What is palaeodemography?

Trabecular rarefaction of bone is found with advancing age (1: young individual; 6: elderly individual) Source: Luc Buchet, from Némeskéri et al. 1960.

Palaeodemography is the study of past populations who left little if anything in the way of written material that would tell us about their demographic behaviours.

It is based on archaeological data, the study of human and material remains. For example, palaeodemographers examine material remainders such as dwellings and food remains, etc., to reconstitute how settlement over a given territory developed and changed, or they study skeletal samples or series to get an idea of demographic behaviours. The second approach draws extensively on biological anthropology, as the study of human remains-specifically, bones and teeth-enriches our knowledge of early populations in a wide range of areas from health and medicine to social and ethnological aspects and, of course, living conditions and lifestyles. The discipline draws on methods from historical demography (which characteristically combines the techniques of quantitative history and demographic analysis) and statistics.

Major turning points in palaeodemographic research

Palaeodemographic research only came into its own in the 1960s, when a Hungarian research team undertook intensive experimental research on skeletons from sizeable medieval necropolises in order to reconstitute the demographic sex and age structure of the given population. Their results were published in 1970 in the first handbook of paleodemography, entitled History of Human Life Span and Mortality. The book triggered intense interest in palaeodemography within the anthropological community, and two distinct approaches soon began to take shape.

The North American school versus the French school

North American palaeodemographers concentrated on estimating individual age at death and drawing up mortality tables on the basis of remains from burial sites. But they were overly confident in what was in fact bias-ridden data, and their not very credible results elicited criticism in the 1970s from the French palaeodemographers Claude Masset and Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel , who in turn developed less ambitious but statistically
jmore rigorous methods. The primary strength of the French school lies in its remarkable methodological homogeneity. An entire set of sites was identified and studied in accordance with the principles devised by the French school, and constitutes an excellent ground for research to build on.
Renewed interest in palaeodemography has been growing since 2002, grounded in an international consensus on methodology. INED will soon publish the "Handbook of Palaeodemography ", product of longstanding collaboration between demographer-historians and anthropologist-archaeologists who have always been concerned to compare and take into account all available material so as to better apprehend some of the demographic characteristics of early populations. The work is one of the very few palaeodemographic handbooks whose methods were tested and honed using real data.

Source: Isabelle Séguy, Luc Buchet, 2011, Manuel de Paléodémographie, Ined
Contact: Isabelle Séguy
Online:  August 2011