Uncover the Native American Population in 1492 (Pre-Columbus)

Native American population pre-Columbus

Have you ever wondered what was the Native American population in the western hemisphere in 1492, before the arrival of Europeans? Just how did so few Europeans ultimately conquer and control such a vast amount of land already populated with people?

Estimates from historians, anthropologists, and scholars vary wildly, further shrouding the question in mystery.

What is known for certain is that Native American populations experienced a catastrophic decline upon contact with Europeans. The causes of the population decline were numerous, but ultimately derive from four main reasons: disease, technology, warfare, and European cruelty.

This articles delves into the subject of just how many Native Americans existed in 1492, and the sad story of their demise.

Native American Population in 1492 & Mortality Rate Post- Columbus

Historians continue to debate over the exact Native American population in 1492. On the high end, historian Henry Dobyns concluded a population between 90-112 million while on the low end anthropologist A.L. Kroeber noted a population of just 8.4 million in 1492. in the western hemisphere Modern estimates typically range between 50-70 million, though historians will likely never reach consensus.1

To arrive at these estimate, scholars utilized a variety of methods to count the estimated population. The monumental task included examining available population records for periods far after 1492, accounting for the fact that European sources tended to exaggerate figures so as to make themselves appear more impressive.

In addition, these first hand accounts also only experiences populations after disease, warfare, and European cruelty had already ravaged Native American populations. Newly introduced diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza, among others spread like wildfire among indigenous communities.

In many cases the diseases traveled faster than European explorers, wiping out Native American tribes before Europeans even visited.

Native American population 1492 disease mortality

Instead of one massive wave of disease, multiple outbreaks likely occurred over decades. Smallpox could kill a large number of a tribe, then measles would take another large portion of who remained, then influenza would have its turn, and so on. Long before English settlements arrived in North America, the local communities had been decimated.

Scholars call this time period “The Great Dying”. Of the 50-70 million Native Americans in 1492, anywhere from 80-95% died from European diseases, technology, warfare, and cruelty a century after Columbus’ arrival. This amounted to roughly 10% of the global population at the time.2

The Great Dying thus amounts to the single largest mortality event in human history (in terms of percent of global population). World War II deaths and the 1918 influenza pandemic both rival this in terms of total deaths, but neither come close in percent of global population.

Sources

1) Livi-Bacci, Massimo. “The Depopulation of Hispanic America after the Conquest.” Population and Development Review, vol. 32, no. 2, 2006, pp. 199–232. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20058872.

2) Nunn, Nathan, and Nancy Qian. 2010. “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24 (2): 163-88.

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