New Formulae for Estimating Prehistoric Populations for Lowland South America and the Caribbean

Article excerpt


Many models in archaeology incorporate changes in population as critical elements to explain a wide variety of socio-cultural processes, including the evolution of social complexity and the development of agriculture. Population estimates have also been used in various studies to determine the degree of complexity of a polity, the extent of the power of a particular elite, and trade networks, among other issues. It is obvious, therefore, that the accuracy and precision of demographic methods to estimate prehistoric populations from the archaeological record are of vital importance for testing such models. In fact, the validity of the test is determined among other things by the accuracy of the population estimate.

Traditionally, demographics and change through time have often been used in the development of social models to explain many of the cultural phenomena in the archaeology of lowland South America and the Caribbean. Since the works of the early cultural ecologists such as Steward, Lathrap, Meggets and Evans, one of the main topics of debate has been the role of the resource/population relationship in cultural processes and how it affects (or, in some cases, determines) the structure of given cultures. Unfortunately, most of the discussions revolving around this topic have been limited to theoretical debates or estimates of environmental carrying capacity, while little has been done to estimate prehistoric populations empirically (see Meggers 1995). Few studies have attempted to estimate populations from the archaeological record. This article presents new, improved formulae to estimate prehistoric populations for lowland South America and the Caribbean islands at both the household and the community levels. In presenting these formulae the basic assumptions, methodology and premises are discussed in some detail. This work is a refinement of formulae developed for two of my previous projects: one dealing with prehistoric household structures (Curer 1992a) and the other with a demographic study of a small coastal valley in Puerto Rico (Curet 1992b; 1993). While these formulae are far from being perfect, they are an attempt to improve the study of prehistoric population trends in these culture areas.

General considerations

A discussion and review of several general points relevant to the study are presented here, but this is by no means exhaustive nor complete. More detailed reviews on this topic have been published elsewhere and the reader is referred to the works by Hassan (1981), Kolb (1985), Paine (1997) and Schacht (1981).

Several methods for estimating prehistoric populations in the archaeological record have been previously reported in the archaeological literature (Hassan 1981; Howels 1986; Kolb 1985). Most of these methods are based on one or more of the following types of archaeological or ethnohistoric data:

1 skeletal and other mortuary remains;

2 artefact assemblages and subassemblages related to food preparation, storage and consumption;

3 food remains;

4 surface refuse or ceramic densities;

5 architectural features such as roofed-over space; and/or

6 calculations of mean household size.

Although some of these data produce more accurate results than others (e.g. house area is better than site size), the source of information to be used is going to be determined mostly by the nature of the archaeological data at hand. Since most archaeological work consists of surveys and feature excavation, surface refuse and architectural features are two of the data-sets most widely used in most parts of the world for population estimation. In fact, surface refuse and architectural features are generally considered two of the most reliable archaeological indicators of prehistoric populations. For this reason, most of the work on estimating past populations has focused on determining the relationship between habitation area and number of people. …