Wayna Qhapaq died in the first smallpox epidemic. The virus struck Tawantinsuyu again in 1533, 1535, 1558, and 1565. Each time the consequences were beyond the imagination of our fortunate age. “They died by scores and hundreds,” recalled one eyewitness to the 1565 outbreak. “Villages were depopulated. Corpses were scattered over the fields or piled up in the houses or huts…. The fields were uncultivated; the herds were untended [and] the price of food rose to such an extent that many persons found it beyond their reach. They escaped the foul disease, but only to be wasted by famine.” In addition, Tawantinsuyu was invaded by other European pestilences, to which the Indians were equally susceptible. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza in 1558 (together with smallpox), diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618—all flensed the remains of Inka culture. Taken as a whole, Dobyns thought, the epidemics must have killed nine out of ten of the inhabitants of Tawantinsuyu.

Dobyns was not the first to arrive at this horrific conclusion. But he was the first to put it together with the fact that smallpox visited before anyone in South America had even seen Europeans. The most likely source of the virus, Dobyns realized, was the Caribbean. Smallpox was recorded to have appeared on the island of Hispaniola in November or December 1518. It killed a third of the native population before jumping to Puerto Rico and Cuba. Spaniards, exposed in childhood to the virus, were mostly immune. During Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, an expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez landed on April 23, 1520, near what is today the city of Veracruz. According to several Spanish accounts, the force included an African slave named Francisco Eguía or Baguía who had smallpox. Other reports say that the carriers were Cuban Indians whom Narváez had brought as auxiliaries. In any case, someone brought the virus—and infected a hemisphere.

The disease raced to Tenochtitlan, leading city of the Mexica (Aztecs), where it laid waste to the metropolis and then the rest of the empire. From there, Dobyns discovered, colonial accounts show smallpox hopscotching through Central America to Panama. At that point it was only a few hundred miles from the Inka frontier. The virus seemingly crossed the gap, with catastrophic consequences.

Then Dobyns went further. When microbes arrived in the Western Hemisphere, he argued, they must have swept from the coastlines first visited by Europeans to inland areas populated by Indians who had never seen a white person. Colonial writers knew that disease tilled the virgin soil of the Americas countless times in the sixteenth century. But what they did not, could not, know is that the epidemics shot out like ghastly arrows from the limited areas they saw to every corner of the hemisphere, wreaking destruction in places that never appeared in the European historical record. The first whites to explore many parts of the Americas therefore would have encountered places that were already depopulated.

As a result, Dobyns said, all colonial population estimates were too low. Many of them, put together just after epidemics, would have represented population nadirs, not approximations of precontact numbers. From a few incidents in which before and after totals are known with relative certainty, Dobyns calculated that in the first 130 years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died. To estimate native numbers before Columbus, one thus had to multiply census figures from those times by a factor of twenty or more. The results obtained by this procedure were, by historical standards, stunningly high.

Historians had long wondered how many Indians lived in the Americas before contact. “Debated since Columbus attempted a partial census at Hispaniola in 1496,” Denevan, the Beni geographer, has written, “it remains one of the great inquiries of history.” Early researchers’ figures were, to put it mildly, informally ascertained. “Most of them weren’t even ballpark calculations,” Denevan told me. “No ballpark was involved.” Only in 1928 did the first careful estimate of the indigenous population appear. James Mooney, a distinguished ethnographer at the Smithsonian Institution, combed through colonial writings and government documents to conclude that in 1491 North America had 1.15 million inhabitants. Alfred L. Kroeber, the renowned Berkeley anthropologist, built upon Mooney’s work in the 1930s. Kroeber cut back the tally still further, to 900,000—a population density of less than one person for every six square miles. Just 8.4 million Indians, Kroeber suggested, had lived in the entire hemisphere.

