. ^ Gautney, Joanna R.; Holliday, Trenton W. (June 2015). "New estimations of habitable land area and human population size at the Last Glacial Maximum". Journal of Archaeological Science. 58: 103–112. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2015.03.028. Retrieved 16 October 2022.
  15. ^ Angel, J. Lawrence (May 1969). "The bases of paleodemography". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 30 (3): 427–437. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330300314. PMID 5791021 – via doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330300314. PMID 5791021.
  16. ^ Angela, Piero; Angela, Alberto (1993). The Extraordinary Story of Human Origins. Prometheus Books. p. 194. ISBN 1615928375.

Further reading[edit]