According to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (p. 211), the Mississippi Valley used to contain populous Indian societies:

When we in the United States think of the most populous New World societies existing in 1492, only those of the Aztecs and the Incas tend to come to our minds. We forget that North America also supported populous Indian societies in the most logical place, the Mississippi Valley, which contains some of our best farmland today.

In the following paragraphs he also claims that archaeological evidence suggests that North America in total had a population of about 20 million before Columbus' arrival. What was the estimated population in the Mississippi Valley before Columbus' arrival, and how large an area did this society cover? (I want to know this in order to get an idea of its population density).

And how did historians arrive at this number?

1 Answer 1


That passage is based on the works of Henry F. Dobyns. In his 1983 book, Dobyns advocated for a 18 million strong pre-contact population in North America. Specifically, he gave an estimate of 5,250,000 people living in the Mississippi River valleys. This, according to Dobyns, amounted to a population density of 2.53 per km2.

Horcicultural peoples estimated to include 5,250,000 individuals lived there, averaging 2.53 persons per km2.

- Dobyns, Henry F., and William R. Swagerty. Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee, 1983. Page 42.

Dobyns arrived at his estimates by working from later figures, settlement sizes, epidemic losses and estimates of food production levels. A core idea behind these numbers is the theory that population expands to the maximum the environment can support. But the results are widely criticised.

Many scholars consider Dobyns's methodology based on the carrying capacity of the environment to be flawed and his population estimate to be far too high.

- Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast. Columbia University Press, 2001.

In contrast, Douglas H. Ubelaker in 1976 estimated a pre-contact population of about half a million in the Gulf of Mexico. Note that he used the geographic classification of Mooney, so the figure is not for an area identical to Dobyn's Mississippi River Valley. Nevertheless this gives you an idea of the huge disparity between these two sources.

Another estimate for the Southeast is that of Charles Hudson, who also criticised the steep decline population decline presented by Dobyns. Working backwords from Peter Wood's late 17th century figures, Hudson tentatively calculates a 1,294,000 pre-contact population.

Using early census, head counts, and estimates, Peter Wood has estimated that the total Indian population of the Southeast in 1685 was about 200,000 people. If the 6.47-to-1 rate of decline in Coosa may be applied across the board in the Southeast, perhaps we can use Wood's figure to estimate the sixteenth century population of the Southeast at 1,294,000

- Hudson, Charles. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms. University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Wikipedia has this map for the area occupied by the Middle Mississippian and Plaquemine cultures. These two were primarily centred on the Mississippi embayment: enter image description here

For an idea of where Dobyns lands on the spectrum of North American Indian population estimates, see the following chart:

enter image description here

(Source: Stuart, Paul. Nations Within a Nation: Historical Statistics of American Indians. VNR AG, 1987.)

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    For a summary of such estimates, see also Charles C. Mann's 1491. Modern estimates (post-1983) for the complete "Western Hemisphere" (roughly, from Alaska to Patagonia) still range from about 40 millions to more than 120 millions. Sep 23, 2014 at 13:16

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