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European Neolithic societies showed early warning signals of population collapse

Downey, SS; Haas, WR; Shennan, SJ; (2016) European Neolithic societies showed early warning signals of population collapse. PNAS - Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America , 113 (35) pp. 9751-9756. 10.1073/pnas.1602504113. Green open access

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Abstract

Ecosystems on the verge of major reorganization-regime shift-may exhibit declining resilience, which can be detected using a collection of generic statistical tests known as early warning signals (EWSs). This study explores whether EWSs anticipated human population collapse during the European Neolithic. It analyzes recent reconstructions of European Neolithic (8-4 kya) population trends that reveal regime shifts from a period of rapid growth following the introduction of agriculture to a period of instability and collapse. We find statistical support for EWSs in advance of population collapse. Seven of nine regional datasets exhibit increasing autocorrelation and variance leading up to collapse, suggesting that these societies began to recover from perturbation more slowly as resilience declined. We derive EWS statistics from a prehistoric population proxy based on summed archaeological radiocarbon date probability densities. We use simulation to validate our methods and show that sampling biases, atmospheric effects, radiocarbon calibration error, and taphonomic processes are unlikely to explain the observed EWS patterns. The implications of these results for understanding the dynamics of Neolithic ecosystems are discussed, and we present a general framework for analyzing societal regime shifts using EWS at large spatial and temporal scales. We suggest that our findings are consistent with an adaptive cycling model that highlights both the vulnerability and resilience of early European populations. We close by discussing the implications of the detection of EWS in human systems for archaeology and sustainability science.

Type: Article
Title: European Neolithic societies showed early warning signals of population collapse
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1602504113
Publisher version: http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1602504113
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © 2017 The Author(s). All rights reserved.
Keywords: Neolithic Europe, archaeology, early warning signs, human paleodemography, resilience
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of SandHS > Institute of Archaeology
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of SandHS > Institute of Archaeology > Institute of Archaeology Gordon Square
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1535301
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