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    The population of the Americas in 1492

    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)

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