Qual Quant (2008) 42:275–281
Increasing the relevance of mathematical approaches
to demographic history
Felix Riede · R. Alex Bentley
Received: 25 August 2007 / Accepted: 23 September 2007 / Published online: 28 November 2007
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007
Abstract In this short paper we comment on recent efforts at formally modelling the inter-
play between demography and cultural evolution. We draw attention to the fact that, although
these efforts are to be applauded, much work has already been done in this area, and that
this work is being ignored. We build a case for tighter collaboration between different social
science disciplines concerned with human behaviour and long-term demography, and argue
that mathematical models must be paired with empirical data.
Keywords Demography · Cultural evolution · Mathematical modelling ·
Interdisciplinarity · Archaeology
Mathematical modelling of cultural processes often focuses on the movement of people in
space and time, and the transmission of cultural traits from generation to the next (reviews
by McElreath and Boyd 2007; Shennan 2002). Archaeology as a discipline is dedicated to,
and has exceptional data on, such process in the human past and how they operate over the
long-term. Not surprisingly then, some archaeologists have become interested in using quan-
titative models. Modelling is especially useful for historical sciences such as archaeology
and palaeoanthropology, because the deep past can rarely be assessed by direct experiment.
It can generate null hypotheses concerning the most important variables in any given process
(e.g. Hodder 1978; Matsumura et al. in press; Mesoudi and O’Brien in press; Wobst 1974).
In recent years, a growing number of natural scientists, particularly physicists and mathe-
maticians, have become productive in modelling human behaviour, in everything from trafﬁc
patterns to urban migration, social networks, and economic activity (e.g. Bettencourt et al.
F. Riede (
AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, The Institute of Archaeology,
University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK
R. A. Bentley
Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, 43 Old Elvet, Durham DH1 3HN, UK