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Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas

Related subjects: North American History

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The population figure for Indigenous peoples in the Americas before the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus has proven difficult to establish and rely on archaeological data and written records from European settlers. Most scholars writing at the end of the 19th century estimated the pre-Columbian population at about 10 million; by the end of the 20th century the scholarly consensus had shifted to about 50 million, with some arguing for 100 million or more. Contact with the New World led to the European colonization of the Americas, in which millions of immigrants from the " Old World" eventually settled in the New.

The population of African and Eurasian peoples in the Americas grew steadily, while the number of the indigenous people plummeted. Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, influenza, bubonic plague and pneumonic plagues devastated the Native Americans who did not have immunity. Conflict and outright warfare with European newcomers and other American tribes reduced populations and disrupted traditional society. The extent and causes of the decline have long been a subject of academic debate, along with its characterization as a genocide.

Population overview

Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, even semi-accurate pre-Columbian population figures are impossible to obtain. Estimates are made by extrapolations from small bits of data. In 1976, geographer William Denevan used the existing estimates to derive a "consensus count" of about 54 million people. Nonetheless, more recent estimates still range widely.

Using an estimate of approximately 30 million people in 1492 (including 15 million in the Aztec Empire and six million in the Inca Empire), the lowest estimates give a death toll due from disease of an astonishing 80% by the end of the 17th century (eight million people in 1650). Latin America would match its 15th century population early in the 20th century; it numbered 17 million in 1800, 30 million in 1850, 61 million in 1900, 105 million in 1930, 218 million in 1960, 361 million in 1980, and 563 million in 2005. In the last three decades of the 16th century, the population of present-day Mexico dropped to about one million people. The Maya population is today estimated at six million, which is about the same as at the end of the 15th century, according to some estimates. In what is now Brazil, the indigenous population declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated four million to some 300,000.

While it is difficult to determine exactly how many Natives lived in North America before Columbus, estimates range from a low of 2.1 million ( Ubelaker 1976) to 7 million people (Russell Thornton) to a high of 18 million (Dobyns 1983).

The Aboriginal population of Canada during the late 15th century is estimated to have been between 200,000 and two million, with a figure of 500,000 currently accepted by Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Health. Repeated outbreaks of European infectious diseases such as influenza, measles and smallpox (to which they had no natural immunity), combined with dispossession from European/Canadian settlements and repressive policies, resulted in a forty- to eighty-percent aboriginal population decrease after contact. For example, during the late 1630s, smallpox killed over half of the Wyandot (Huron), who controlled most of the early North American fur trade in what became Canada. They were reduced to fewer than 10,000 people.

Historian David Henige has argued that many population figures are the result of arbitrary formulas selectively applied to numbers from unreliable historical sources. He believes this is a weakness unrecognized by several contributors to the field, and insists there is not sufficient evidence to produce population numbers that have any real meaning. He characterizes the modern trend of high estimates as " pseudo-scientific number-crunching." Henige does not advocate a low population estimate, but argues that the scanty and unreliable nature of the evidence renders broad estimates inevitably suspect, saying "high counters" (as he calls them) have been particularly flagrant in their misuse of sources. Many population studies acknowledge the inherent difficulties in producing reliable statistics, given the scarcity of hard data.

The population debate has often had ideological underpinnings. Low estimates were sometimes reflective of European notions of cultural and racial superiority. Historian Francis Jennings argued, "Scholarly wisdom long held that Indians were so inferior in mind and works that they could not possibly have created or sustained large populations." On the other hand, some have argued that contemporary estimates of a high pre-Columbian indigenous population are rooted in a bias against Western civilization and/or Christianity. Robert Royal writes that "estimates of pre-Columbian population figures have become heavily politicized with some scholars, who are particularly critical of Europe, often favoring wildly higher figures."

Civilizations rose and fell, and indigenous peoples migrated long before Europeans arrived on the scene. The indigenous population in 1492 was not necessarily at a high point and may actually have been in decline in some areas. Fernand Braudel has pointed out a problem the Amerindian faced which was not a factor in Eurasia and Africa: "The Indian population ... suffered from a demographic weakness, particularly because of the absence of any substitute animal milk. Mothers had to nurse their children until they were three or four years old. This long period of breast-feeding severely reduced female fertility and made any demographic revival precarious." Indigenous populations in most areas of the Americas reached a low point by the early 20th century. In most cases, populations have since begun to climb. In the United States, for instance, the numbers may already have recovered to pre-Columbian levels or even exceeded them.

