Native Americans, Any account of population prior to European invasion?

Discussion in 'History' started by Free Israel, May 24, 2006.

  1. Free Israel Banned Banned

    Is there any estimated data on how many Native Americans have lived before the Europeans came ashore?
  2. Buffalo Roam Registered Senior Member

    From what I have read the estamates run from a low of 8 millon to a high of 112 million, with a median figure of 54 million, but the evidence is scarce and these numbers have a lot of unknown variable's, so there is a lot more that is not known than is known.
  3. mathman Valued Senior Member

    One bit of irony is that the massive loss of population after 1492 due to European contact was unintentional. Europeans carried the virus for smallpox (and possibly other diseases) that native Americans were not immune to. As a result population decline is estimated to have been as high as 90%.
  4. Zephyr Humans are ONE Registered Senior Member

    Smallpox? Same things happened in South Africa. Probably other colonies too.
  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Those high numbers are pretty unlikely. The population of Europe when its people invaded the New World was not 100,000,000. Only the Aztec/Maya and Inca empires had civilization's life support systems, and their Bronze Age technology was far behind Europe. (They hadn't even invented wheeled vehicles to haul around large quantities of food.) The rest of the communities on the two continents ranged from Neolithic (tiny villages with primitive agriculture and animal husbandry) to Mesolithic (hunter-gatherers without permanent settlements).

    It's hard to imagine how the infant mortality and nutrition characteristic of Bronze Age societies could have pumped up the population of the areas under the domain of the Aztec and Inca to their share of that hundred million figure. And it's really hard to imagine how the infant mortality and adult mortality characteristic of Stone Age societies could have pumped up the population of the rest of the region to its share.

    I'm accepting the premise that the meat-based diet of hunter-gatherers is healthier than the grain-based diet of city dwellers. But the harshness of a survival-obsessed nomadic life more than compensates for the effect on family size and life expectancy.

    Remember that outside of the Andes with its llamas, alpacas, etc., the largest domesticated animal in the Americas was the turkey. (That probably explains why there was no big hurry to invent the wheel.) Big game animals like bison, moose, and elk didn't range very far south of what is now Canada. The earliest migrants from Siberia killed off most species of megafauna with the help of the weather, leaving the Indians to feast on rabbits and monkeys. Protein was not abundant in the Western Hemisphere.

    A deficit of protein, a largely Stone Age population, and civilizations whose technology was several thousand years behind the Old World seem to me to work against a high rate of reproduction.
  6. River Ape Valued Senior Member

    An interesting contribution, Fraggle! I assume you would regard even (say) 75m as a high estimate?

    The population of Western Europe is reckoned to have been around 40m to 50m in 1500. One should not overestimate the differences in the level of technology between the Old and New Worlds at this time -- as regards the impact on the level of population. True, the Europeans had the iron plough, but they did not have a crop so amenable to simple cultivation as Indian corn (maize). It is wrong to look upon the Indians as having been largely hunter-gatherers. Although hunting had a role in the economic life of most tribes, in areas of greatest population density the cultivation of maize, beans and/or squash was at least as important.

    Source: US Department of Agriculture.

    The image (in the US) of the Indian as a hunter-gatherer may derive from the fact that it was the tribes that possessed useful agricultural land that were first to be dispossessed -- whilst those tribes most adept at hunting were also likely to breed the most accomplished warriors and to withstand longest the encroachment of the European invader.

    Consider also the twin cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco (the site of Mexico City). Prior to their conquest, their combined population exceeded that of any contemporary European city. A few of the conquistadores who were familiar with Venice thought that that city might be a match in size and magnificence for Tenochtitlan, but it had no equal in Spain. Only Rome, in ancient times, would have been a match for the twin cities.

    As for the issues of infant mortality and nutrition, human tribes have potentially been able to double in population every twenty-five years or so, back to paleolithic times. Unless the utmost economic limits of sustenance have been reached, humans rely on warfare to curb their numbers.

    Finally, consider that the Americas are a helluva lot bigger than Western Europe.
    I don't say you are wrong in doubting the 100m estimate, Fraggle, but it's not to be dismissed out of hand!
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2006
  7. Billy T Please use Sugar Cane Alcohol Fuel Staff Member

    From what I have read River Ape's view is more likely to be correct than Fraggle's. In addition to the easily grown, and very nutritious foods River Ape mentioned, I think the tomatoes, potatoes and peanut were all native to the new world but I am only recalling this, not googling. Certainly there are many fruits, berries and bananas etc. available. I have also read that prior to the Spanish arrival the daily caloric intake of the South American Indians was between 500 to 1000 calories higher than it is today. Most natives, even today, in Bolivia and Peru chew coca leaves to ease hunger pains. In both these countries, more than 50% have neither land nor a job.

    The more settled Indians of South American did not fight each other as much as the US plains Indians, who hunted buffalos, did. In the first 100 years following the arrival of the white man, 90 % of South American’s natives were killed off, mainly by the Spanish, but here in Brazil, the Portuguese “pioneers” (“Bandeirantes” in Portuguese) who moved inland from the coast did their share too.

