I have found such maps for North America, e.g. this one:
enter image description here

But never for the southern continent. The goal is a broad overview. How many Lokono were there, compared to the Mapuche (and the Cree for that matter)? I am generally curious what places were considered "urban" in South America, especially outside the Inca Empire.

A map of primary subsistence (agrarian, hunter-gatherer, etc.) of that continent would also be helpful.

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    What is the provenance of that image? The figures shown seem to me far too low to reflect Pre-Columbian population estimates in the few tens of millions, as some historians believe to be the case. The illustrated population densities in Greenland also appear too high. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 19:23
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    It's literally unknown at the moment insofar as I'm aware. For instance there was a presumed Arawak civilization around the Orinoco river valley that went on to colonize the Caribbeans (among other places), a Marajó civilization around the Amazon delta, and just last year they found a gazillion new Maya ruins. It's basically a work in progress. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 19:27
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    Also, your source for that map (alternatehistory.com) is sketchy at best. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 19:30
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    @KeizerHarm: however answerable what you suggested is through googling, that would likely be a good question that it'll make it to the hot network questions list if you phrase it well IMO. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 20:18
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    @AllInOne 1491 was the very thing pursuing me to do more research in the subject. A wonderful book, and I still haven't finished it. I was just hoping for a more comprehensive overview of the various civilisations, Mann doesn't go over them one by one but mentions a couple specific ones to make points.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 21:33

1 Answer 1


For what this website defines as history (roughly, "the story of humanity"), there's rather a lot of "pre-Columbian history" in South America, and you can't really depict it all in a single map. Population density maps for 6500BCE, 3500BCE, and 1491 AD would all look quite different from each other. For the purposes of the rest of the answer, I'm going to assume you are interested in something closer to 1491AD.

The pre-Columbian Americas have been criminally understudied at this level of scope and detail IMHO. Of course there isn't much of a pre-Columbian written record, so a certain amount of that is understandable. That being said, Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones did an amazing worldwide study of historical human population history, which included the following map in their section on The Americas:

enter image description here

This image is from McEvedy and Jones' Atlas of World Population History. This book is out of print and almost impossible to find for purchase, but if you can, do it. Online at archive.org.

This may not go down to the level of detail you like on who those people were, but I have seen immediate pre-Columbian language maps of South America that could perhaps be reconciled with this. Couldn't find one on a really quick search, but I know I've seen them online.

Calibrating it against the North America map you posted, it doesn't have nearly as much detail, and appears to be missing a fair bit. In particular, these days I'd expect to see a higher density in the Pacific Northwest, which M&J aren't showing. Their map I believe is likely older, so less likely to include recent research. So it might be wise to consider what it shows to be a floor, not a ceiling.

For your theoretical question, McE&J postulated about 13 million souls in the Americas (north and south) at this time, and based on this map the vast majority of them would have been living in the Azetc and Incan areas. The area of North America the Cree and Inuit were inhabiting (Canada/Alaska) may look large enough to make up for their low density, but this map projection artificially inflates that area.

The modern northern states of South America, along with the tropical coast of Brazil, appeared to have some level of farming going on as well. It may not show well in the map, but I know that farming was moving up the Caribbean islands at this time as well (probably from South America), and had made it as far as parts of Cuba.

  • Isn't this site's working definition of "history" the analysis of written records? With everything prior to that some mixture of prehistory and archaeology? How do you reconcile that with your statements '"pre-Columbian history" in South America'? Also, under what legal system is the free will of historians ever "criminal" in regards to their choice of sub-discipline and specialization? Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 2:12
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    @PieterGeerkens - If you check our Help Center, "Human Prehistory" is specifically on topic, while "General (non-human) Prehistory" is specifically off topic. So that's the official written dividing line for our scope. But of course the real dividing line is what users decide to close and what they don't.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 2:36
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    Two additions faculty.washington.edu/timbillo/Readings%20and%20documents/… nicer colour version in researchgate.net/publication/… Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 8:39
  • about part of the confusion about 'where agriculture stops': Brazilian Indians cultivated mostly manioc - an edible root that grows when buried in the ground. It is not hunther-gathering, but it is not a 'farm' or 'plantation'. No plows, animals, slaves or specialized farmers needed - the tribes were small, it was mostly self-subsistence. There was much rain, so no permanent large scale irrigation systems or raised fields were needed. The question is if you want to call this agriculture or not, as the Inca/Aztec had much more developed systems.
    – Luiz
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 14:22
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    @LangLangC - I don't think either of those maps would be useful additions to this answer, as neither have any indication of actual population density. However, they are freaking great for showing archeologically interesting sites, and the latter one's highlighting of the Neolithic (agricultural) zones is worth checking out for anyone interested in this subject. (And Luiz may be interested to know the latter map appears to have counted Brazilian manioc use as agriculture)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 14:32

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