View Full Version : The population of the Americas in 1492

08-23-2019, 03:02 PM
The question of how many people were living in the Americas before 1492 has engaged historians for a long time.

There are a wide range of estimates, guestimates, and speculations. Some whole books have addressed the topic, including at one extreme American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 by Russell Thornton (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990) and at the other Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate by David Henige (University of Oklahoma, 1998)

Recently I was reviewing the argument as described by Alan Taylor:

Early in the twentieth century, most scholars were "low counters," who estimated native numbers in 1492 at only about ten million all of the Americas, including about one million north of the mouth of the Rio Grande (i.e., the present United States and Canada). More recent scholars, the "high counters," claim that their predecessors neglected the abundant evidence for the dramatic depopulation of the Amercas during the sixteenth century. The high counters also draw upon archaelogical evidence that much of the Americas was densely settled in 1492, and upon gnerous calculations for the capacity of given environments to support large human populations.

At a minimum, the high counters double the estimated population of the pre-Columbian Americas to twenty million. Some insist on 100 million or more. Narrowing their view to just the lands north of the Rio Grande, the revisionists claim that the future United States and Canada together contained at least two and perhaps ten million people in 1492. Most scholars now gravitate to the middle of that range: about fifty million Indians in the two American continents, with about five million of them living north of Mexico. Even this middle range represents a fivefold increase over the former "low count."

-- Alan Taylor, American Colonies (Viking, 2001)

08-23-2019, 03:16 PM
Sample estimates of some of the sources I've looked include '2.5 million in the U.S. not counting Alaska'

-- Harold E. Driver, Indians of North America (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., rev., 1969)


The Indian populations found by the Europeans are still being reconstructed. Epidemics often preceded descriptive accounts, making population size estimates difficult for modern scholars. The best estimates currently available indicate low densities of 0.1-1 person per 100 square kilometers in the Arctic, Subarctic, Plains and Great Basin areas. Medium densities of 1-100 people per 100 square kilometers were probably encountered in the Southern Canadian, Plateau and Northeastern Mexico areas. High densities, of more than 100 people per 100 square kilometers, probably characterized the rest of the continent.

-- Michael Coe, Dean Snow and Elizabeth Benson, Atlas of Ancient America (Facts on File Publications, 1986)


North America - 3,800,000

Mexico - 17,200,000

Central America - 5,625,000

Hispaniola - 1,000,000

The Caribbean - 3,000,000

The Andes - 15,700,000

South America [Lowland] - 8,600,000

These estimates are from William Denevan, The Native Population of the Americas, 1492 (2nd ed., 1994)

-- from a table in Thomas Benjamin, The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History 1400-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)


Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal edited by Jack Greene and Philip D. Morgan (Oxford University Press, 2009) contains an essay by Peter H. Wood called 'From Atlantic History to a Continental Approach' which quotes a chapter called 'North American Population Size: Changing Perspectives' in Douglas H. Ubelaker's Disease and Demography in the Americas (Smithsonian Intitution, 1992) which includes a breakdown of Indian population numbers by region in 1700:

Arctic: 59,000

Sub-arctic: 100,000

Eastern woodlands: 250,000

Plains: 189,000

Great Basin: 34,000

Southwest: 275,000

California: 221,000

Northwest Coast: 175,000

... for a total of just over 1.3 million. It further notes a population decline of 25% by the year 1800.


The estimated native populations at the time of Columbus in aggregate and local densities are vitally important as indicators of the overall impact of Europe on America. If there were 50 million or more aboriginal peoples in the Americas in 1492, as some ethnographers, geographers, demographers, and historians now suggest, what happened to them? Regardless of when and where contact occurred, all native communites, large and small suffered loss.