    In North America, it is true that small pox killed many; but not that it was without the white man’s help. One tribe was moved west (from Florida, I think) and given dozens of blankets as presents for the trip. These blankets were taken from hospital, where patients were dying of small pox. Ninety percent did not survive the trip to their assigned reservation. This is far from the first time germ warfare was used. (Roman catapults were used to hurl bodies killed by various diseases into walled cities.)
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2006
  8. mountainhare Banned Banned

    How exactly would the population of Native Indians be determined prior to European invasion? Did the Native Indians have the capability to perform a census?
  9. Billy T Please use Sugar Cane Alcohol Fuel Staff Member

    I do not know. I guess for those that left ruins, the capacity for sleeping would be useful. Many South American ones had large common houses, sort of like army baricks. Their dumps no doubt yielded a lot of information. Some were visited by priests etc who wrote reports. etc. I think the fraction that survived is perhaps better known (especially in cases where it is zero)
  10. mountainhare Banned Banned

    So the claim that 'the Native Indian population was reduced dramatically after the white man arrived' is just conjecture. Interesting.
  11. Zephyr Humans are ONE Registered Senior Member

  12. River Ape Valued Senior Member

    This is an interesting topic you have got us started on, Free Israel!
    Your wikipedia reference is well worth reading, Zephyr, and seems a fair summary, but rather too US-oriented, because when we turn to the "consensus count" referred to in it we see that the Denevan estimate of 54m includes just 3.8m north of the Rio Grande!

    That 3.8m figure seems very low to me. However, confronted with an overall figure of 54m, I am inclined to shrug my shoulders. I have no immediate thoughts that it must be either too high or too low.

    I wonder if anything can be learned with reference to Australia's aboriginal population. The point about Australia is that we are dealing with a story that began almost three hundred years later, and the facts are less elusive. There may have been about half-a-million or so aborigines when the first European settlers arrived. That may be a very rough estimate, but we are not confronted with such wildly differing guesses as in the case of native Americans.

    Within just two years of the arrival of British soldiers and convicts in 1788, half the local population of aborigines are said to have died of smallpox. We know that sexually transmitted infections were also to take a terrible toll among the aborigines -- not only through mortality, but also by rendering females barren. (Perhaps more notice should be paid to this aspect in regard to the Americas.) Later, direct slaughter was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.

    The 1911 Australian Census put the aboriginal population at just 31,000. This figure may represent the elimination of as much as 95% of the original population. (On the island of Tasmania, the native population was totally wiped out.) If we were to apply the same 95% figure in the context of the Americas, we should arrive at the high end of the population estimates that have been made for the pre-Columbian era -- though this would be mere conjecture.

    What the Australian example does tell us is that demographic cataclysms of this proportion can indeed happen.
  13. Billy T Please use Sugar Cane Alcohol Fuel Staff Member

    YOUR QUOTING only my "I don't know" out of context IS A GREAT DISTORTION, I hope not intentional. then based on my "I don't know." you conclude:
    You had asked the question:

    "How exactly would the population of Native Indians be determined..."

    and I answered it honestly with "I don't know," and immediately gave four different speculations as to HOW the facts were determined by people who are experts in this drastic population decline might have used. (I probably missed four others that are more important as this is not my field.)

    You did not ask if I was sure that the native population was greatly reduced by the arrival of the white man; but with this post you infer that I don't know the answer to that question. I will answer that question now:

    I am 100% certain that approximately 90% reduction in the population of native Americans occurred, at least in South America, in the first 100 years of white man's dominance. Dozens, pehaps even a 100, languages simply disappear with the death of the last native speaker. There is no doubt that this drastic population decline did occur.

    Stop quoting out of context to distort a honest reply to your question. That is beneath you, I hope.

    later, by edit: I do know a little about language, but am far from an expert there also. Before Chompski, most linguists learned lots of languages and studied mainly their relationships and evolution. For example, long before geneticists confirmed the fact that modern man came out of Africa, linguists knew this based on the study of names of common objects like wood, wagon, wheel, fire, etc. in many different languages.

    I once read of a Priest's efforts in South America, several hundred years ago, directed in this fashion to learn how the various tribe were related. He had collected more than 100 South American Indian names for several things but names for "orange" is the only item in his list I now remember. This, by itself does, not imply there were more than 100 different tribes as some Indian languages may have had several "orange names." (I.e. “orange” is not identical with “tangerine“, but such confusion may have redundantly added to his list.)

    BTW there is a funny story, perhaps true, about name "Kangaroo." - An early English explorer traveling with native guide in Australia's "out back" saw one hopping far away in the distance, pointed at it, and said: "What is that?" The native guide, who understood a little English said: "Kan ga roo" which later, when his language was better understood, means: "What you pointing at?"

    Zephyr's Wikipedia reference contains:

    "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."

    This is inaddition to the intentional genocides, also discussed in that reference.
    River Ape's Austrailian data is similar - 95% of the natives exterminated.

    While there is some debate about the peak population that may have existed prior to the arrival of the white man, there is little doubt (in expert opinion) that something like 90% were killed, if not intentionally, then by introduction of new diseases, especially small pox.
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2006
  14. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member


    I have read that disease preceded the actual arrival of Western ('white') man, often by many decades, and was the single largest factor in the rapid demise of the indigenous populations. Diseases can move quite rapidly (days to months) compared to moving large populations of conquerors.

    Also, I recently read that there is a region in Brazil currently being investigated, that is now simply forest land, that was once extensive acreage of canals and farmland that was apparently abandoned shortly prior to the arrival of Westerners. You might wish to check that out, since its in your neck of the woods.
  15. Billy T Please use Sugar Cane Alcohol Fuel Staff Member

    On first paragraph - I agree. that is why I listed disease first, then added that intentional genocide was common, but that must have required at least one white man for every 20 Indians in the genocide process and thus came later in the destruction of the Indians, probably about the several decades you mentioned.

    On second: I have not heard about that, but in some ways their agricultural practices were better than modern uneducated small farmers in Brazil who burn the fields every fall. (The large agri-business farms are very well run.) Just last week I read about an Indian practice of starting fires with fallen trees etc. and covering the burning pile with dirt - not to make crude charcoal, but to add carbon to the soil for plants and worms to use, I think. Article described large areas of "black soil" made this way.
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2006

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