I had a conversation with an individual recently about how unusual it was that there were so few individuals who appeared to be Native American in North America today. (I say appear since no doubt many people have at least a small percentage of native American DNA if their families are not recent immigrants.)

Anyway, part of the conversation went into European colonization and how many Native Americans there were relative to Europeans during the colonization and manifest destiny time periods.

This individual claimed that the North Americas were not heavily populated, relative to standards of Europe at that time, and therefore the European settlers made up a more significant percentage of North America's population then I would have presumed. I'm wondering how accurate this claim was. Can anyone give me an idea of the actual density and general population of North America immediately prior to colonization, as well as what these numbers looked like after the first major deaths from diseases like smallpox and gonorrhoea?

I'd also be curious about how those numbers compared to number of colonists sent from Europe, but that's a harder number to define and articulate since it happened over a long length of time. It's not as important to me as simply understanding the population density of the Americas and how that compared to that of Europe.

  • This is going to be hard to answer well for a few reasons. 1) The local societies were mostly non-literate, so no records. 2) In some places, colonists got there first, in others, plagues got there first, making evidence from early colonists hard to place. 3) Visible Native American ancestry is a red herring here -- later deaths and intermarriage are a separate (large) matter. – Joe Feb 2 '16 at 20:13
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    And one certainly has to separate N America from Central and S America, where the population densities were probably VERY different. – Alex Feb 2 '16 at 20:56
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    The population growth of European colonist were mainly internal (bees and flowers) and migration was only secondary. In North America, natives without agriculture could raise much fewer children than the settlers/colonists. Hunter-gatherer lifestyle can carry not more than a few million people even in such a large place as North America. – Greg Feb 3 '16 at 6:52
  • @joe this question is actually really easy to answer because of Archeological estimates. We know for a fact density was extremely low. – Stuart Allan Feb 3 '16 at 13:54
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    I suggest you acquire a copy of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. It gives you a rather good portrait of the Americas before European contact. The book also contains plenty of sources to look up for further reading. – BOB Feb 3 '16 at 18:51

Disease plays a significant role. Estimates vary wildly, but there were probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million people living in the Americas before Columbus. The vast majority of those would have lived in the Mesoamerica and Inca areas. Europe's population at this time would have been in the vicinity of 90 million.

What pretty much everyone agrees on is that numbers dropped drastically at that point chiefly due to the diseases the Europeans brought over with them, which the natives had no prior exposure to. This means later European settlers were walking into an unnaturally depopulated land.

The (non-Disney) story of Squanto is a good illustration. He was abducted from the North American coast by an English explorer. By the time he managed to find a way back home, he discovered his entire tribe, along with some neighboring tribes, had been wiped out by disease. The Pilgrims happened to settle on the territory of his former tribe the next year*, and alone now, he had nothing better to do than help them through their first winter. Without that handy plague, Plymouth would likely have been full of natives when the English settlers arrived, and Squanto likely would have had better things to do than to help them take over his own land.

Native crops are another factor. Particularly in North America there weren't really any good native plants to domesticate. The best they had was Maize, which was domesticated from a tiny grass in a completely different climate down in Central America and painstakingly hybridized over the millennium into a form that could be grown in temperate climates. The crops that Europeans brought over with them from Eurasia were just way better for these climates.

Note that this is the standard Guns, Germs, and Steel argument. If you are interested in this topic, that book is a must read. If your local bookstore doesn't have it, your library should.

* - Most likely none of this was a coincidence, of course. The same explorers who abducted Squanto left their diseases behind, and surveyed the coast in that area for possible future settlement. They also taught him the English he used to help the future settlers. Quite an efficient operation, even if large amounts of it were unintentional.

