Where Historians Disagree – The American Population before Columbus

The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, 5/e
Alan Brinkley, Columbia University
Chapter One: The Meeting of Cultures
Where Historians Disagree – The American Population before Columbus
No one knows how many people lived in the Americas in the centuries before Columbus. But scholars,
and others, have spent more than a century debating the question. Interest in this question survives
because the debate over the pre-Columbian population is closely connected to the much larger debate
over the consequences of European settlement of the Western Hemisphere.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Native Americans spoke often of the great days before Columbus
when there were many more people in their tribes. The painter and ethnographer George Catlin, who
spent much time among the tribes in the 1830s, listened to these oral legends and estimated that
there had been 16 million Indians in North America before the Europeans came. Other white
Americans dismissed such claims as preposterous, insisting that Indian civilization was far too
primitive ever to have sustained a population even as large as a million.
In 1928, James Mooney, an ethnologist at the Smithsonian Institution, drawing from early accounts of
soldiers and missionaries in the sixteenth century, came up with the implausibly precise figure of 1.15
million natives who lived north of Mexico in the early sixteenth century. That was a larger figure than
nineteenth-century writers had suggested, but still much smaller than the Indians themselves claimed.
A few years later, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber used some of Mooney’s methods to come up with
an estimate considerably larger than Mooney’s, but much lower than Catlin’s. He concluded in 1934
that there were 8.4 million people in the Americas in 1492, half in North America and half in the
Caribbean and South America.
These low early estimates reflected an assumption that the arrival of the Europeans did not much
reduce the native population. But in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars discovered that the early tribes
had been catastrophically decimated by European plagues not long after the arrival of Columbus–that
the numbers Europeans observed even in the late 1500s were already dramatically smaller than the
numbers in 1492. Historians such as William McNeill in 1976 and Alfred Crosby a decade later
produced powerful accounts of the near extinction of some tribes and the dramatic depopulation of
others in a pestilential holocaust with few parallels in history.
The belief that the native population was much larger in 1492 than it was a few decades later has
helped spur much larger estimates of how many people were in America before Columbus. Henry
Dobyns, an anthropologist, claimed in 1966 that there were between 10 and 12 million people north of
Mexico in 1492, and between 90 and 112 million in all of the Americas. No subsequent scholar has
made so high a claim, but most subsequent estimates have been much closer to Dobyn’s than to
Kroeber’s. The geographer William M. Denevan, for example, argued in 1976 that the American
population in 1492 was around 55 million and that the population north of Mexico was under 4 million.
These are among the lowest of modern estimates, but still dramatically higher than the nineteenthcentury numbers.
The vehemence with which scholars, and at times the larger public, have debated these figures does
not stem solely from the difficulty inherent in the effort to determine population size. It is also
because the debate over the population is part of the debate over whether the arrival of Columbus–
and the millions of Europeans who followed him–was a great advance in the history of civilization or
an unparalleled catastrophe that virtually exterminated a large and flourishing native population. How
to balance the many achievements of European civilization in the New World after 1492 against the
terrible destruction of native peoples that accompanied it is, in the end, less a historical question,
perhaps, than a moral one