Modern population boom traced to pre-industrial roots

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Sept. 7, 2014

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Around 1800, the human population reached one billion. "The First Birthday Party," by Frederick Daniel Hardy, celebrates the strong intergenerational ties that helped make this milestone possible.

The foundation of the human population explosion, commonly attributed to a sudden surge in industrialization and public health during the 18th and 19th centuries, was actually laid as far back as 2,000 years ago, suggests an extended model of detailed demographic and archeological data.

The Public Library of Science One (PLOS ONE) recently published the analytical framework developed by Aaron Stutz, an associate professor of anthropology at Emory’s Oxford College.

“The industrial revolution and public health improvements were proximate reasons that more people lived longer,” Stutz says. “If you dig further in the past, however, the data suggest that a critical threshold of political and economic organization set the stage 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, around the start of the Common Era. The resulting political-economic balance was the tipping point for economies of scale: It created a range of opportunities enabling more people to get resources, form successful families, and generate enough capital to transfer to the next generation.”

Population dynamics have been a hot topic since 1798, when English scholar Thomas Robert Malthus published his controversial essay that population booms in times of plenty will inevitably be checked by famine and disease. “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” he wrote. The so-called Malthusian Catastrophe theory was penned just prior to the global census size reaching one billion.

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