Population size does not explain past changes in cultural complexity

Krist Vaesen, Mark Collard, Richard Cosgrove, Wil Roebroeks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E2241-E2247
Number of pages7
Issue number16
Early online date4 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - 19 Apr 2016


  • cultural evolution
  • demography
  • Upper Paleolithic transition
  • Tasmania
  • cultural complexity


Dive into the research topics of 'Population size does not explain past changes in cultural complexity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this