Population history of American indigenous peoples

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American History

Millions of indigenous people lived in the Americas when the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus began an historical period of large-scale European contact with the Americas. European contact with what they called the " New World" led to the European colonization of the Americas, with millions of emigrants (willing and unwilling) from the " Old World" eventually resettling in the Americas. While the population of Old World peoples in the Americas steadily grew in the centuries after Columbus, the population of the American indigenous peoples plummeted. The extent and causes of this population decline have long been the subject of controversy and debate. The 500th anniversary of Columbus's famous voyage, in 1992, drew renewed attention to claims that indigenous peoples of the Americas had been the victims of genocide.

Population overview

Estimates of how many people were living in the Americas when Columbus arrived have varied tremendously; 20th century scholarly estimates ranged from a low of 8.4 million to a high of 112.5 million persons. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, precise pre-Columbian population figures are impossible to obtain, and estimates are often produced by extrapolation from comparatively small bits of data. In 1976, geographer William Denevan used these various estimates to derive a "consensus count" of about 54 million people, although some recent estimates are lower than that. Anthropologists and population geneticists agree that the bulk of indigenous American ancestry can be traced to ice age migrations from Asia over the Bering land bridge, though some believe previous seafaring peoples contributed small population stocks.

Historian David Henige, representing a self-described "minority opinion", has argued that many population figures are the result of arbitrary formulas selectively applied to numbers from unreliable historical sources, a deficiency he sees as being unrecognized by several contributors to the field. He believes there is not enough solid evidence to produce population numbers that have any real meaning, and characterizes the modern trend of high estimates as " pseudo-scientific number-crunching." Henige does not advocate a low population estimate; rather, he argues that the scanty and unreliable nature of the evidence renders broad estimates suspect, and that "high counters" (as he calls them) have been particularly flagrant in their misuse of sources . Although Henige's criticisms are directed against some specific instances, other studies do generally acknowledge the inherent difficulties in producing reliable statistics given the almost complete lack of any hard data for the period in question.

This population debate has often had ideological underpinnings. Low estimates were sometimes reflective of European notions of their own cultural and racial superiority, as historian Francis Jennings has 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." At the other end of the spectrum, some have argued that contemporary estimates of a high pre-Columbian indigenous population are rooted in a bias against aspects of Western civilization and/or Christianity. Robert Royal writes that "estimates of pre-Columbian population figures have become heavily politicized with scholars who are particularly critical of Europe often favoring wildly higher figures."

Since civilizations rose and fell in the Americas before Columbus arrived, the indigenous population in 1492 was not necessarily at a high point, and may have already been in decline. Indigenous populations in most areas of the Americas reached a low point by the early twentieth century, and in a number of cases started to climb again.

Depopulation from disease

The earliest European immigrants offered two principal explanations for the population decline of the American natives. The first was the brutal practices of the Spanish conquistadores, as recorded by the Spanish themselves, most notably by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose writings vividly depict atrocities committed on the natives by the Spanish. The second explanation was religious: God had removed the natives as part of His divine plan in order to make way for a new Christian civilization. Many natives of the Americas also understood their troubles in terms of religious or supernatural causes. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives.

Disease began to kill immense numbers of indigenous Americans soon after Europeans and Africans began to arrive in the New World, bringing with them the infectious diseases of the Old World. One reason this death toll was overlooked (or downplayed) is that disease, according to the widely held theory, raced ahead of European immigration in many areas, thus often killing off a sizable portion of the population before European observations (and thus written records) were made. Many European immigrants who arrived after the epidemics had already killed massive numbers of American natives assumed that the natives had always been few in number. The scope of the epidemics over the years was enormous, killing millions of people—in excess of 90% of the population in the hardest hit areas—and creating "the greatest human catastrophe in history, far exceeding even the disaster of the Black Death of medieval Europe."

The most devastating disease was smallpox, but other deadly diseases included typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, mumps, yellow fever, and whooping cough. The Americas also had endemic diseases, perhaps including a type of syphilis, which soon became rampant in 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.

The epidemics had very different effects in different parts of the Americas. The most vulnerable groups were those with a relatively small population. Many island based groups were utterly 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.

Why were the diseases so deadly?

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, its victims living well beyond infection to further spread the disease. This function of 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.

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 inborn resistance to the new diseases (the population is "biologically naïve"); 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 people of the Old World had had thousands of years to accommodate to their common diseases; the natives of the Americas faced them all at once.

Other contributing factors:

  • Native American medical treatments such as sweat baths and cold water immersion (practiced in some areas) weakened patients and probably increased mortality rates.
  • Europeans brought so many deadly 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.
(In the colder areas of the Eurasian landmass, houses were often built in two stories. The bottom story was used to stable animals, the top to house humans. In winter, the animal heat would rise and warm the human section of the house. This arrangement is efficient, but it also contributes to disease.)
  • 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 a 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 spread.
  • One contemporary scientist, 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, which he calls cocoliztli. He claims that this fever was endemic during years of drought, such as the early years of the Spanish invasion of Central America. Acuña-Soto's theory is controversial and not widely accepted.

Deliberate infection?

One of the most contentious issues relating to disease and depopulation in the Americas concerns the degree to which American indigenous peoples were intentionally infected with diseases such as smallpox. Despite some legends to the contrary, there seems to be no evidence that the Spanish ever attempted to deliberately infect the American natives.

However, there is at least one documented incident in which British soldiers in North America attempted to intentionally infect native people. During Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763, a number of Native Americans launched a widespread war against British soldiers and settlers in an attempt to drive the British out of the Great Lakes region. In what is now western Pennsylvania, Native Americans (primarily Delawares) laid siege to Fort Pitt on June 22, 1763. Surrounded and isolated, and with over 200 women and children in the fort, the commander of Fort Pitt gave representatives of the besieging Delawares two blankets that had been exposed to smallpox in an attempt to infect the natives and end the siege.

