The Palaeolithic of Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory
The Palaeolithic of Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (ECF-2016-128) (2016-2019) and a Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme from the Wenner-Gren Foundation (2019-2020) both held at the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
The project monograph Palaeolithic Europe: A Demographic and Social Prehistory will be published by Cambridge University Press as part of their World Archaeology Series in 2021.
The ‘blurb’ for the book is as follows:
This book presents a new synthesis of the archaeological, palaeoanthropological, and palaeogenetic records of the European Palaeolithic, adopting a unique demographic perspective on these first two-million years of European prehistory. Unlike prevailing narratives of demographic stasis, it emphasises the dynamism of Palaeolithic populations of both our evolutionary ancestors and members of our own species across four demographic stages, within a context of substantial Pleistocene climatic changes. Integrating evolutionary theory with a socially oriented approach to the Palaeolithic, this volume bridges biological and cultural factors, with a focus on women and children as the drivers of population change. This volume shows how, within the physiological constraints on fertility and mortality, social relationships provide the key to enduring demographic success. Through its demographic focus, this book combines a ‘big picture’ perspective on human evolution with careful analysis of the day-to-day realities of European Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer communities—their families, their children, and how they lived and died.
More information about the wider project can be found below:
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.