The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

New calculation of habitable land area during Glacial periods and its implications for Pleistocene hominin population size


Department of Anthropology, Tulane University

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The estimation of population size in the distant past is a difficult endeavor. Previously, researchers have estimated prehistoric population size by comparing the total area of human habitation (as determined from archaeological data) with observed population densities of hunter-gatherers. This method ignores largely archaeologically invisible areas of land currently submerged by oceans, and areas in which archaeological materials are unlikely to be recovered. We present a new method of estimating habitable area that includes areas now below sea level, but exposed during glacial maxima. We couple these data with population density data for widespread large carnivores and foragers to estimate Pleistocene population size.

First, we estimated the areas of Eurasia and Africa when sea level was 120 meters lower today using the polygon creation function in Google Earth, which calculates the area within the polygon. The land area Africa is estimated at 30,493,900.3 km2 and Eurasia at 62,280,164.2 km2, for a combined total area of 92,774,064.5 km2. Subtracting areas covered by glaciers, Siberia north of 65° N, the Sahara and Arabian deserts, and elevations higher than 3000 m, we arrive at a potentially habitable area of 66,637,563.4 km2.

Using hunter-gatherer data, we then estimate Pleistocene human population size at between 4.2 - 10.2 million. Wide-ranging large carnivore data suggest a Pleistocene human population size of 1.8 - 2.5 million. These estimates should be viewed as population ceilings, since they assume that all lands suitable for human occupation were in fact occupied, which was certainly not the case.

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