Despite having the same disease susceptibility and technological inferiority against the Europeans, it seems that Native Americans have much more surviving descendants in Latin America compared to North America (today's US and Canada). In many Latin American countries, Mestizos (people of combined European and Native American descents) are majorities or large minorities, while in almost all of US states or Canadian provinces, Native Americans (or mixed) are small minorities.

Why is it so? This related question hints the different Catholic vs Protestant culture, tendency of the Spanish/Portuguese colonizers to intermix while English settlers brought women with them. But still, even in former Spanish territories in the US, such as California, Louisiana or Florida, there's still low number of Native American descendants.

Here is a map of the proportion of native descendants from Wikipedia:

enter image description here

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    @Semaphore Which Wikipedia page did you paste the map from? – user69715 Oct 31 '14 at 6:19
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    Probably because Central and South America had larger native populations to begin with. Do you really want to ask about the numbers, or is the question more about the proportions? (p.s. this page) – Semaphore Oct 31 '14 at 6:20
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    It is because the Spanish and Portugeuse had a policy of enslaving the Indians whereas the English killed them. – Tyler Durden Oct 31 '14 at 7:29
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    @TylerDurden nonsense. Those enslaved Amerindians died in droves. And the Spanish and Portuguese killed them in huge numbers as well. If anything the English killed far fewer. – jwenting Oct 31 '14 at 7:32
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    @RolenKoh : politically motivated cartoons depicting the colonization of America as a D-Day landing (troops jumping out of ships and starting shooting) is not the correct way of learning history. It was much, much complicated than that. – vsz Apr 3 '17 at 6:22

10 Answers 10


I think you are missing the true pattern of that map. Note that it shows a higher percentage of natives in Canada than it does in the US, and shows the same lower percentage of natives in the USA as in a geographically contiguous area of South America (1% or less).

If anything, the real pattern there is that areas in the subtropics (but not subartic) have almost no natives left, whereas areas outside that zone tend to have more. For comparison, here's a map of the subtropical climate zones.

enter image description here

The correspondence between these areas and the "fertile crescent" is no coincidence. That's where almost all European crops were domesticated, and thus where they grow best. Other areas may be useful to rule, but to come settle and live, a European society needs a place its crops can grow. (Note the yellow bands in South Africa and Australia and New Zeeland. Its no coincidence those are the only areas of significant European habitation in Africa and SE Asia/Oceana respectively.

To take a more detailed look, below is a worldwide climate zone map. The European crop package can grow well anywhere you see tan (semi-arid), green (temperate), yellow (Mediterranean), or the lighter of the more greeny blues (warmer Continental). Those areas match up almost perfectly with your map above of where native populations were completely eclipsed. Which Europeans ended up colonizing an area doesn't seem to have had an appreciable affect.

enter image description here

So the answer here is that natives were pushed(wiped?) out nearly everywhere their land was useful for European agriculture.

  • Very nice answer, especially for the second map, which explains more where colons could have decided to settle (most of them probably did not know anything about the fertile crescent). However, how do you account for the carribeans (larger sensibility to diseases ?) and Brazil (smaller nomadic native populations ?) – user5751924 Jun 7 '17 at 16:04
  • @user5751924 - Those are two interesting cases. In the Carribean I know the history there is that Europe got addicted to one particular tropical crop (sugarcane). But since otherwise it wasn't a great area for Europeans, they used slaves to do all the farming. Some kind of combo of slavery, European diseases, and African tropical diseases ended up wiping out all the natives, so they ended up with a workforce that was almost entirely African. – T.E.D. Jun 7 '17 at 16:22
  • @user5751924 - Brazil is the more interesting case. One possibility is the Carribean case happened there too. Another is that the entire population of the country is descended from people who initially were living in the small orange and green areas on its map, with the rest of the country being barely inhabited jungle (this one would be my SWAG). Or possibly it just blows my entire thesis. I'd made a mental note to look into which it was, but never got one of those round tuits. – T.E.D. Jun 7 '17 at 16:26
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    If you look at a population-density map of Brazil, most of the population is concentrated in the European-crop-friendly areas. – Mark Apr 5 '19 at 0:54
  • I think this is a very good answer, but it would benefit from proving the statement "which Europeans ended up colonizing an area doesn't seem to have had an appreciable effect" (fixed spelling). However, this also presupposes that those areas were fertile everywhere which I believe to be misleading (Florida and much of Australia being good examples). – gktscrk Jul 27 '20 at 22:02