Pre-Columbian Americas

Genetic diversity and population structure in the American land mass using DNA micro-satellite markers ( genotype) sampled from North, Central, and South America have been analyzed against similar data available from other indigenous populations worldwide. The Amerindian populations show a lower genetic diversity than populations from other continental regions. Observed is both a decreasing genetic diversity as geographic distance from the Bering Strait occurs and a decreasing genetic similarity to Siberian populations from Alaska (genetic entry point). Also observed is evidence of a higher level of diversity and lower level of population structure in western South America compared to eastern South America. A relative lack of differentiation between Mesoamerican and Andean populations is a scenario that implies coastal routes were easier than inland routes for migrating peoples ( Paleo-Indians) to traverse. The overall pattern that is emerging suggests that the Americas were recently colonized by a small number of individuals (effective size of about 70), and then they grew by a factor of 10 over 800 – 1000 years. The data also show that there have been genetic exchanges between Asia, the Arctic and Greenland since the initial peopling of the Americas.

Depopulation from disease

Nearly all scholars now believe that widespread epidemic disease, to which the natives had no prior exposure or resistance, was the overwhelming cause of the massive population decline of the Native Americans. They reject both of the earliest European immigrants' explanations for the population decline of the American natives. The first explanation was the brutal practices of the Spanish conquistadores, as recorded by the Spanish themselves. This was applied through the encomienda which was a system ostensibly set up to protect people from warring tribes as well as to teach them the Spanish language and the Catholic religion, but in practice was tantamount to slavery. The most notable account was that of the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, whose writings vividly depict Spanish atrocities committed in particular against the Taínos. It took five years for the Taíno rebellion to be quelled by both the Real Audiencia—through diplomatic sabotage, and through the Indian auxiliaries fighting with the Spanish. After Emperor Charles V personally eradicated the notion of the encomienda system as a use for slave labour, there were not enough Spanish to have caused such a large population decline. The second European explanation was a perceived divine approval, in which God removed the natives as part of His "divine plan" to make way for a new Christian civilization. Many native Americans viewed their troubles in terms of religious or supernatural causes within their own belief systems.

Soon after Europeans and Africans began to arrive in the New World, bringing with them the infectious diseases of Europe and Africa, observers noted immense numbers of indigenous Americans began to die from these diseases. One reason this death toll was overlooked is that once introduced the diseases raced ahead of European immigration in many areas. Disease killed off a sizable portion of the populations before European observations (and thus written records) were made. After the epidemics had already killed massive numbers of natives, many newer European immigrants assumed that there had always been relatively few indigenous peoples. The scope of the epidemics over the years was tremendous, killing millions of people—possibly in excess of 90% of the population in the hardest hit areas—and creating one of "the greatest human catastrophe in history, far exceeding even the disaster of the Black Death of medieval Europe", which had killed up to one-third of the people in Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351. The Black Death occurred to a European population which also had not been exposed and had little or no resistance to a new disease.

One of the most devastating diseases was smallpox, but other deadly diseases included typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, mumps, yellow fever, and pertussis (whooping cough), which were chronic in Eurasia. The indigenous Americas also had a number of endemic diseases, such as tuberculosis and perhaps including an unusually virulent type of syphilis, which soon became rampant when brought back to the Old World. (This transfer of disease between the Old and New Worlds was part of the phenomenon known as the " Columbian Exchange"). The diseases brought to the New World proved to be exceptionally deadly to the Native Americans.

The epidemics had very different effects in different regions of the Americas. The most vulnerable groups were those with a relatively small population and few built-up immunities. Many island-based groups were annihilated. The Caribs and Arawaks of the Caribbean nearly ceased to exist, as did the Beothuks of Newfoundland. While disease ranged swiftly through the densely populated empires of Mesoamerica, the more scattered populations of North America saw a slower spread.

Virulence and mortality

A disease (viral or bacterial) that kills its victims before they can spread it to others tends to flare up and then die out, like a fire running out of fuel. A more resilient disease would establish an equilibrium; if its victims lived beyond infection, the disease would spread further. The evolutionary process selects against quick lethality, with the most immediately fatal diseases being the most short-lived. A similar evolutionary pressure acts upon the victim populations, as those lacking genetic resistance to common diseases die and do not leave descendants, whereas those who are resistant procreate and pass resistant genes to their offspring. For example, in the fifty years following Columbus' voyage to the Americas, an unusually strong strain of syphilis killed a high proportion of infected Europeans within a few months; over time, however, the disease has become much less virulent.

Thus both diseases and populations tend to evolve towards an equilibrium in which the common diseases are non-symptomatic, mild, or manageably chronic. When a population that has been relatively isolated is exposed to new diseases, it has no resistance to the new diseases (the population is "biologically naive"); this body of people succumbs at a much higher rate, resulting in what is known as a "virgin soil" epidemic. Before the European arrival, the Americas had been isolated from the Eurasian-African landmass. The peoples of the Old World had had thousands of years for their populations to accommodate to their common diseases.

