Indigenous population decline discussion Students will complete three short writing assignments asking them to connect the historiographical sections in th
Indigenous population decline discussion Students will complete three short writing assignments asking them to connect the historiographical sections in the textbook (“Historians Explore”) to the larger themes in each chapter. These assignments will 1) identify the key arguments and themes of the chapter, will 2) discuss the main ideas and arguments of the Historians Explore sections, and finally will 3) explain how the ideas of the Historians Explore sections connect to the larger themes of the textbook and course lectures. Each section should be between 250-500 words. Spaniards were aware of their reliance on indigenous peoples
survival in unfamiliar environments. They neither planned nor pursued a strategy
of genocide, but their war against Aztec and Inca authority exacerbated the condi-
tions that spread disease and death, as depleted populations were congregated into
new communities, encomiendas were allocated, and complex indigenous systems
for the production and distribution of foodstuffs and other goods collapsed.
Indigenous Population Decline
There is no question that the European conquest devastated the indigenous pop-
ulation of the Americas. Trying to understand the scope and scale of the cata-
clysmic changes in the population, scholars have focused on several connected
issues: the size of the Western Hemisphere’s population prior to the arrival of
Europeans; the different causes of population decline; and how the causes and
effects of population decline and recovery varied by region.
There is no direct evidence, even of questionable reliability, with which to start
the task. Archives, one of the places historians usually look for primary sources
about population, are of limited use. The comprehensive censuses and tax rolls that
in modern states provide detailed records about population do not exist. The writ-
ten record from the post-contact era, which includes the memoirs of conquistadors
and priests, provides descriptions of indigenous populations from small villages to
large cities in only vague and impressionistic ways. Indigenous documents, such as
maps and tributary records, are fragmentary. Guessing and estimating from these
traces, early twentieth-century scholars debated whether the total population of the
Americas in 1492 reached even ten million. Subsequent researchers assailed these
estimates as ridiculously low, but still varied widely in their methodologies and
conclusions. To encourage additional scholarly inquiry into the matter, the journal
The New Global Interface . 1486-1639.
Current Anthropology published a special edition in 1966, “Estimating Aboriginal
American Population,” which featured more than two dozen contributions from
scholars involved in the search for new ways to answer this vexing question.
Over the next decades, answers to the population question relied on grow-
ing confidence in interdisciplinary research methods that attempted to integrate
things like estimates of the agricultural carrying capacity of land, anthropologi-
cal interpretations of indigenous social organization and production techniques,
statistical extrapolation, and the analysis of additional archival records, like
those for births, baptisms, deaths, and burials in the early colonial period. Using
these methods, some authors estimated a pre-contact population as high as one
hundred million, although the most influential revisions were about half that
number: forty to sixty million people. Scholarly critics of these new estimates
suggested that the researchers who produced them were too optimistic in their
assessments of things like the productive capacity of indigenous societies or too
negative in their estimates of the spread and virulence of European diseases.
The debate continues. Why does this matter? One of the most important issues
underlying this long debate over the size of the pre-contact population has been
the effort to understand better the long-term impact of the arrival of Europeans.
On this question, there will likely never be consensus on the exact scale of dev-
astation, yet the overwhelming force of evidence subject to both qualitative and
quantitative analysis leads to several conclusions. Almost the entire indigenous
population of the Caribbean died within decades of the Europeans’ arrival. On
the mainland, the rates of population decline varied greatly from place to place.
Most of the evidence points to disease and the disruption of indigenous politi-
cal, economic, and social systems as the main causes of demographic decline.
The overall indigenous population fell to perhaps four or five million during the
first century after contact, a decline of some 90 percent from the most widely
accepted estimates of the pre-contact population. Even if one were to accept the
lowest pre-contact estimates (which we do not), the demographic decline of the
indigenous population of the Americas after European contact remains one of
the great catastrophes of human history.’
Henry F. Dobyns, “An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate,” Current Anthropology
7, no. 4 (1966): 395-416; H. Paul Thompson, “A Technique Using Anthropological and Biological Data,”
Current Anthropology 7, no. 4 (1966): 417-449; “Comments and Replies,” Current Anthropology 7, no. 4
(1966): 425-499; Angel Rosenblat, La población de América en 1492: Viejos y nuevos cálculos (Mexico
City: El Colegio de México, 1967); William M. Denevan, ed., The Native Population of the Americas in
1492, 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992); Ann Ramenofsky, Vectors of Death: The
Archaeology of European Contact (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988); David Henige,
Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate (Norman: University of Okla-
homa Press, 1998); Massimo Livi Bacci. “The Depopulation of Hispanic America after the Conquest,”
Population and Development Review 32, no. 2 (June 2006): 199-232.
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