According to research recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, there may have been fewer than 1,500 people living in Central Europe for large portions of the Stone Age. To put it into perspective, that is roughly equal to the population of Shipton Bellinger, a village and civil parish in the British constituency of Hampshire. Or equivalent to the number of people you might find on a mid-sized cruise ship.
Isabell Schmidt and Andreas Zimmermann of the University of Cologne in Germany used archaeological evidence and population models to calculate the number of people living in a stretch of land that extends from Spain in the west to Poland in the east and Denmark in the north to Italy in the south during the Aurignacian – a period of time spanning just shy of 10,000 years from 42,000 to 33,000 years ago.
To do so, Schmidt and Zimmermann mapped out roughly 400 sites known to have been occupied by early humans during this time frame. The researchers found that these locations were largely limited to 13 regions, which would have meant large swathes of Europe were left uninhabited.
Using archaeological evidence, they determined no more than 35 or so hunter-gatherer groups occupied each of the 13 regions. And by using information collected on modern hunter-gather communities thought to resemble those from Stone Age Europe, at least in regards to the kinds of animals they hunted, they estimated the average number of people who lived in each band of Aurignacian hunter-gatherers – 42 individuals.
Schmidt and Zimmermann, therefore, conclude that 35 groups of 42 people would create a combined population of fewer than 1,500 for the entirety of Central and Western Europe, an area stretching 1.5 million square kilometers (580,000 square miles).
That might be the mean but the researchers also included a lower limit of 800 people and an upper limit of 3,300 people, and we know overall population levels increased between the start and end of the Aurignacian.
Geographically speaking, they found the highest populations existed in southwest France (440 people), northern Spain (260 people), and Belgium (210 people). (Relatively) large populations also existed in the middle Danube and Moravian (170 people) and upper Danube area (140 people), while the remaining sites were home to somewhere between 10 and 80 individuals, they say.
Stone Age Europe was undoubtedly a much lonelier place than it is today or, indeed, since the introduction of agriculture 8,500 years ago, but there are certain limitations to the study. All research into prehistory necessarily relies on incomplete and limited archaeological records and depends on a certain amount of assumption – in this case, as an example, the number of individuals in Aurignacian hunter-gatherer societies matching the number of individuals in modern-day hunter-gatherer societies and that there are no Aurignacian sites "missing" from the research.
"We are working with a limited range of low-resolution data and are forced at each stage to rely on multiple, justifiable, but often largely untested, assumptions," Jennifer French from University College London, told New Scientist.