History: Population of PreColumbian America

We have discussed the argument about the population of `re-Colombian America.  Tom Brown says: One of the more authoritative sources on this question is William Denevan's The Native Population of America in 1492, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. RH:  Here is a summary of his conclusions: In 1560, Father Bartolome de Las Casas estimated that forty million native Americans had perished "unjustly and through tyranny" in New Spain in the two generations after Columbus's discovery .. .. Henry Dobyn's assessment of the data led him in 1966 to conclude that ninety million natives had inhabited the Americas around A.D. 1500--more that forty million of them in Mexico and Central America.

Population studies are not, of course, based upon speculation or interpretative whim. As historical and archaeological sources are more carefully examined and the specialists correct each other by mutual criticism, a better grasp of the real numbers is emerging. William Denevan's 1976 volume, The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, weighted all the arguments. His estimated total of 57 million for the hemisphere seems fairly safe. He concluded that Mexico and Central America had some 27 million. Moreover, according to Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who used native documents as sources for his post-Conquest history of central Mexico, the "Toltecs" of the tenth century carried on wars with forces in the millions and suffered over 5.6 million dead. Even discounting for possible exaggeration, such numbers are not outside the range of the reasonable. Neither are the 230,000 warrior attributed to the Nephites six hundred years earlier. 

The figures on Mesoamerican population offered by demographers decades ago could not be reconciled with statements in the Book of Mormon about millions of people being destroyed in the concluding Jaredite and Nephite wars. Now, analysis of the data on lands occupied ecology, sizes, war casualties, and other population-related factors in the Book of Mormon text shows striking consistency and realism in the reported demographic changes. At the same time, the absolute numbers reported in the book are of the same order of  magnitude as the figures which current research on Mesoamerica finds acceptable.

R H: Americans are naturally interested in the pre-Colombian population of North America, while the argument in Argentina naturally concentrates on South America. Attribute to my ignorance my surprise that the Book of Mormon should be viewed as a reliable source on this subject.  The figures given by Father Las Casas are guesswork.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 16, 2005