8/17/09 - pre-columbus america

In today's excerpt - the raging controversy over the population of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Estimates have ranged from a low of a few million to over 100 million which would have made the Americas among the most densely populated areas on earth at the time. The differences relate primarily to widely divergent beliefs regarding Native American deaths from smallpox and other disease epidemics brought by Europeans, with significant evidence that these mortality rates were extremely high:

"From a few incidents in which before and after totals are known with relative certainty, anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns calculated that in the first 130 years of contact [dating from the arrival of Columbus] about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died [from smallpox and other diseases]. ...

"Historians had long wondered how many Indians lived in the Americas before contact. 'Debated since Columbus attempted a partial census at Hispaniola in 1496', Denevan, the Beni geographer, has written, 'it remains one of the great inquiries of history.' ... Alfred L. Kroeber, the renowned Berkeley anthropologist [estimated the population at] 900,000—a population density of less than one person for every six square miles. Just 8.4 million Indians Kroeber suggested, had lived in the entire hemisphere.

"Recognizing that his continent-wide estimate did not account for regional variation, Kroeber encouraged future scholars to seek out and analyze 'sharply localized documentary evidence.' As he knew, some of his Berkeley colleagues were already making those analyses. ... In a series of publications that stretched to the 1970s, [physiologist Sherburne E. Cook and Woodrow W. Borah, a Berkeley historian], combed through colonial financial census and land records. Their results made Kroeber uneasy. When Columbus landed, Cook and Borah concluded, the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants. ...

"Based on their work and his own, Dobyns argued that the Indian population in 1491 was between 90 and 112 million people. Another way of saying this is that when Columbus sailed more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.

"According to a 1999 estimate from the United Nations the earth's population in the beginning of the sixteenth century was about 500 million. If Dobyns was right, disease claimed the lives of 80 to 100 million Indians by the first third of the seventeenth century. All these numbers are at best rough approximations, but their implications are clear: the epidemics killed about one out of every five people on earth. According to W. George Lovell, a geographer at Queen's University in Ontario, it was 'the greatest destruction of lives in human history.'

"Dobyns published his conclusions in the journal Current Anthropology in 1966. They spawned rebuttals, conferences even entire books. ... Most researchers thought Dobyns's estimates too high but few critics were as vehement as David Henige of the University of Wisconsin whose book Numbers from Nowhere published in 1998, is a landmark in the literature of demographic vilification. ...

"When Henige wrote Numbers from Nowhere the fight about pre-Columbian population had already consumed forests' worth of trees—his bibliography is ninety pages long. Four decades after Dobyns's article appeared, his colleagues 'are still struggling to get out of the crater that [his] paper left in anthropology,' according to James Wilson author of Their Earth Shall Weep, a history of North America's indigenous peoples after conquest. The dispute shows no sign of abating."


Charles C. Mann


1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 2005 2006 by Charles C. Mann


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