The fact that all members of an immunologically naive population are exposed to a new disease simultaneously increases the fatalities. In populations where the disease is endemic, generations of individuals had acquired immunity or hardiness and most adults had exposure to the disease at a young age. Thus resistant to reinfection, they are able to care for individuals who catch the disease for the first time, such as the next generation of children. With proper care, many of these " childhood diseases" are often survivable. In a naive population, all age groups are affected at once, leaving few or no healthy caregivers to nurse the sick. With no resistant individuals healthy enough to tend to the ill, a disease may have higher fatalities than otherwise.

The natives of the Americas suffered the introduction of several new diseases at once, so that a person who successfully resisted one disease might die from another. Multiple simultaneous infections (e.g., smallpox and typhus at the same time) or in close succession (e.g., smallpox in an individual who was still weak from a recent bout of typhus) are more deadly than just the sum of the individual diseases. In this scenario, death rates can also be elevated by combinations of new and familiar diseases: smallpox in combination with American strains of syphilis or yaws, for example.

Other contributing factors:

  • Native American medical treatments such as sweat baths and cold water immersion (practiced in some areas) weakened some patients and probably increased mortality rates.
  • Europeans brought many diseases with them because they had many more domesticated animals than the Native Americans. Domestication usually means close and frequent contact between animals and people, which is an opportunity for diseases of domestic animals to mutate and migrate into the human population.
  • The Eurasian landmass extends many thousands of miles along an east–west axis. Climate zones also extend for thousands of miles, which facilitated the spread of agriculture, domestication of animals, and the diseases associated with domestication. The Americas extend mainly north and south, which, according to the environmental determinist theory popularized by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, meant that it was much harder for cultivated plant species, domesticated animals, and diseases to migrate.
  • Mexican epidemiologist Rodolfo Acuña-Soto argues that mortality due to imported diseases was compounded, or even dwarfed, by mortality due to a hemorrhagic fever native to the Americas, called cocoliztli ("disease") in the Nahuatl language. Acuña-Soto's conclusions are based in part on the 50 volumes written by Francisco Hernández, physician to Philip II of Spain. He interviewed survivors of the 1576 epidemic and autopsied many victims, then recorded his findings and observations. He found that the fever was endemic during drought years, a series of which had coincided with the early Spanish invasion of Central America. Acuña-Soto noticed that previous historians using the same reference works that he used had chosen which accounts to base their results on, so that epidemic illnesses coinciding with the Spanish invasion could, by selectively using resources, look like accounts of European-caused smallpox. The disease the Aztecs described, however, when read in full is more consistent with the symptoms of a hemorrhagic fever with little in common with smallpox. Such fevers are viral, frequently spread by rodents and bodily fluid contacts between infected people. Based on evidence from 24 epidemics, Acuña-Soto argued that the Spanish did not bring the epidemic to the Aztecs, but that the virus was indigenous. He argues that the indigenous susceptibility to the disease relative to Spaniard, was caused by the slavery-like conditions to which they were subjected under Spanish colonial rule which compromised their immune reaction. Acuña-Soto's theory is controversial and not widely accepted as of 2007.

Deliberate infection

One of the most contentious issues relating to disease depopulation in the Americas concerns the degree to which Europeans deliberately infected indigenous peoples with diseases such as smallpox. Cook asserts that there is no evidence that the Spanish attempted to infect the American natives. The cattle introduced by the Spanish polluted the water reserves which Native Americans dug in the fields to accumulate rain water. In response, the Franciscans and Dominicans created public fountains and aqueducts to guarantee access to drinking water. But when the Franciscans lost their privileges in 1572, many of these fountains were not guarded any more and deliberate well poisoning may have happened. Although no proof of such poisoning has been found, some historians believe the decrease of the population correlates with the end of religious orders' control of the water.


After Edward Jenner's 1796 confirmation of the efficacy of smallpox vaccination, the technique became better known. Smallpox became less deadly in the United States (and elsewhere). Many colonists and natives became vaccinated. Although in some cases officials tried to vaccinate natives, the disease often was carried beyond containment attempts. At other times, trade demands broke quarantines. In other cases, some natives refused vaccination because of suspicion of European Americans. In 1831 government officials vaccinated the Yankton Sioux at Sioux Agency. The Santee Sioux refused vaccination and many died.

Other causes of depopulation

War and violence

While epidemic disease was by far the leading cause of the population decline of the American indigenous peoples after 1492, there were other contributing factors, all of them related to European contact and colonization. One of these factors was warfare. According to demographer Russell Thornton, although many lives were lost in wars over the centuries, and war sometimes contributed to the near extinction of certain tribes, warfare and death by other violent means was a comparatively minor cause of overall native population decline.

