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 an epidemiological model, where the spread of an innovation requires population density beyond a critical value. We show that the model has stronger empirical support than a null model, where rock art detection rates and population density are independent, or a proportional model where detection is directly proportional to population density. Comparisons between results for different geographical areas and periods yield qualitatively similar results, supporting the robustness of the model. Re-analysis of the rock art data, using a second set independent population estimates, again yields similar results. We conclude that a minimum population density is a necessary condition for the spread of rock art. Methods similar to those described can be used to test our model for other classes of archaeological artifact and to compare the epidemiological model against other demographic models.

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