ISN’T THIS ALL JUST REVISIONISM?
Yes, of course—except that it’s more like re-revisionism. The first European adventurers in the Western Hemisphere did not make careful population counts, but they repeatedly described indigenous America as a crowded, jostling place—“a beehive of people,” as Las Casas put it in 1542. To Las Casas, the Americas seemed so thick with people “that it looked as if God has placed all of or the greater part of the entire human race in these countries.”
So far as is known, Las Casas never tried to enumerate the original native population. But he did try to calculate how many died from Spanish disease and brutality. In Las Casas’s “sure, truthful estimate,” his countrymen in the first five decades after Columbus wiped out “more than twelve million souls, men and women and children; and in truth I believe, without trying to deceive myself, that it was more than fifteen million.” Twenty years later, he raised his estimate of Indian deaths—and hence of the initial population—to forty million.
Las Casas’s successors usually shared his ideas—the eighteenth-century Jesuit Francisco Javier Clavijero, for example, asserted that the pre-Columbian population of Mexico alone was thirty million. But gradually a note of doubt crept in. To most historians, the colonial accounts came to seem exaggerated, though exactly why was not often explained. (“Sixteenth-century Europeans,” Cook and Borah dryly remarked, “did indeed know how to count.”) Especially in North America, historians’ guesses at native numbers kept slipping down. By the 1920s they had dwindled to forty or fifty million in the entire hemisphere—about the number that Las Casas believed had died in Mesoamerica alone. Twenty years after that, the estimates had declined by another factor of five.
Today the picture has reversed. The High Counters seem to be winning the argument, at least for now. No definitive data exist, but the majority of the extant evidentiary scraps indicate it. “Most of the arrows point in that direction,” Denevan said to me. Zambardino, the computer scientist who decried the margin of error in these estimates, noted that even an extremely conservative extrapolation of known figures would still project a precontact population in central Mexico alone of five to ten million, “a very high population, not only in terms of the sixteenth century, but indeed on any terms.” Even Henige, of Numbers from Nowhere, is no Low Counter. In Numbers from Nowhere, he argues that “perhaps 40 million throughout the Western Hemisphere” is a “not unreasonable” figure—putting him at the low end of the High Counters, but a High Counter nonetheless. Indeed, it is the same figure provided by Las Casas, patron saint of High Counters, foremost among the old Spanish sources whose estimates Henige spends many pages discounting.
To Fenn, the smallpox historian, the squabble over the number of deaths and the degree of blame obscures something more important. In the long run, Fenn says, the consequential finding of the new scholarship is not that many people died but that many people lived. The Americas were filled with an enthusiastically diverse assortment of peoples who had knocked about the continents for millennia. “We are talking about enormous numbers of people,” she told me. “You have to wonder, Who were all these people? And what were they doing?”