There is some disagreement among scholars about how widespread warfare was in pre-Columbian America, but there is general agreement that war became deadlier after the arrival of the Europeans and their firearms. Europeans had gunpowder and swords, which made killing easier and war more deadly. Europeans proved consistently successful in achieving domination in warfare with Native Americans for a variety of reasons. One reason was the staying power of the Europeans, who could call on a far ranging supply network, and could sustain a conflict over several years including the winters if necessary. Almost no Indian tribe had the stored resources to conduct a war for more than a few months. European colonization also contributed to a number of wars between Native Americans, who fought over which of them should have first access to the new weapon.

Empires such as the Incas depended on a highly centralized administration for the distribution of resources. Disruption caused by the war and the colonization hampered the traditional economy, and possibly led to shortages of food and materials.


Some Spaniards objected to the encomienda system, notably Bartolomé de las Casas, who insisted that the Indians were humans with souls and rights. Due to many revolts and military encounters, Emperor Charles V helped relieve the strain on both the Indian labourers and the Spanish vanguards probing the Caribana for military and diplomatic purposes. Later on New Laws were promulgated in Spain in 1542 to protect isolated natives, but the abuses in the Americas were never entirely or permanently abolished. The Spanish also employed the pre-Columbian draft system called the mita, and treated their subjects as something between slaves and serfs. Serfs stayed to work the land; slaves were exported to the mines, where large numbers of them died. In other areas the Spaniards replaced the ruling Aztecs and Incas and divided the conquered lands among themselves ruling as the new feudal lords with often, but unsuccessful lobbying to the viceroys of the Spanish crown to pay Tlaxcalan war demnities. The infamous Bandeirantes from São Paulo, adventurers mostly of mixed Portuguese and native ancestry, penetrated steadily westward in their search for Indian slaves. Serfdom existed as such in parts of Latin America well into the 19th century, past independence.


Las Casas and other dissenting Spaniards from the colonial period gave vivid descriptions of the atrocities inflicted upon the natives. This has helped to create an image of the Spanish conquistadores as cruel in the extreme. Even as late 1520, there were tentative parleys between the still explorative Spaniards who were continuously disadvantaged by the natives' superior knowledge of the terrain. Great revenues were drawn from Hispaniola so the advent of losing manpower didn't benefit the Spanish crown. At best, the reinforcement of vanguards sent by the Council of the Indies to explore the Caribana country and gather information on alliances or hostilities was the main goal of the local viceroys and their adelantados. Although mass killings and atrocities were not a significant factor in native depopulation, no mainstream scholar dismisses the sometimes humiliating circumstances now believed to be precipitated by civil disorder as well as Spanish cruelty.

However, in many areas settlers and even governments did engage in what have been called " democides", usually against nomadic Indian tribes who were seen solely as hindrances to land use by European settlers. Whether or not these people were non-combatants (intruding on the term "massacre") is a subject to debate. Notable democides include:

  • The Taínos in the Antilles (Some believe 80% of the population disappeared in thirty years). The smallpox outbreak in 1518–1519 wiped out much of the region's indigenous population.
  • The Pequot War in early New England.
  • In mid-19th century Argentina, post-independence leaders Juan Manuel de Rosas and Julio Argentino Roca engaged in what they presented as a " Conquest of the Desert" against the natives of the Argentinian interior, leaving over 1,300 indigenous dead.
  • While some California tribes were settled on reservations, others were hunted down and massacred by 19th century American settlers. It is estimated that some 4,500 people of the Population of Native California suffered violent deaths between 1849 and 1870.

Displacement and disruption

Even more consequential than warfare or mistreatment on indigenous populations was the geographic displacement of native Indian tribes. The increased European population due to immigration and high birth rates of Native European settlers put pressure on native tribes to relocate and alter their traditional ways of life. The introduction of new forms of intensive agriculture by Europeans let them grow enough food in a given area to support many more people than the native hunting and gathering societies could. Displacement of native peoples living their traditional lifestyles often resulted in increased infant mortality and often higher death rates which steadily lowered their populations for some time. In the United States, for example, the relocations of Native Americans resulting from the policies of Indian removal and the reservation system created a disruption which resulted in fewer live births and a short term population decline.

The populations of many Native American peoples were reduced by the common practice of intermarrying with Europeans. Although many Indian cultures that once thrived are extinct today, their descendants exist today in some of the bloodlines of the current inhabitants of the Americas.

Formal apologies

United States of America

On September 8, 2000, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) formally apologized for the agency's participation in the "ethnic cleansing" of Western tribes.

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