Skip to main content

Culture Process and the Interpretation of Radiocarbon Data

  • Jacob Freeman (a1), David A Byers (a1), Erick Robinson (a2) and Robert L Kelly (a2)

Over the last decade, archaeologists have turned to large radiocarbon (14C) data sets to infer prehistoric population size and change. An outstanding question concerns just how direct of an estimate 14C dates are for human populations. In this paper we propose that 14C dates are a better estimate of energy consumption, rather than an unmediated, proportional estimate of population size. We use a parametric model to describe the relationship between population size, economic complexity and energy consumption in human societies, and then parametrize the model using data from modern contexts. Our results suggest that energy consumption scales sub-linearly with population size, which means that the analysis of a large 14C time-series has the potential to misestimate rates of population change and absolute population size. Energy consumption is also an exponential function of economic complexity. Thus, the 14C record could change semi-independent of population as complexity grows or declines. Scaling models are an important tool for stimulating future research to tease apart the different effects of population and social complexity on energy consumption, and explain variation in the forms of 14C date time-series in different regions.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Culture Process and the Interpretation of Radiocarbon Data
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Culture Process and the Interpretation of Radiocarbon Data
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Culture Process and the Interpretation of Radiocarbon Data
      Available formats
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
*Corresponding author. Email:
Hide All
Attenbrow V, Hiscock P. 2015. Dates and demography: are radiometric dates a robust proxy for long-term prehistoric demographic change? Archaeology in Oceania 50:3036.
Binford LR. 1999. Time as a clue to cause? Proceedings of the British Academy 101:135.
Brown JH, Gillooly JF, Allen AP, Savage VM, West GB. 2004. Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85:17711789.
Brown WA. 2015. Through a filter, darkly: population size estimation, systematic error, and random error in radiocarbon-supported demographic temporal frequency analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science 53:133147.
Brown WA. 2017. The past and future of growth rate estimation in demographic temporal frequency analysis: biodemographic interpretability and the ascendance of dynamic growth models. Journal of Archaeological Science 80:96108.
Census. 2016. State population totals datasets: 2010–2016 American Community Survey.
Contreras DA, Meadows J. 2014. Summed radiocarbon calibrations as a population proxy: a critical evaluation using a realistic simulation approach. Journal of Archaeological Science 52:591608.
Crema ER, Habu J, Kobayashi K, Madella M. 2016. Summed probability distribution of 14C dates suggests regional divergences in the population dynamics of the Jomon Period in Eastern Japan. PLoS ONE 11:e0154809.
Crombé P, Robinson E. 2014. 14C dates as demographic proxies in Neolithisation models of northwestern Europe: a critical assessment using Belgium and northeast France as a case-study. Journal of Archaeological Science 52:558566.
DeLong JP, Burger O. 2015. Socio-economic instability and the scaling of energy use with population size. PLoS ONE 10:e0130547.
Downey SS, Bocaege E, Kerig T, Edinborough K, Shennan S. 2014. The Neolithic Demographic Transition in Europe: correlation with juvenility index supports interpretation of the summed calibrated radiocarbon date probability distribution (SCDPD) as a valid demographic proxy. PloS One 9:e105730.
EIA. 2016. State comparisons, The U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Freeman J. 2016. The socioecology of territory size and a “work-around” hypothesis for the adoption of farming. PLoS ONE 11:e0158743.
Freeman J, Anderies JM. 2012. Intensification, tipping points and social change in a coupled forager-natural resource system. Human Nature 23:419446.
Freeman J, Anderies JM. 2015. The socioecology of hunter–gatherer territory size. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 39:110123.
Freeman J, Peeples M, Anderies JM. 2015. Toward a non-linear theory of the transition from foraging to farming. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 40:109122.
Hamilton MJ, Burger O, DeLong JP, Walker RS, Moses ME, Brown JH. 2009. Population stability, cooperation, and the invasibility of the human species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106(12):255260.
