UW Archeologists Co-Author Study Challenging Common Knowledge On Population Growth

Jan 25, 2016

University of Wyoming students excavate a prehistoric rock shelter in the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming during the summer of 2015.
Credit University of Wyoming

Two University of Wyoming archeologists are co-authors on a new paper in the scientific journal PNAS that challenges the traditional understanding of human population growth.

Human population has soared in the last 200 years or so because of the industrial revolution and advances in medicine. Before that, it was thought that the first significant change in human population growth happened around 12,000 years ago, because of the agricultural revolution.

But using radio-carbon dating of hearths from foraging societies in Wyoming and Colorado, the new research shows that population growth rates were virtually the same in hunter-gatherer communities and agricultural communities of the same time period.

"Some researchers argue that the first change was with agriculture. We’re not so sure that that’s correct. That the only big change in human demographic history occurred in the 19th century," says Robert Kelly, a UW professor and one of the co-authors on the study.

Erick Robinson is doing his post-doctoral research at the University of Wyoming and is one of the authors of the study. He says global climate or biological factors may have played a bigger role in growth rates than previously thought.

"At least during these periods of time, people are less susceptible to what’s going on in their regional and local environments. And I think one of the key things that we have to check is what migration and mobility was like at this period of time," says Robinson.

Robinson says looking at where populations moved in the past may give a better idea of where people might go in the future when faced with climate events like drought or floods.