How Many People Were Here Before Columbus?
By Lewis Lord
George Catlin, the 19th-century artist, revered the Americans Indians-”a numerous and noble race of HUMAN BEINGS,” he called them, “fast passing to extinction.” In the 1830s, he traveled among four dozens tribes to paint nearly 600 portraits and scenes of Indian life, most now hang in the Smithsonian. During his visits, his hosts extolled the blissful age before the settlers came, a time when tribes were much larger. “The Indians of North America” were 16 millions in numbers, and sent that number of daily prayers to the Almighty.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s cheery assertion that America before Columbus was an “empty continent awaiting its inhabitants” was endorsed by no less than the U.S. Census Bureau, which in 1894 warned against accepting Indian legends as facts. Investigation shows, the bureau said, that the aboriginal population within the present United States at the beginning of the Columbian period could not have exceeded much over 500,000. A century later the question remains far from settled. But modern scholarship tends to side with the painter.
Some experts believe that perhaps 10 million people lived above the Rio Grande in 1492-twice as many as may have inhabited the British Isles at that time. The population of the Western hemisphere may have exceeded 15th-century Europe’s 70 million. Driving the higher estimates is the relatively new view that most of America’s Indians were wiped out by smallpox, measles, and other Old World diseases that swept across the hemisphere far faster than the Europeans that brought them. That still leaves unsolved the question of how many Indians inhabited the the continent when the first Europeans arrived. No one, in fact, knows how many people lived anywhere in those days, except for perhaps a city or two in Europe.
The first national censuses occurred centuries later: 1749 in Sweden, 1790 in the fledgling United...
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