La Trobe

File(s) not publicly available

Population size does not explain past changes in cultural complexity

journal contribution
posted on 2023-02-09, 05:42 authored by K Vaesen, M Collard, Richard CosgroveRichard Cosgrove, W Roebroeks
Demography is increasingly being invoked to account for features of the archaeological record, such as the technological conservatism of the Lower and Middle Pleistocene, the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition, and cultural loss in Holocene Tasmania. Such explanations are commonly justified in relation to population dynamic models developed by Henrich [Henrich J (2004) Am Antiq 69:197-214] and Powell et al. [Powell A, et al. (2009) Science 324(5932):1298-1301], which appear to demonstrate that population size is the crucial determinant of cultural complexity. Here, we show that these models fail in two important respects. First, they only support a relationship between demography and culture in implausible conditions. Second, their predictions conflict with the available archaeological and ethnographic evidence. We conclude that new theoretical and empirical research is required to identify the factors that drove the changes in cultural complexity that are documented by the archaeological record.


K.V. acknowledges support from The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (VIDI Grant 016.144312). M.C. is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs Program, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund, and Simon Fraser University. R.C. and W.R. acknowledge support from the Australian Research Council (Discovery Grant DP120100580).


Publication Date



Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences






7p. (p. E2241-E2247)


National Academy of Sciences



Rights Statement

© The Authors 2016. Published under the standard PNAS license - for terms of use, see: PNAS License terms

Usage metrics

    Journal Articles


    No categories selected