The American Population Before Columbus

Where Historians Disagree - The American Population before Columbus

No one knows how many people lived in the Americas in the centuries before Columbus. But scholars and others have spent more than a century and have written many thousands of pages debating the question nevertheless. Interest in this question survives, despite the near impossibility of answering it, because the debate over the pre-Columbian population is closely connected to the much larger debate over the consequences of European settlement of the Western Hemisphere.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Native Americans—in the midst of their many losing battles against the spread of white civilization—spoke often of the great days before Columbus when there were many more people in their tribes. They drew from their own rich tradition of oral history handed down through storytelling from one generation to another. The painter and ethnographer George Catlin, who spent much time among the tribes in the 1830s painting portraits of a race that he feared was “fast passing to extinction,” listened to these oral legends and estimated that there had been 16 million Indians in North America before the Europeans came. Most other white Americans who thought about this issue dismissed such claims as preposterous and insisted that the native population could not have been even as large as a million. Indian civilization was far too primitive, they claimed, to have been able to sustain so large a population.

In the early twentieth century, an ethnologist at the Smithsonian Institution, James Mooney, set out to find a method of estimating the early North American population that would be more scientific than the methods of the previous century, which were essentially guesses. He drew from early accounts of soldiers and missionaries in the sixteenth century and, in 1928, came up with the implausibly precise figure of 1.15 million natives who lived north of Mexico in the early sixteenth century. That was a larger figure than nineteenth-century writers had suggested, but still much smaller than the Indians themselves claimed. A few years later, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber used many of Mooney's methods to come up with an estimate of the population of the entire Western Hemisphere—considerably larger than Mooney's, but much lower than Catlin's. He concluded in 1934 that there were 8.4 million people in the Americas in 1492, half in North America and half in the Caribbean and South America. His conclusions remained largely uncontested until the 1960s.

These low early estimates reflected, more than anything else, an assumption that the arrival of the Europeans did not much reduce the native population. Given that assumption, it seemed reasonable to assume that the relatively low numbers of Indians that Europeans encountered in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reflected the numbers of natives living in the Americas in earlier centuries as well.

A dramatic change in the scholarly approach to the early population came as a result of the discovery by a number of scholars in the 1960s and 1970s that the early tribes had been catastrophically decimated by European plagues not long after the arrival of Columbus—meaning that the numbers Europeans observed even in the late 1500s were already dramatically smaller than the numbers in 1492. Drawing on early work by anthropologists and others who discovered evidence of widespread deaths by disease, historians such as William McNeill in 1976 and Alfred Crosby a decade later produced powerful accounts of the near extinction of some tribes and the dramatic depopulation of others in a pestilential catastrophe with few parallels in history. Almost all scholars now accept that much, perhaps most, of the native population was wiped out by disease—smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, and other plagues imported from Europe—before white settlers began serious efforts to count.

The belief that the native population was much bigger in 1492 than it would be a few decades later has helped spur much larger estimates of how many people were in America before Columbus. Henry Dobyns, an anthropologist who was one of the earliest scholars to challenge the early, low estimates, claimed in 1966 that in 1492 there were between 10 and 12 million people north of Mexico and between 90 and 112 million in all of the Americas. He reached those figures by concluding that epidemics had destroyed 95 percent of the pre-Columbian population. He then took the best information on the population after Columbus and multiplied it by 20. No subsequent scholar has made so high a claim, and most historians have concluded that the 95 percent figure of deaths by disease is too high except for a few, relatively isolated areas such as the island of Hispaniola. But most sub- sequent estimates have been much closer to Dobyns's than to Kroeber's. The geographer William M. Denevan, for example, argued in 1976 that the American population in 1492 was around 55 million and that the population north of Mexico was under 4 million. Those are among the lowest of modern estimates, but still dramatically higher than the nineteenth-century numbers.

The vehemence with which scholars, and at times the larger public, have debated these figures is not just because it is very difficult to determine population size. It is also because the debate over the population is part of the debate over whether the arrival of Columbus—and the millions of Europeans who followed him—was a great advance in the history of civilization (as most Americans believed in 1892 when they joyously celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage) or an unparalleled catastrophe that virtually exterminated a large and flourishing native population (as some Americans and Europeans argued during the far more somber commemoration of the 500th anniversary in 1992). How to balance the many achievements of European civilization in the New World after 1492 against the terrible destruction of native peoples that accompanied it is, in the end, less a historical question, perhaps, than a moral one. - The First Americans

Read the Newsweek article on "The First Americans." Summarize briefly the varying arguments on the arrival of Native Americans to the New World. Do you find one more appealing or persuasive than the others? - Demographics of Hispaniola - On Native American Health before Columbus

Read the articles on the demographics of Columbian Hispaniola and the recent studies of Native American health before Columbus. Do these studies suggest that the number of pre-Columbian Native Americans should be revised upward or downward? - First Encounters - Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, Chapter One


Using the sources above, evaluate the impact of Columbus's arrival on the demographics, health, trade, and cultures of New World residents.