The Palaeolithic of Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory
The Palaeolithic of Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory is funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (ECF-2016-128) held at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. The project commenced in 2016 and ran until August 2019.
From September 2019- March 2020, the final stages of writing and research were funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation as part of their Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme with continuing support from the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
The project will produce the first comprehensive synthesis and interpretation of the population history of the European Palaeolithic combining archaeological data with osteological, genetic, and ethnographic data. Covering the period from 1.8 million years ago to 12,000 years ago—during which time Europe was home to multiple hominin species and was subjected to numerous climatic and environmental shifts—the project seeks to determine the long-term demographic trends of the Pleistocene populations of Europe and the major factors influencing these trends, integrating demography explicitly into discussions of Palaeolithic societies and lifeways.
The project monograph Palaeolithic Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory is under contract with Cambridge University Press for publication in their World Archaeology Series.
Demographic change impacts on all human societies past and present. Archaeologists studying prehistoric demography have traditionally focused on the Neolithic and the relationships between population, environmental, and social change in early agricultural societies. In contrast, our knowledge of the demography of the hunter-gatherers of the earlier Palaeolithic (~3.3 million-12,000 years ago) is extremely limited (see French 2016 for a review). Nonetheless, the Palaeolithic was a period of demographic upheaval, during which both our evolutionary ancestors (hominins) and members of our own species (Homo sapiens) variously altered their geographical ranges, migrated, interbred, and, with the sole exception of Homo sapiens, became extinct. In addition, many key developmental landmarks in humanity’s social history occurred in the Palaeolithic, including the origins of art and symbolism and the colonisation of high latitudes. However, the relationships between these landmarks and Palaeolithic population histories remain poorly documented and understood. With its rich archaeological record (the result of both a long history of research and temperate conditions which aid the preservation of fossil remains), the European Palaeolithic (1.8 million-12,000 years ago) provides an ideal dataset for both reconstructing population trends in the Pleistocene, and assessing the relationship(s) between demographic, social and cultural change during this period.
Aims and Objectives
The overall aim of the project is to produce a demographic history of Palaeolithic Europe with a focus on two questions:
- What were the most important population controls and constraints throughout this period?
- How did these vary between different hominin species and what are their implications for our understanding of Palaeolithic societies and evolutionary transitions?
This project is deliberately designed to be primarily desk/library/computer based due to its wide scale (in terms of geography and chronology), and the aim of synthesising data from archaeology and allied fields.
To produce a demographic history of the European Palaeolithic, the period will be divided into its three sub-stages: Lower (~1.8 million years ago-300,000 years ago, associated with a range of pre- Neanderthal populations e.g. Homo antecessor, Homo Heidelbergensis), Middle (~300,000-40,000 years ago, associated with Neanderthals and Denisovans), and Upper (~40,000-12,000 years ago, associated with Homo sapiens/modern humans; further subdivided into pre and post the Last Glacial Maximum). The continent will be divided into geographic zones (after Gamble 1999) following the recognition that many aspects of hunter-gatherer behaviour show clear patterning based on environmental and climatic variables (Binford 2001). These divisions will provide the framework for the study of spatial and temporal patterns of demographic change.
Prehistoric demography requires a multidisciplinary approach to compensate for the fragmentary and indirect nature of our demographic data.
Published archaeological reports and previous studies will be mined for data on the demographic proxies of numbers, types, and sizes of archaeological sites, quantities of radiocarbon dates (as measures of past human presence), and material culture data (as measures of human occupation intensity), and will be collated to document long-term chronological and geographical patterns of relative population fluctuations. Published data from related fields which can inform on the short-term, specific, demographic processes behind these longer-scale trends will supplement these archaeological data. For example, osteological data can provide estimates of the longevity of different species of Palaeolithic humans and genetic data can inform on interbreeding events, and the size of Pleistocene breeding populations. Ethnographic data on the demography of recent hunter-gatherer groups provides a further source of comparison. This follows the uniformitarian assumption that all demographic change, past and present, is caused by variation among the three variables of birth rates, death rates, and migration rates, and that present-day small-scale populations are the best analogue for prehistoric hunter-gatherers.
Ethnographic analogy with recent hunter-gatherers provides the basic theoretical framework within which I will analyse these patterns of demographic change, providing a series of expectations about the nature of Palaeolithic populations against which any deviations can be examined (e.g. does the population density of Palaeolithic populations correlate with latitude as seen among recent hunter-gatherers?; Binford 2001) and the suitability of the use of ethnographic analogies for prehistoric demography assessed. In particular, demographic data from ethnographic foragers will be used as a starting point for the consideration of possible population controls and constraints which might have similarly affected prehistoric hunter-gatherers as well as for questioning some long-held assumptions about the nature of Palaeolithic population control (particularly with regard to the importance of infanticide). Once synthesised, the data and patterns will be interpreted within the evolutionary frameworks of Dual Inheritance Theory and Human Behavioural Ecology (Life History Theory) which predict, respectively, causative relationships between demographic change and social change, and climatic variability and demographic change.
Binford, L.R. 2001. Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Datasets. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press.
French, J.C. 2016. Demography and the Palaeolithic Archaeological Record. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23 (1): 150-199. DOI: 10.1007/s10816-014-9237-4
Gamble, C. 1999. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.