Apart from other reasons here exposed, I think it is worth mentioning

a) some groups of South American natives were adapted (culturally, and even in some cases, physically) to environments which were not comfortable for white settlers. For extreme examples, think of Amazonian tribes and inhabitants from the Andean Plateau. In these cases, there was little interest in displacing the Indians and (as long as they accepted Spanish rule and religion) were left undisturbed. Compare that with the continual removal of North American natives from their native lands.

b) as noted somewhere else, South American natives had developed agriculture to a higher degree. That meant that they needed less vital space than hunter-gatherers, so Spanish settlements were less of a disruption to their way of life.

c) immigration:

  • size: as long as it could, Castille and Spain tried to prevent immigration from foreigners, which meant a reduced immigration rate. Wikipedia gives only 240.000 European immigrants in the XVI century 3.

  • character: for many immigrants, the ideal was that of the Indiano (Spanish Wikipedia link). He would go to America, work hard for some years, and come back to Europe (often to his birthplace) as a rich man (or not). Those immigrants did not want to settle in America, and often would travel without their family(*).

That would make European population quite small, and also would not grow quickly. That meant that there was less pressure to displace the surviving Indians, and that at any rate

Additionally (and now this is more speculative), South American natives did not become involved in the foreign politics of Castille/Spain as North American did (supporting France and England). Maybe that helped their survival.

*I remember a textbook stating that only 1 in 10 immigrants to Spanish America was a woman, and that included nuns. Can't give a reference to that, sorry.

  • +1. To expand on your "speculative" point: I've heard it been said that while the War of 1812 is often considered to have been a draw from the perspective of the Americans and the British/Canadians, the only clearcut losers were the tribes that allied themselves with Britain. – two sheds Feb 1 '15 at 19:12

Pre-columbian population of North America was only a couple of million people, most of them are pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. This kind of lifestyle does not allow more than 2-4 million people people to live on the continent. Central and South America, on the other hand, was home of several large civilizations with developed agriculture, and significantly larger native population.

The occupation of North America was followed by a huge population boom due to the introduction of agriculture, and obviously it was effecting the European settlers, but not the native Americans. Sure, at the beginning there were famines and lot of struggling, but later the situation became more stable: the actual occupation and population of the continent happened 100-150 years ago. Meanwhile the number of native Americans were not positively effected by the economical/agricultural growths.

In Latin America this population boom was much smaller, as local agriculture was already developed and the introduction European methods made much smaller impact. Compare the population of Mayas, Aztecs or Incas of present population of the area, and you will see much smaller change.

Also, there is a different number game here, too: Large part of the population is mixed in any American countries, and it is largely cultural how do people count themselves.

  • I am glad you hear your comments if you think I am wrong / downgraded the answer. – Greg Nov 7 '14 at 6:52
  • I think you should source the population estimates as they are very much subject to debate as much as I'm aware. – gktscrk Jul 27 '20 at 22:05

Quite apart from Semaphore's assertion that there simply were more Amerindians in the south than in the north, there's also the factor that there was far more immigration of Europeans and Asians into the north than there was into the south.

But that's not all of it. Another important factor is how the numbers are established.
Especially in the US people who're crossbreeds between Amerindians and other races aren't counted as Amerindians. In many other places they are so counted, so that half breed European/Amerindians are shown on your map as being European in the US and probably Amerindian in for example Peru.
Which of course greatly skews the numbers.

