Skip to main content Accessibility help

Validation of a global model of taphonomic bias using geologic radiocarbon ages

  • Lara E. Bluhm (a1) and Todd A. Surovell (a2)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.


Temporal frequency distributions of radiocarbon ages from archaeological sites can be used as a proxy record for human paleodemography after correction for taphonomic bias, or the time dependent loss of sediments due to erosion. Surovell et al. (2009) presented a global taphonomic correction model based on radiocarbon ages from volcanic deposits that has since been used by several researchers for paleodemographic reconstructions. This method is based on the assumption that the best indicator of relative human population density over time is not the absolute abundance of archaeological materials over time but, instead, the abundance of cultural material relative to geologic contexts in which those materials can occur. To verify the Surovell et al. model, in this paper we take 2457 radiocarbon ages from geologic contexts collected from published literature to create an independent model of taphonomic bias. We find that between 1 and 39 ka, the two curves are largely indistinguishable, but that they diverge in recent times. This suggests that current global models of taphonomic correction can be used to reconstruct human populations for the late Quaternary, but that demographic reconstructions remain challenging for the most recent two millennia.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author at: Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri 63130. E-mail address: (L.E. Bluhm).


Hide All
Ballenger, J.A.M., Mabry, J.B., 2011. Temporal frequency distributions of alluvium in the American Southwest: taphonomic, paleohydraulic, and demographic implications. Journal of Archaeological Science 38, 13141325.
Bronk Ramsey, C., 2009. Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51, 337360.
Bryson, R.U., Bryson, R.A., Ruter, A., 2006. A calibrated radiocarbon database of late Quaternary volcanic eruptions. eEarth Discussions 1, 123134.
Freeman, J., Byers, D.A., Robinson, E., Kelly, R.L., 2017. Culture process and the interpretation of radiocarbon data. Radiocarbon, 115.
Gajewski, K., Munoz, S., Peros, M., Viau, A., Morlan, R., Betts, M., 2011. The Canadian archaeological radiocarbon database (CARD): archaeological 14C dates in North America and their paleoenvironmental context. Radiocarbon 53, 371394.
Kelly, R.L., Surovell, T.A., Shuman, B.N., Smith, G.M., 2013. A continuous climatic impact on Holocene human population in the Rocky Mountains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, 443447.
Munoz, S.E., Gajewski, K., Peros, M.C., 2010. Synchronous environmental and cultural change in the prehistory of the northeastern United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 2200822013.
Peros, M.C., Munoz, S.E., Gajewski, K., Viau, A.E., 2010. Prehistoric demography of North America inferred from radiocarbon data. Journal of Archaeological Science 37, 656664.
Reimer, P.J., Bard, E., Bayliss, A., Beck, J.W., Blackwell, P.G., Bronk Ramsey, C., Buck, C.E., et al., 2013. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 18691887.
Shennan, S., Downey, S.S., Timpson, A., Edinborough, K., Colledge, S., Kerig, T., Manning, K., Thomas, M.G., 2013. Regional population collapse followed initial agriculture booms in mid-Holocene Europe. Nature Communications 4, 2486.
Surovell, T.A., Brantingham, P.J., 2007. A note on the use of temporal frequency distributions in studies of prehistoric demography. Journal of Archaeological Science 34:18681877.
Surovell, T.A., Finley, J.B., Smith, G.M., Brantingham, P.J., Kelly, R., 2009. Correcting temporal frequency distributions for taphonomic bias. Journal of Archaeological Science 36, 17151724.
Surovell, T.A., Pelton, S.R., 2016. Spatio-temporal variation in the preservation of ancient faunal remains. Biology Letters 12, 20150823.
Taylor, R.E., 1987. Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective. Academic Press, Orlando.
Williams, A.N., 2012. The use of summed radiocarbon probability distributions in archaeology: a review of methods. Journal of Archaeological Science 39,578589.
Williams, A.N., 2013. A new population curve for prehistoric Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280.
Williams, A.N., Veth, P., Steffen, W., Ulm, S., Turney, C.S.M., Reeves, J.M., Phipps, S.J., Smith, M., 2015. A continental narrative: human settlement patterns and Australian climate change over the last 35,000 years. Quaternary Science Reviews 123, 91112.


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Bluhm and Surovell supplementary material
Bluhm and Surovell supplementary material 1

 Unknown (174 KB)
174 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed

A correction has been issued for this article: