Letter | Published:

Post-invasion demography of prehistoric humans in South America

Nature volume 532, pages 232235 (14 April 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

As the last habitable continent colonized by humans, the site of multiple domestication hotspots, and the location of the largest Pleistocene megafaunal extinction, South America is central to human prehistory1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Yet remarkably little is known about human population dynamics during colonization, subsequent expansions, and domestication2,3,4,5. Here we reconstruct the spatiotemporal patterns of human population growth in South America using a newly aggregated database of 1,147 archaeological sites and 5,464 calibrated radiocarbon dates spanning fourteen thousand to two thousand years ago (ka). We demonstrate that, rather than a steady exponential expansion, the demographic history of South Americans is characterized by two distinct phases. First, humans spread rapidly throughout the continent, but remained at low population sizes for 8,000 years, including a 4,000-year period of ‘boom-and-bust’ oscillations with no net growth. Supplementation of hunting with domesticated crops and animals4,8 had a minimal impact on population carrying capacity. Only with widespread sedentism, beginning ~5 ka4,8, did a second demographic phase begin, with evidence for exponential population growth in cultural hotspots, characteristic of the Neolithic transition worldwide9. The unique extent of humanity’s ability to modify its environment to markedly increase carrying capacity in South America is therefore an unexpectedly recent phenomenon.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. Barnosky, J. Kang, N. Rosenberg, E. Lindsey, N. Villavicencio, L. Frishkoff, K. Solari, J. Hsu, and H. Frank for conversations and feedback on the paper, as well as E. Jewett and M. Edge for discussions of statistical methods. We also greatly appreciate assistance from the Stanford Geospatial Center. This work was stimulated by discussions of an NSF-funded group (EAR 1148181) comparing the timing of megafaunal extinctions with archeological and palaeoenvironmental data in South America. We acknowledge support from NSF grant BCS 1515127, as well as NSF Graduate Research and ARCS fellowships to A.G., a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship to A.M.M, and a Gabilan Fellowship to E.A.H. Radiocarbon data and associated information are available in the Supplementary Information.

Author information

Author notes

    • Amy Goldberg
    •  & Alexis M. Mychajliw

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Biology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Amy Goldberg
    • , Alexis M. Mychajliw
    •  & Elizabeth A. Hadly
  2. Woods Institute, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Elizabeth A. Hadly

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Contributions

A.G. conducted analyses and wrote the first draft of the paper. A.M.M. collected and collated the database, and conducted ArcGIS analyses. E.A.H. advised the analyses and initiated the project. All authors interpreted results, and contributed to framing and editing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Amy Goldberg.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This file contains Supplementary Dataset 1.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17176

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