Long-Term Population Cycles in Human Societies

Peter Turchin
The Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology 2009 April 21, 2009 Journal Link PDF


Human population dynamics are usually conceptualized as either boundless growth or growth to an equilibrium. The implicit assumption underlying these paradigms is that any feedback processes regulating population density, if they exist, operate on a fast-time-scale, and therefore we do not expect to observe population oscillations in human population numbers. This review asks, are population processes in historical and prehistorical human populations characterized by second-order feedback loops, that is, regulation involving lags? If yes, then the implications for forecasting future population change are obvious—what may appear as inexplicable, exogenously driven reverses in population trends may actually be a result of feedbacks operating with substantial time lags. This survey of a variety of historical and archeological data indicates that slow oscillations in population numbers, with periods of roughly two to three centuries, are observed in a number of world regions and historical periods. Next, a potential explanation for this pattern, the demographic-structural theory, is discussed. Finally, the implications of these results for global population forecasts is discussed.
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