Past Aboriginal Populations and Demographic Change Using Radiocarbon Data and Time-Series Analysis

Alan N. Williams, Sean Ulm, Mike Smith

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The use of radiocarbon data as a proxy for past human demography has become common in many parts of the world with increasingly sophisticated techniques developed in the last decade. Australian archaeologists have been at the forefront of this research. Using this technique, the authors show that at a continent scale Aboriginal population remained low—in the tens of thousands—throughout the Pleistocene, followed by a stepwise growth in the last 10,000 years, and culminating at ~1.15 million in the Late Holocene. The Last Glacial Maximum resulted in significant disruption to populations, with recent evidence suggesting a prolonged recovery from the event, hindered by sea-level change through the terminal Pleistocene. This chapter hypothesises that increasing population during the Early Holocene, along with environmental packing from a reducing landmass, established the conditions contributing to the complex societies observed later in the Holocene and up to the ethnographic period. While radiocarbon approaches to exploring demography have been subject to frequent criticism, virtually all are explicitly addressed in sophisticated applications of the approach, and the authors’ findings continue to be proven robust as more archaeological data becomes available. For instance, the authors’ demonstration that initial seeding population at ~50,000 years ago was ~1000–3000 people and likely involved a deliberate act of exploration has been validated by a plethora of recent studies. The authors suggest a number of temporal and spatial areas that should form the focus of further archaeological research to fill in current knowledge gaps.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Indigenous Australia and New Guinea
EditorsIan J. McNiven, Bruno David
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780190095628
ISBN (Print)9780190095611
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jun 2022


  • Past demography
  • Radiocarbon data
  • Time-series analysis
  • Human-climate interactions
  • Terminal Pleistocene


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