British General Jeffrey Amherst is usually associated with this incident, and although he suggested this tactic in a letter to a subordinate, by that time the commander at Fort Pitt had already made the attempt. While it is certain that these officers attempted to intentionally infect American Indians with smallpox, it is uncertain whether or not the attempt was successful. Because many natives in the area died from smallpox in 1763, some writers have concluded that the attempt was indeed a success. A number of recent scholars, however, have noted that evidence for connecting the blanket incident with the smallpox outbreak is doubtful, and that the disease was more likely spread by native warriors returning from attacks on infected white settlements.

A disputed incident is Ward Churchill's claim that in 1837 the United States Army deliberately infected Mandan Indians by distributing blankets that had been exposed to smallpox. Most other historians who have looked at the same event disagree with Churchill's interpretation of the historical evidence, and believe no deliberate introduction occurred at this time and place.

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. The Europeans brought with them gunpowder and steel weapons, which made killing easier and war more deadly. Over the long run, Europeans proved to be consistently successful in achieving domination when engaged in warfare with indigenous Americans, for a variety of reasons that have long been debated. Massive death from disease certainly played a role in the European conquest, but also decisive was the European approach to war, which was less ritualistic than in native America and more focused on achieving decisive victory. European colonization also contributed to an increased number of wars between displaced native groups.

In addition, empires like the Inca depended on centralized administration for the distribution of resources. The disruption caused by the war and the colonization certainly disrupted the traditional economy and possibly led to shortages of food and materials.


Exploitation has also been cited as a cause of native American depopulation. The Spanish conquistadores, the first settlers in the New World, divided the conquered lands among themselves and ruled as feudal lords, treating 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. Some Spaniards objected to this encomienda system, notably Bartolomé de Las Casas, who insisted that the Indians were humans with souls and rights. Largely due to his efforts, the New Laws were adopted in 1542 to protect the natives, but the abuses were not entirely or permanently abolished. Serfdom existed as such in parts of Latin America well into the 19th century, past independence; it sometimes said to have existed in practice through much of the 20th century, as large numbers of landless labourers were very nearly tied to estates by semi-feudal arrangements.


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. However, since Las Casas's writings were polemical works, intended to provoke moral outrage in order to facilitate reform, some scholars speculate that his depictions may have been exaggerated to some degree. No mainstream scholar dismisses the idea that atrocities were widespread, but some now believe that mass killings were not a significant factor in overall native depopulation. It may be argued that the Spanish rulers in the Americas had economic reasons to be unhappy at the high mortality rate of the indigenous population, since at least some of them wanted to exploit the natives as laborers. In the mid-19th century, post-independence leader Juan Manuel de Rosas engaged in what he himself presented as a war of extermination against the natives of the Argentinian interior; this was not the sole instance of such a policy.

Displacement and disruption

Even more consequential than warfare or mistreatment on indigenous populations was the geographic displacement and the disruption of lifeways that resulted from the European colonization of the Americas. As more and more people arrived from the Old World, native peoples were increasingly compelled to relocate and alter their traditional ways of life. These changes often resulted in decreased birth rates, which steadily lowered populations over 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 births and thus population decline. Harmful social side effects of this ethnic cleansing policy, such as malnourishment, alcoholism and internicine stuggles, further contributed to a progressive decline.

The genocide debate

A controversial question relating to the population history of American indigenous peoples is whether or not the natives of the Americas were the victims of genocide. After the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust during World War II, genocide was defined (in part) as a crime "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such."

Historian David Stannard is of the opinion that the indigenous peoples of America (including Hawaii ) were the victims of a "Euro-American genocidal war." While conceding that the majority of the indigenous peoples fell victim to the ravages of European disease, he estimates that almost 100 million died in what he calls the American Holocaust. Stannard's perspective has been joined by Kirkpatrick Sale, Ben Kiernan, Lenore A. Stiffarm, and Phil Lane, Jr., among others; the perspective has been further refined by Ward Churchill, who has said that "it was precisely malice, not nature, that did the deed." -- the Europeans chose to spread diseases.

Stannard's claim of 100 million deaths has been disputed because he does not cite any demographic data to support this number, and because he makes no distinction between death from violence and death from disease. Noble David Cook considers books such as Stannard's—a number of which were released around the year 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage—to be an unproductive return to Black Legend-type explanations for depopulation. In response to Stannard's figure, political scientist R. J. Rummel has instead estimated that over the centuries of European colonization about 2 million to 15 million American indigenous people were the victims of what he calls democide. "Even if these figures are remotely true," writes Rummel, "then this still make this subjugation of the Americas one of the bloodier, centuries long, democides in world history."

While no mainstream historian denies that death and suffering were unjustly inflicted by a number of Europeans upon a great many American natives, many argue that genocide, which is a crime of intent, was not the intent of European colonization. Historian Stafford Poole wrote: "There are other terms to describe what happened in the Western Hemisphere, but genocide is not one of them. It is a good propaganda term in an age where slogans and shouting have replaced reflection and learning, but to use it in this context is to cheapen both the word itself and the appalling experiences of the Jews and Armenians, to mention but two of the major victims of this century."

Therefore, most mainstream scholars tend not to use the term "genocide" to describe the overall depopulation of American natives. However, a number of historians, rather than seeing the whole history of European colonization as one long act of genocide, do cite specific wars and campaigns which were arguably genocidal in intent and effect. Usually included among these are the Pequot War and campaigns waged against tribes in California starting in the 1850s.

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