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    It is popular today to inflate the older estimates of Amerindian population, but the carrying capacity of the land limits these levels. Detailed estimates must be made for each region, with support for the time series. Estimates for the agricultural capacity of the then-current land system is important support. The modern "high estimates" are unlikely. – Peter Diehr Sep 26 '16 at 21:21
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    Let me second Guns, Germs, and Steel as an excellent and well-written book. I'd also recommend the older, but very reliable Plagues and Peoples by William McNeil – Mark Olson May 15 '18 at 18:56
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    @MarkOlson - I have that one in my home library as well, and can enthusiastically second that recommendation. – T.E.D. May 15 '18 at 19:11
  • Decades later McNeill wrote The Pursuit of Power as a companion book. He commented that Plagues & Peoples was about human microparasites, while Pursuit of Power (about the development of governments, in large part) was about human macroparasitism. (Which was intended as a quip, since he noted that while government began as mostly a parasite, in civilized areas it evolved a commensal relationship with people.) – Mark Olson May 15 '18 at 19:20

There are no reliable records (as @Joe indicates in comments: no records from the locals, unreliable information from the colonists), so I have to resort to "educated guesswork".

Population density is a function of food production. Hunter-gatherer tribes in North America required more territory to support their lifestyle than agricultural societies in Central and South America. Thus I think it is plausible that the densities were, indeed, very different, with the latter's being closer to European. However, the percentage of arable land in Europe is much higher than that in Central and South America (mountains and jungles) so it was still lower.

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    Yet many of the North American peoples did practice agriculture. E.g. the "three sisters" (corn, beans, and squash) of the Iroquois and other northeastern peoples, corn & squash grown by various Pueblo tribes in the Southwest, and probably more. – jamesqf Feb 2 '16 at 22:28
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    @jamesqf That agriculture was very low intensity compared to other places, like e.g Europe. – Greg Feb 3 '16 at 6:54
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    @Greg: And so? The claim was that all the pre-Columbian North American cultures were hunter-gatherers, which is demonstrably false. How exactly they practiced it is not really relevant. – jamesqf Feb 3 '16 at 20:23

Before exposure to European disease the Americas were extremely populated. There is plenty of evidence of that. Middle estimates are about 50 million, though some argue 100 million+.

But what we think of as plagues (like the Black Plague) are paltry nothings compared to what happened in the Americas. In some cases entire areas were wiped out...no survivors to even bury the dead. It's estimated that overall 90% died. The Pilgrims themselves set up in a place that had been an Indian settlement with lots of people, but that had been practically wiped out by disease not long before.

Most of the waves of settlers were, in fact, entering areas with little to no population. Disease absolutely decimated the population of the Americas.

However, like you mention, settlers came in waves, over time. But that's how the diseases went too. Not all native cultures were super connected with each other. One Indian Nation would contract stuff...it would nearly destroy them...then it might be some time before some contact was made that got those diseases to another set of Indians. So the destruction of the population from disease happened over time as well. Yet, even though it took time, it didn't take as much time as it took for settlers to move inward...so even throughout the process it happened mostly out of the view of the settlers.

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    Would you mind to share some references to these statements? – Greg Feb 3 '16 at 6:55
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    Seconding Greg. The text all looks right to me, but we expect references in good answers on this stack. I'm actually aching to give this an upvote. In fact, I'll lend you one of my references to get you started... – T.E.D. Feb 3 '16 at 15:02

The Atlantic actually did an article about this very question (and various other, related topics) back in 2002, titled 1491. It notes some very interesting points, including that we do have actual records of death rates, from Spanish missionaries who settled in the area:

[Henry F.] Dobyns began his exploration of pre-Columbian Indian demography in the early 1950s, when he was a graduate student. At the invitation of a friend, he spent a few months in northern Mexico, which is full of Spanish-era missions. There he poked through the crumbling leather-bound ledgers in which Jesuits recorded local births and deaths. Right away he noticed how many more deaths there were. The Spaniards arrived, and then Indians died—in huge numbers, at incredible rates.


Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus... influenza and smallpox together... smallpox again... diphtheria... measles... all ravaged the remains of Incan culture. Dobyns was the first social scientist to piece together this awful picture, and he naturally rushed his findings into print. Hardly anyone paid attention. But Dobyns was already working on a second, related question: If all those people died, how many had been living there to begin with? Before Columbus, Dobyns calculated, the Western Hemisphere held ninety to 112 million people. Another way of saying this is that in 1491 more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.


Indeed, the calamity wrought by [Hernando de Soto's expedition] apparently extended across the whole Southeast. The Coosa city-states, in western Georgia, and the Caddoan-speaking civilization, centered on the Texas-Arkansas border, disintegrated soon after Soto appeared. The Caddo had had a taste for monumental architecture: public plazas, ceremonial platforms, mausoleums. After Soto's army left, notes Timothy K. Perttula, an archaeological consultant in Austin, Texas, the Caddo stopped building community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between Soto's and La Salle's visits, Perttula believes, the Caddoan population fell from about 200,000 to about 8,500—a drop of nearly 96 percent. In the eighteenth century the tally shrank further, to 1,400. An equivalent loss today in the population of New York City would reduce it to 56,000—not enough to fill Yankee Stadium. "That's one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters," says Russell Thornton, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Everything else—all the heavily populated urbanized societies—was wiped out."

(emphasis added)

It also points out that not everyone agrees with this view:

"Most of the arguments for the very large numbers have been theoretical," Ubelaker says in defense of low counters. "When you try to marry the theoretical arguments to the data that are available on individual groups in different regions, it's hard to find support for those numbers." Archaeologists, he says, keep searching for the settlements in which those millions of people supposedly lived, with little success. "As more and more excavation is done, one would expect to see more evidence for dense populations than has thus far emerged." Dean Snow, the Pennsylvania State anthropologist, examined Colonial-era Mohawk Iroquois sites and found "no support for the notion that ubiquitous pandemics swept the region." In his view, asserting that the continent was filled with people who left no trace is like looking at an empty bank account and claiming that it must once have held millions of dollars.

The low counters are also troubled by the Dobynsian procedure for recovering original population numbers: applying an assumed death rate, usually 95 percent, to the observed population nadir. Ubelaker believes that the lowest point for Indians in North America was around 1900, when their numbers fell to about half a million. Assuming a 95 percent death rate, the pre-contact population would have been 10 million. Go up one percent, to a 96 percent death rate, and the figure jumps to 12.5 million—arithmetically creating more than two million people from a tiny increase in mortality rates. At 98 percent the number bounds to 25 million. Minute changes in baseline assumptions produce wildly different results.

Nevertheless, it brings up several points that are difficult to ignore in support of the theory that there were a lot of people living in the Americas, such as multiple accounts of population explosions of species whose numbers used to be kept in check by human activity.

It also points out, unlike Joe's characterization of maize as a substandard, borderline foodstuff, that the plant was so ridiculously adaptable that when it made it back to the Old World it set off population booms everywhere from England to Eastern Europe to Africa. (One of the more tragic side effects outside the American continents was, in fact, the maize-fed African population boom, which led to increased tribal warfare in Africa, which led to them having plenty of prisoners to sell to European slave traders. Every American knows how that eventually turned out, in our part of the world at least...)


Hunter gatherer populations have about 0.1-1 people per square mile. By this measure the Americas, aside from rare locations practicing agriculture, could have no more than a few million people.

This contrasts with "diseases killed them" theories that make the proprotion of actual violent deaths look smaller.

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    First paragraph acceptable; the answer woulbe improved if you stopped there. The second paragraph is an assertion without evidence, an ad hominem attack, and needlessly provocative. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 26 '16 at 19:18
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    We expect people to prove that things are true, not merely assert them. Anyone can assert that anything is true. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 26 '16 at 19:23
  • Then delete all the answers except mine. – D J Sims Sep 26 '16 at 19:26
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    You do know there were cities in South America, right? – rougon Sep 26 '16 at 21:22
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    I noticed that you have no sources for your claims of population. – rougon Sep 26 '16 at 22:55

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