  • In my defence, my comment is backed by most population estimates (except Dobyns?) – Semaphore Oct 31 '14 at 7:25
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    @Semaphore of course, just pointing out the percentages are skewed because of more than just raw numbers of pure blooded Amerindians in each area. – jwenting Oct 31 '14 at 7:28
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    Most Latin Americans are partially Amerindian without being considered Amerindians. Check for example this study (link to a blog post), stating that the general population of Colombia have some 25-45% of Amerindian admixture. I guess that the map refers to people culturally Amerindian. – Miguel Costa Jan 14 '17 at 11:02
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    The terms “crossbreed” and “half breed” are considered by most to be offensive. Might I suggest replacing with mixed race or biracial. – Tom Jan 7 '18 at 1:31
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    @Tom whether some people don't like a term is irrelevant. They're scientifically correct. – jwenting Jan 8 '18 at 8:19

The Spanish treated Amerindians in South America decidedly better than the "Anglos" did in North America. Which is why many more survived in Spanish territories.

The Spanish regarded the Amerindians as sources of labor on farms and mines, as well as souls to be converted. Thus, the Spanish at least treated them just well enough to ensure that a large number survived. Attempts were also made to convert them to Catholicism, and once this was done, in integrate them into "society," even if it was at the bottom.

In North America on the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons basically "ran the Amerindians out of town." The survivors of the resulting confrontations were rounded up and placed on reservations in places like the Badlands of South Dakota, basically the worst land on the continent. And I use the word "survivor" as a reference to what happened to the "others." Apart from the occasional odd exception, there was no "mixing" between whites and Amerindians in North America. Certainly no attempt to integrate most Indians into "American" society.

The Spanish drove the Jews and Moors out of Spain because they were members of "established" religions that were not "convertible. But they adopted a softer policy toward the Amerindians in South America because they were seen as "convertible." In the end, that was quite a bit better than the Anglo-Saxons in North America treated their Amerindians.

See also this related question.

  • I think a big part of this is that a lot of the initial Spanish/Portuguese expeditions were groups of men looking for treasure while the initial English colonies in North America were gender balanced. This led the Spanish/Portuguese to look for woman among the native populations, which led to a mixed race contingent of the population, something that necessarily dulled some of the "US vs them" actions like you saw in North America. – Gort the Robot Apr 4 '19 at 17:16
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    @StevenBurnap: The link in the last sentence (indirectly) addresses this point. – Tom Au Apr 4 '19 at 18:23

First, consider that the N American continent wasn't as heavily populated as central and S America at that time, with the N American tribes being largely nomadic hunter/gatherers while the central and S American tribes had more advanced and established civilizations that were on the order of the early Egyptian societies, capable of supporting a larger population.

N America has a wider range of natural resources useful to industry: iron, copper, etc..., but those require industrial methods to obtain and refine, so it was more conducive to the industrialized Europeans, as was the temperate climate. Central America was hot, and S America tended to alternate between rain forests and and temperate with very craggy topography, not ideal for industrial activity.

The rising industrialization also drew a lot of European immigrants during the late 1800's and early 1900's. Almost none went to central and S America.

It's not so much that fewer native Americans survived in N America, more that the Europeans heavily populated N America due to industrial growth. This reduced the percentage dramatically, not the overall number of natives, while central and S America didn't see near the population explosion, because the conditions there weren't conducive to industrial development.

As for the idea that the Spanish and Portugese were somehow 'kinder', that ignores the African slave trade. Central and S America were rich in one resource: gold and silver. This may be one reason the central and S American nations flourished: gold and silver are easy metals to refine and work with, well within the capability of pre-industrial societies. A primary reason both metals became the first forms of currency.

And it was the gold and silver mines that consumed the vast majority of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade.

