We have census records on the number of Native Americans in 1853. So the first thing we need to do is figure out how many people there were in North America in 1500, compare that to the census records, and see what that difference is. Then we can try to figure out why it happened.
Pre-Columbian US population
The issue with pre-columbian North America population estimates is that there are regions in which the population is well-known, and then there are regions in which the populations are not well-known. And what people estimating the population would do is extrapolate the populations of the well-known regions onto the lesser-known regions based on the kind of land it was.
So if an area has 2 people per km2, then an adjacent area with similar soil, vegetation, animals, et cetera is assumed to also have that many people. Fair enough.
The problem, according to Milner and Chaplin, is that this is simply not true. And that the record is biased toward more densely populated areas, and thus mapping the recorded areas onto unrecorded areas is going to produce a larger population number than what was actually there:
“High population estimates are consistent with maps that associate particular groups with irregular areas that collectively cover the land in its entirety, as if nothing was left unoccupied, the equivalent of a Thiessen (Voronoi) or other spacefilling tessellation (e.g.,NationalGeographic 1972; Swanton 1952). Maps showing contiguous occupation, however, have the effect of implying that all equally productive land, most importantly resource-rich shorelines and river valleys,was similarly and continuously occupied. A much different picture has emerged from archaeological work over the past several decades. Not only were there large and infrequently used areas between late prehistoric population aggregates, the vacant areas often encompassed highly productive land suitable for permanent settlement.”
A related problem was over-counting settlements. Semi-nomadic people move from place to place, and when they do they settle in an area and hunt / fish / gather in that area. And thus each tribe will have multiple fixed sites that they travel to. Apparently researchers have a habit of counting each site as if it was permanently and continuously settled, which inflates the number.
What Milner and Chaplin did was try to take all of this into account instead of dumb mapping particular well-known groups onto the whole of the United States. And in doing so they came to multiple estimates, with 1.595 million being, according to them, their “best” estimate:
So that’s one number. Another thing we can do is take hunter-gatherer populations around the world and just map them onto the United States, which I did
Populations of various hunter-gatherer groups in Southeast Asia, the Amazon and an estimate for stone age Britain:
|Population||Population per square kilometer|
|Cape York Aborigines||0.16|
|Cape York Aborigines||0.4|
|Batak in Phillipines||0.54|
|Batak in Malaysia||0.1|
|Semang in Malaysia||0.05|
|Semang in Malaysia||0.19|
|Stone Age Britain||“Less than 0.1”|
|Algonkian Indians of Victoria Lake||0.01|
|Algonkain Indians of Groote Eylandt||0.18|
|Average of sample||0.387|
The first 7 numbers come from “Managing Animals in New Guinea: Preying the Game in the Highlands” by Paul Silitoe.
The number for stone age Britain comes from “Late Stone Age Hunters of the British Isles“ by Christopher Smith.
The last 8 examples come from “In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia“ By Philippe Descola.
So the average of this quick and dirty sample I found from the first three sources that gave specific numbers I could find using google search averages to 0.387 per km2. The lower 48 United States has a land mass of 8.139 million km2, and so just dumb mapping the average of these population onto the United States gives us 3.149 million people in the pre-columbian area that would become the United States. Canada has always had about 10% of the population of the United States, so that gives us 3.464 million, throw in Alaska and we can round it out to 3.5 million.
There are also multiple sources I have found claiming that the global average population density for hunter-gatherers is 0.1 per km2. Okay, cool. Now since that is a global average, it doesn’t make sense to map it onto the US, and then give Canada 10% of that, because the global average includes places like Canada. So the land mass of Alaska, Canada and the United States is 19.842 million km2, and if there were 0.1 people per km2 in 1500, that would give us 1.9842 million people in all of North America.
So we now have a few estimates for the population of North America in 1500:
|Milner and Chaplin||1.595 million|
|Ubelaker (Just United States)||1.894 million|
|Dumb mapping of Ryan’s searches||~3.5 million|
|Dumb mapping of global hunter-gatherer density||1.9842 million|
Numbers higher than this are usually politically motivated. Russel Thornton’s book “American Indian holocaust and survival: a population history since 1492” estimates the pre-columbian population of North America at 7 million, and that’s in a non-free book so I can’t see it. Another estimate of 18 million comes from Henry Dobyns, again in a non-free book entitled “Their Number Become Thinned”.