Until recently, estimates of the pre-Columbian populatin of the Americas were low. For example, Alfred Kroeber in the 1930s placed the total native population of the Americas in 1492 at 8.4 million. That number has more to do with apologetics than with rigorous scientific analysis or statistical common sense. His estimate for North America north of Mexico was 900,000. In other words, the half million Native Americans reported in the 1940 census suggested to Kroeber a decline of 50 per cent over the preceding 450 years. In itself, those numbers posed serious questions about the European impact on native populations. Perhaps lower birthrates and susceptibility to disease, a lower life expectancy, and racial mixing, assimilation, and under reproting could explain the outcome. But as the fields of ethnography, anthropology, and historical demography grew more sophisticated, estimates of the 1592 population rose dramatically to the point where figures of 50 million to as many as 112 million were being suggested for the Americas as a whole. By the 1990s, a pre-Columbian population estimate of about 50 million was beginning to seem acceptable to scholars. Estimates for the area north of Mexico now run from about a million to 4.4 million natives. The latter figure is more generally accepted, although the debate on numbers continues. The frequently revised and wide range of estimates should caution us about their imprecision. Still, the higher numbers now accepted add controversy when considered with the 1940 ntive populatin of a half million. Now, the United States and its predecessor, the British American colonies, are implicated in reducing from >i>four to eight times<i> as much of the native population as Kroeber's lighter figures had suggested.

-- Eric Nellis, An Empire of Regions: A Brief History of Colonial British America (University of Toronto Press, 2010)

08-25-2019, 03:17 PM
As might be guessed from some of the titles in my previous posts I've been doing a lot of reading in so-called Atlantic history and colonial studies.

Another author who writes to this subject and wades into the debate states that:

In 1500 the invader groups represented the energetic colonizing migrant minority out of a population of 67 million, versus an estimated Native American population of 42 million. In 1600 the invaders came out of a European population of 89 million and the defender groups they confronted now represented only 13 million remaining Native Americans.

-- George Raudzens, Empires: Europe and Globalization 1492-1788 (Sutton Pub., 1999)

08-25-2019, 03:36 PM
But I have long been interested in population history as a whole.

A recent population history atlas well worth taking a look at is:

Historical Atlas of the Eight Billion: World Population History 3000 BCE to 2020 by John Carl Nelson (A World History Maps Book, 2014)

Historical Atlas of the Eight Billion

The author divides the world into 24 regions (e.g., Eastern North America; Western North America) and compares population trends in each over time.

He also provides lists of the world's most populous countries and cities for each of the different time periods he maps.

Two of the books cited in the bibliography for Atlas of the Eight Billion are:

Atlas of World Population History by Colin McEvedy & Richard Jones (Penguin, 1978)


A Concise History of World Population by Massimo Livi-Bacci (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007)

There is now a 6th edition of Livi-Bacci's book, published in 2017, but while this remains the standard reference of the history of world population, it is difficult to use for a variety of reasons. Countries, regions, and time periods are all erratically and inconsistently covered, close detail in some cases, absence of any concrete numbers at all in most others. This book is not really a statistical gazetteer, but rather, an analysis of the dynamics of population change.

The second one listed, co-authored by the same Colin McEvedy who wrote so many wonderful little historical atlases published by Penguin, though now forty years old is, as far as I know, still the best and only one of its kind.

On the whole and even with so many advances in archaeology, genetics, and linguistics, the authors' estimates have held up remarkably well, although their totals for the Americas are low by today's standards.

McEvedy and Jones put the total population of the Americas in 1492 at 14 million.

Their numbers are 800,000 people living in what is now the U.S. and an additional 200,000 living in Canada.

08-25-2019, 03:43 PM
The really useful thing about Atlas of the Eight Billion is how cleverly it is set up in order to do quick comparisons for the distribution of populations of regions, countries, and largest cities during the 32 time periods shown. Totals for each region are expressed in percentages of world population rather than absolute numbers, although these are easily calculated from using the numbers provided for total world population.

The world is divided into 24 regions. Up until the year 1500, over half of these regions each contained fewer than 1% of the world's total population and 520 years later their proportion is only up very slightly. Roughly half of the world's population continues to live in just two regions: South Asia and East Asia, a percentage essentially unchanged for the last 5000 years.

This author puts the total world population in 1500 at 440 million and lists these percentages for the Americas:

Middle America 6%

Western South America 3%

Eastern South America 1%

Eastern North America <1%

Western North America <1%

Southern America <1%

Northern America <1%