Destination of the ten million Africans taken to the American continent:

Portuguese America 38.5%

British America (minus North America) 18.4%

Spanish Empire 17.5%

French Americas 13.6%

British North America 6.45%

Dutch West Indies 2.0%

Danish West Indies 0.3%

The N Americans of African descent have increased in percentage, to around 11% of the total population. The former British colonies of Jamaica and Haiti are currently populated by people largely of African descent. In both cases, most of the slaves survived and lived long lives.

Yet, in the former Spanish and Portugese colonies, the percentage of people of African descent today is quite low, despite the fact that over 70% of the 10 million Africans brought to the American continent went there.

Why? Because most of them were dead within a year, victims of the harsh conditions in the mines, and the very hot and humid climate where the gold and silver were located. The Spanish and Portuguese had calculated that a slave only had to live one year to return the expense of their slavery. This also accounts for why the vast majority of Africans were taken to Portuguese and Spanish territories: the death rate was so high.

That is an act of genocide, in the five to six million death range, for which the Spanish and Portuguese have never been held accountable. So the idea that the Catholic faith protected people, doesn't hold up when all relevant factors are considered.


I think immigration patterns are also a significant factor. There was a huge spike in immigration* starting around the time of the California Gold Rush, and increasing after the Civil War. Most of these immigrants settled in cities, or in California (where the Spanish had pretty well eliminated the native tribes), where they had little opportunity to interact with the Indian people. Thus the older intermarried population was eventually outnumbered by descendants of more recent immigrants, and when the two groups intermarried in their turn, the Indian ancestry was often forgotten.

*See graph & figures here: http://askville.amazon.com/immigration-patterns-1800's/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=7856221


Easy to answer. The USA and Canada committed GENOCIDE against the indigenous population on a large scale. The Spanish converted and integrated the Natives, even if it was at the bottom (unfair conditions), and that's why there are more indigenous people in Central and South America.

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    Suggest you provide evidence of such genocide. Of course there were wars, as always when two or more groups of people want the same territory. (There were wars between different North American Indian groups, before & after the Europeans came.) When the Europeans won these wars, they seldom if ever carried the victory to the extent of genocide, as in fact that there are over 500 recognized tribes en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_federally_recognized_tribes with populations ranging up to 300K, plus an uncounted number of mixed-race individuals. (I happen to be one.) – jamesqf Mar 27 '15 at 19:26
  • From what I have been led to understand, some of the N. American nations were wiped out, with not even one survivor, by European diseases. While there were instances of attempts to weaponize disease, the spread of European diseases was largely inadvertent. – EvilSnack Mar 11 '20 at 3:10

Because latin america was colonized by catholic countries. In 1547 Sublimis Deus encyclical pope declares indigenous population to be rational beings with souls, denouncing any idea to the contrary as directly inspired by the Satan. He goes on to condemn their reduction to slavery in the strongest terms, declaring it null and entitles their right to liberty and property, and concludes with a call for their evangelization.

North America was colonized later by protestants, so native population didn't get any protection. During the Age of Enlightenment a progressive at the time idea of Polygenism was already widespread among protestants and atheists alike. Because of the encounters with different races, many people could not believe that they had the same ancestry. Many people like Thomas Harriot and Walter Raleigh, theorized a different origin for the Native Americans.


To the answers already provided, I would add the fact that the concentration of Latin and South American native populations in geographically compact and accessible states made it possible for them to be conquered and subjugated in relatively quick engagements.

Spain was able to move from the coast(s) to the nerve centers of the Aztec and Inca civilizations with dramatic speed. They were also able to decapitate each civilization, due to their relatively centralized structures. They then moved into the power gap created by those decapitations, and became the rulers of large subject populations.

In North America, the native populations were neither centralized nor easily geographically accessible from the coasts, other than to a limited extent in the vicinity of the St. Lawrence seaway. When the British and French set up colonies, large native populations avoided immediate subjugation as a result. So rather than being immediately conquered and ruled, the native populations of North America retained their independence for literal centuries - and spent those centuries in a slow war of attrition against the European colonies, states and populations. That war of attrition was ultimately more demographically destructive than Spain's quick conquests.

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