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The Use of Life Tables in Paleodemography

  • James A. Moore (a1), Alan C. Swedlund (a1) and George J. Armelagos (a1)


Anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the importance of population as a factor in a systematic view of human biological and cultural development. This awareness has generated an interest in the field of demography, and consequently, techniques once utilized almost exclusively by demographers are now frequently utilized for anthropological studies. Anthropological-paleodemographic inquiry traditionally starts with the excavation of a skeletal population sample. The sample is aged and sexed, and the data are put into a descriptive analytic model–the life table. The life table, through a process of inference, is taken to represent the life processes of a local biological population and often forms the basis for further inference on the relationships between populational and cultural processes (Green and others 1974; Howell-Lee 1971).

Critics have questioned the assumption of life table construction and cited various sources of error in data collection to argue against the use of life tables as a source of inference concerning the biological population. In this paper we will attempt to address some of these sources of error. Specifically, we will discuss the effects of enumeration errors, population growth, and small population size on life table values. To assess the impact of these errors on life table values of “anthropological” populations, we make use of computer simulation. We conclude that, once the implications of these factors are understood, the life table can provide a useful model for paleodemographic research.



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