Hamilton MJ, Milne BT, Walker RS, Brown JH. 2007. Nonlinear scaling of space use in human hunter-gatherers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104:47654769.
Hausmann R, Hidalgo CA, Bustos S, Coscia M, Simoes A, Yildirim MA. 2014. The Atlas of Economic Complexity: Mapping Paths to Prosperity. MIT Press.
Hidalgo CA, Hausmann R. 2009. The building blocks of economic complexity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(10):570575.
IEA. 2016. World energy balance data, International Energy Agency.
Jetz W, Carbone C, Fulford J, Brown J. 2004. The scaling of animal space use. Science 306:266268.
Kelly RL, Surovell TA, Shuman BN, Smith GM. 2013. A continuous climatic impact on Holocene human population in the Rocky Mountains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110:443447.
Knight KW, Rosa EA. 2012. Household dynamics and fuelwood consumption in developing countries: a cross-national analysis. Population and Environment 33:365378.
Lindstedt SL, Miller BJ, Buskirk SW. 1986. Home range, time, and body size in mammals. Ecology 67:413418.
McNab BK. 1963. Bioenergetics and determination of home range size. American Naturalist 97:133140.
Miah MD, Al Rashid H, Shin MY. 2009. Wood fuel use in the traditional cooking stoves in the rural floodplain areas of Bangladesh: a socio-environmental perspective. Biomass and Bioenergy 33:7078.
Milton K, May ML. 1976. Body-weight, diet and home range area in primates. Nature 259:459462.
Peros MC, Munoz SE, Gajewski K, Viau AE. 2010. Prehistoric demography of North America inferred from radiocarbon data. Journal of Archaeological Science 37:656664.
Pettitt P, Davies W, Gamble C, Richards M. 2003. Palaeolithic radiocarbon chronology: quantifying our confidence beyond two half-lives. Journal of Archaeological Science 30:16851693.
Rick JW. 1987. Dates as data: an examination of the Peruvian Preceramic radiocarbon record. American Antiquity 52:5573.
Shennan S. 2008. Population processes and their consequences in early Neolithic central Europe. In: The Neolithic Demographic Transition and its Consequences. Springer. p. 315–29.
Shennan S. 2013. Demographic continuities and discontinuities in Neolithic Europe: evidence, methods and implications. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20:300311.
Shennan S, Downey SS, Timpson A, Edinborough K, Colledge S, Kerig T, Manning K, Thomas MG. 2013. Regional population collapse followed initial agriculture booms in mid-Holocene Europe. Nature Communications 4.
Surovell TA, Byrd Finley J, Smith GM, Brantingham PJ, Kelly R. 2009. Correcting temporal frequency distributions for taphonomic bias. Journal of Archaeological Science 36:17151724.
Timpson A, Colledge S, Crema E, Edinborough K, Kerig T, Manning K, Thomas MG, Shennan S. 2014. Reconstructing regional population fluctuations in the European Neolithic using radiocarbon dates: a new case-study using an improved method. Journal of Archaeological Science 52:549557.
TWB. 2016. World development indicators, The World Bank.
Wang C, Lu H, Zhang J, Gu Z, He K. 2014. Prehistoric demographic fluctuations in China inferred from radiocarbon data and their linkage with climate change over the past 50,000 years. Quaternary Science Reviews 98:4559.
Williams AN. 2012. The use of summed radiocarbon probability distributions in archaeology: a review of methods. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:578589.
Williams AN. 2013. A new population curve for prehistoric Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280:20130486.
Winterhalder B, Baillargeon W, Cappelletto F, Daniel I, Prescott C. 1988. The population ecology of hunter-gatherers and their prey. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 7:289328.
Yellen JE. 1977. Archaeological Approaches to the Present: Models for Reconstructing the Past. Volume 1. Academic Press.
York R, Rosa EA, Dietz T. 2003. STIRPAT, IPAT and ImPACT: analytic tools for unpacking the driving forces of environmental impacts. Ecological Economics 46:351365.
Zahid HJ, Robinson E, Kelly RL. 2016. Agriculture, population growth, and statistical analysis of the radiocarbon record. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113:931935.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0033-8222
  • EISSN: 1945-5755
  • URL: /core/journals/radiocarbon
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Freeman et al supplementary material 1
Freeman et al supplementary material

 Unknown (22 KB)
22 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 6
Total number of PDF views: 91 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 123 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 12th December 2017 - 17th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.