Recognizing that his continent-wide estimate did not account for regional variation, Kroeber encouraged future scholars to seek out and analyze “sharply localized documentary evidence.” As he knew, some of his Berkeley colleagues were already making those analyses. Geographer Carl Sauer published the first modern estimate of northwest Mexico’s pre-Columbian population in 1935. Meanwhile, physiologist Sherburne F. Cook investigated the consequences of disease in the same area. Cook joined forces with Woodrow W. Borah, a Berkeley historian, in the mid-1950s. In a series of publications that stretched to the 1970s, the two men combed through colonial financial, census, and land records. Their results made Kroeber uneasy. When Columbus landed, Cook and Borah concluded, the central Mexican plateau alone had a population of 25.2 million. By contrast, Spain and Portugal together had fewer than ten million inhabitants. Central Mexico, they said, was the most densely populated place on earth, with more than twice as many people per square mile than China or India.

“Historians and anthropologists did not, however, seem to be paying much attention” to Cook and Borah, Dobyns wrote. Years later, his work, coupled with that of Denevan, Crosby, and William H. McNeill, finally made them take notice. Based on their work and his own, Dobyns argued that the Indian population in 1491 was between 90 and 112 million people. Another way of saying this is that when Columbus sailed more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.

According to a 1999 estimate from the United Nations, the earth’s population in the beginning of the sixteenth century was about 500 million. If Dobyns was right, disease claimed the lives of 80 to 100 million Indians by the first third of the seventeenth century. All these numbers are at best rough approximations, but their implications are clear: the epidemics killed about one out of every five people on earth. According to W. George Lovell, a geographer at Queen’s University in Ontario, it was “the greatest destruction of lives in human history.”

Dobyns published his conclusions in the journal Current Anthropology in 1966. They spawned rebuttals, conferences, even entire books. (Denevan assembled one: The Native Population of the Americas in 1492.) “I always felt guilty about the impact of my Current Anthropology article,” Dobyns told me, “because I thought and still think that Cook and Borah and Sauer had all said this in print earlier, but people weren’t listening. I’m still puzzled by the reaction, to tell you the truth. Maybe it was the time—people were prepared to listen in the 1960s.”

Listen—and attack. Dobyns’s population projections were quickly seen by some as politically motivated—self-flagellation by guilty white liberals or, worse, a push to inflate the toll of imperialism from the hate-America crowd. “No question about it, some people want those higher numbers,” Shepard Krech III, an anthropologist at Brown, told me. These people, he said, were thrilled when Dobyns revisited the subject in a 1983 book, Their Number Become Thinned, and revised his estimates upward.

Most researchers thought Dobyns’s estimates too high but few critics were as vehement as David Henige, of the University of Wisconsin, whose book, Numbers from Nowhere, published in 1998, is a landmark in the literature of demographic vilification. “Suspect in 1966, it is no less suspect nowadays,” Henige charged of Dobyns’s work. “If anything, it is worse.” Henige stumbled across a seminar on Indian demography taught by Denevan in 1976. An “epiphanic moment” occurred when he read that Cook and Borah had “uncovered” the existence of eight million people in Hispaniola. Can you just invent millions of people? he wondered. “We can make of the historical record that there was depopulation and movement of people from internecine warfare and diseases,” he said to me. “But as for how much, who knows? When we start putting numbers to something like that—applying large figures like 95 percent—we’re saying things we shouldn’t say. The number implies a level of knowledge that’s impossible.”

Indian activists reject this logic. “You always hear white people trying to minimize the size of the aboriginal populations their ancestors personally displaced,” according to Lenore Stiffarm, an ethnologist at the University of Saskatchewan. Dismissing the impact of disease, in her view, is simply a way to reduce the original population of the Americas. “Oh, there used to be a few people there, and disease killed some of them, so by the time we got here they were almost all gone.” The smaller the numbers of Indians, she said, the easier it is to regard the continent as empty, and hence up for grabs. “It’s perfectly acceptable to move into unoccupied land,” Stiffarm told me. “And land with only a few ‘savages’ is the next best thing.”

When Henige wrote Numbers from Nowhere, the fight about pre-Columbian population had already consumed forests’ worth of trees—his bibliography is ninety pages long. Four decades after Dobyns’s article appeared, his colleagues “are still struggling to get out of the crater that paper left in anthropology,” according to James Wilson, author of Their Earth Shall Weep, a history of North America’s indigenous peoples after conquest. The dispute shows no sign of abating. This is partly because of the inherent fascination with the subject. But it is also due to the growing realization of how much is at stake.

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