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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Correspondent Susan writes:

The June issue of National Geographic estimates that in 1492 there were 800,000 people living in what is now the United States and 200,000 in what is now Canada, mostly along the coast. The same issue says that 200,000 lived in an ancient Mexican city alone (don't remember the name). These two estimates seem to contradict each other. 1 million seems ridiculously low and has the effect of trivializing them.

Anyway, other sources estimate the number of pre-Columbian people in the Americas as 20-30 million, which seems reasonable. Do you know how this estimate was arrived at?

No. I think most estimates are in the 5-10 million range. One million is on the very low end.

The city undoubtedly was Tenochtitlán.

I agree with your point. The magazine should've listed the range of scholarly estimates and mentioned the controversy about them. To accept the lowest figure is to dismiss Natives as a historic force. It reinforces the old myth of America as a "virgin" land ripe for conquest.

More comments from correspondents

For present US: many accept 10-20 million as range of estimate.

One of the big uncertainties is how many died in advance of the contact, either by human disease or by loss of food owing to a posited epizootic affecting game—possible variant of swine fever.

I am very comfortable with a 1 million estimate for California.

Jason Spaulding


No one in the history field has used any estimates that low since the late '70s. The first estimate I know of that disputed the "empty land" image of the US pre-1492 was way back in the 1760s, by Major Robert Rogers in A Concise Account of North America.

It's generally accepted now in the history field that there were more people in the Americas than in Europe in 1492, 100-150 million vs. 75 million. Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the world at over half a million, several times the size of London. In what's now the US, I usually hear from 12-15 million as an estimate, with 8 million in California alone.

To buy that low estimate, you'd have to believe your average Indian nation numbered around 1300 people. Outside of some small tribes in the Great Basin, that just wasn't ever true. Even in most colonial accounts in the *seventeenth* century (after disease had usually wiped out 90% or more of many tribes), colonists often talked about tribes numbering 30,000 or more in the case of the Powhattan, Cherokee, and Creek Confederacies.

Al Carroll


Dear Robert Schmidt,

BOTH sets of estimates draw in part upon historical White accounts of various Indian nations, that estimated sizes of various tribes (for example, a report on a tribe might variously say how many fighters it could field, or how many people total, depending on the particulars of who made the report & why).

Archaeological estimates (number of villages dating to the period, size of villages, etc.) also play a major role.

The low estimates are the "older" ones, which often relied a bit too heavily on POST-EPIDEMIC population levels (on levels from when the English settled in North America...AFTER De Soto's expedition decimated the South, AFTER countless villages like Squanto's were wiped out by diseases from trading ships). As well, as time goes on more & more archaeological sites are discovered/reported, which increases the archaeological part of the estimate.

The "one million north of Mexico" figure is an old & oft-repeated one. More recent (& accurate) estimates have said that there was more than that in California alone, several times that in the Old South, & also high numbers in the Pacific NWC.

Eh, maybe it's a trend in NG. Their recent (latest out, whichever "month" that is) issue has an article on the marine archaeological excavation of a slaveship...which repeats an unusually low figure on total number of slaves brought over (both to the Americas, & to the U.S.)...plus a ridiculous 20% mortality rate for the dark passage! (Worse yet, the phrasing implies that slave ship CREW suffered the same mortality rate as did slaves crammed into the hold!)

Can you spell "Whitewash"?


Wade Wofford.


The National Geographic figure of 1,000,000 is ridiculously low. In 1496 the Spanish under the command of Columbus conducted a census of the Native population of the island of Hispanola. Only counting adults over the age of 14 and not accounting for the many thousands of Native People that had fled into the back hills of the island, the Spanish counted 1.3 million souls. Accounting for those under the age of 14 as well as other uncounted Native People, it has been estimated that the population of this island alone may have been in excess of 8 million people.

mike kohr
http://www.theramp.net/kohr4 (International Brotherhood Days)

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