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Demographic models of human cultural evolution have high explanatory potential but weak empirical support. Here we use a global dataset of rock art sites and climate and genetics-based estimates of ancient population densities to test a new model based on epidemiological principles. The model focuses on the process whereby a cultural innovation becomes endemic in a population; predicting that this cannot occur unless population density exceeds a critical threshold. Analysis of the data; using a Bayesian statistical framework; shows that the model has stronger empirical support than a proportional model; where detection is directly proportional to population density; or a null model; where rock art detection ratios and population density are independent. Results for different geographical areas and periods are compatible with the predictions of the model and confirm its superiority with respect to the null model. Re-analysis of the rock art data; using a second set of independent population estimates; again supports the superiority of the model. Although the available data is sparse and the analysis cannot exclude all possible sources of bias; this is evidence that population density above a critical threshold may be a necessary condition for the maintenance of rock art as a stable part of a population’s cultural repertoire. Methods similar to those described can be used to test the model for other classes of archaeological artifact and to compare it against other models.

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