Remember the population of the United States was 17.069 million in 1840, so Dobyns’ estimate of 18 million Siberian-Americans in 1500, which would entail about 16 million in the United States, who left behind extremely sparse remnants, is implausible on it’s face.
So there we have our Siberian-American population in North America in 1500, around 2 million. So how much did it decline?
Well the first government estimates of “Indians” in the United states was in 1853, and it estimated 400,764 Indians in the United States that year.
Now this supposedly fell to 339,421 in 1860, to 313,712 in 1870 and 306,543 in 1880.
So if the starting number is exactly 2 million, then by 1853 the Siberian-American population declined by 1.6 million, then to around 1.7 million by 1880.
So that comes out to around an 80% population decline. That’s pretty gigantic! But remember this was over 360 years, or about 4,444 per year. This amounts to a population reduction of 0.22% per year. (Although since this is the drop from the starting population the average decline at each point should be 0.495%).
And also remember that hunter-gatherer populations don’t grow very fast; the average population growth for hunter-gatherer populations, once it reaches the carrying capacity of the area they are in, is basically zero.
So how can a population fall by 0.22% per year? Well it can literally die off, or have below-replacement birth rates, or intermarry.
There are two things I want to point the reader to:
1. Intermarriage rates of native americans and native admixture in the United States
In 2014, there were 197,870,516 non-hispanic whites. On average, NH Whites have 0.18% Native American admixture, which extrapolates to the equivalent of 356,167 full people “inside” the European population.
For blacks, there were 38,929,319 people, who were 0.08% Native American, which amounts to 31,143 Native Americans “inside” the black US population.
Now “latinos” in the United States have the highest Native American admixture at 18%, but that is probably not from North America. For what it’s worth, there were 50,477,594 latinos, and in this population are the equivalent of 9,085,967 Native Americans “inside” the latino population.
And of course people who directly identify as Native American number 2,932,248 people in 2014.
So ultimately, the European conquest of North America seems to have increased the Native American genetic expression from the 2 million it was at, and probably had been at for the past ~10,000 years (see below) and thus there is no reason to believe it would have increased eventually in the absence of European contact. And while there were a few massacres of Native Americans, an annual average population decline of 0.22% does not suggest an ongoing campaign of genocide. It suggests land loss partly offset by European technology, intermarriage with Europeans, and a few battles with the Federal Government each decade.
2. The lack of lineage destruction for native americans
Another interesting fact is that Native American lineages on the female side were largely kept intact. This is inferred from mitochondrial DNA which is always passed through the mother. And what it shows is that there was very minimal lineage destruction.
This is important. Because if the Spaniards were going from town to town in Mexico just mass murdering the inhabitants, whole families would be killed off. The fact that, while the population decline may have been over 50%, families remained intact, is evidence that the deaths were probably down to disease, not mass murder.
The Native American population in North America in 1500 was about 2 million, and the decline to 400,000 in 1860 represents a 0.22% decline per year. I’m not saying massacres didn’t happen; but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t look like a genocide, or if it was, it would be the slowest genocide ever. In addition, we don’t know how many Native Americans managed to intermarry with Europeans. If so few as 0.22% married a European, which would be 1 in 454, that would in theory account for the entire Native American decline assuming the Native Americans were at replacement otherwise.
If you want to call this “revision”, please, tell me what on earth it is I am revising. Most people have a historical narrative regarding the Native Americans that is based on anecdotes and personal accounts, a narrative that was set before the research was done.
This is a theme throughout US history, is that narratives are set in place for reasons you can speculate about, but then later, when we start getting new tools (including genetic data, but also something as simple as the internet which allows all of the existing information on a topic to be analyzed at the same time), the data says something different than narratives which were “set” before 1900.
Right now, thanks to the internet and sci-hub for breaking down paywalls, I have better access to academic papers than a professor at a major university would have in 1985.
And when some people go in a different direction than the old history books, this is called “revision”, but there’s nothing of substance being revised! The original narrative was based on nothing, the research is being done for the first time.
Now what I don’t think the United States’ policy toward the Native Americans was the correct one. I think the correct one would be a territorial set-aside, a separate country, for the Northern Tribes. I don’t think they rightfully owned the whole of North America anymore than I own the ocean after pissing in it, but they are a people who deserve something. Perhaps something like British Columbia or Oregon.
What this really is is a battle between people who think in terms of data, and people who want to cling to the old stories, and exciting stories spread faster than boring ones.