Myths about pre-colonial America #2: North America was an underpopulated Terra Nullius

Feb 2017
Latin America
In fact, Angus Maddison believed that the whole of the Americas was underpopulated, only having 20 million inhabitants from Greenland to Argentina in the year 1500. However, most people here and elsewhere would agree that this is a preposterously low number. However, most still see North America - the United States, Canada and Greenland - as massively underpopulated in comparison to Latin America (everything between Mexico and Argentina). This post refutes this. North America did have a lower population density than Latin America, but that doesn't mean it was a Terra Nullius where hardly any Native American lived:

"Scholarly estimates of the pre-Columbian population of Northern America have differed by millions of individuals: the lowest credible approximations propose that some 900,000 people lived north of the Rio Grande in 1492, and the highest posit some 18,000,000. In 1910 anthropologist James Mooney undertook the first thorough investigation of the problem. He estimated the precontact population density of each culture area based on historical accounts and carrying capacity, an estimate of the number of people who could be supported by a given form of subsistence. Mooney concluded that approximately 1,115,000 individuals lived in Northern America at the time of Columbian landfall. In 1934 A.L. Kroeber reanalyzed Mooney’s work and estimated 900,000 individuals for the same region and period. In 1966 ethnohistorian Henry Dobyns estimated that there were between 9,800,000 and 12,200,000 people north of the Rio Grande before contact; in 1983 he revised that number upward to 18,000,000 people."

Here is a table from C. Matthew Snip's "American Indians: The First of This Land":


Taking out Dobyns's high end and Kroeber's low end, we have an average of 2.5 million people. Taking it all together, we have an average of nearly 4 million. Charles Mann's 1491 tries to argue for the higher ends of these estimates by pointing out that North American indigenous had urban centres like Cahokia and Cibola and intensive agriculture, since they knew about corn and other crops. We have to add the high amount of mining and metallurgical work that Native Americans were capable of:

"This is not to say that the archaeological record does not contain evidence for the manipulation of other metals, like gold (Halsey 1996, pp. 3–5), silver (Brose and Greber 1979a, p. 253; Spence and Fryer 2005), lead (primarily in the form of galena) (Walthall et al. 1979; Walthall 1981) and meteoric iron (Halsey 1996, p. 3), it simply means that copper overwhelmingly predominates the metallurgical landscape...

In the Eastern Woodlands, indigenous copper working goes back well over 7,000 years, and has been known to archaeologists for well over 150 years (Martin 1999). Scholars have long known that copper use was hardly ubiquitous throughout prehistory;
some native groups never used copper at all. In others, adoption is scanty or sporadic at best. In yet others, copper assumed an especially important, even paramount role as a valued, symbolically powerful raw material and as an even more spectacularly important and meaningful finished product. Native copper was used by prehistoric Eastern Woodlands peoples for utilitarian tools, art objects, items of ceremonial or symbolic importance, and personal or ritual adornment. Some artifacts were manufactured to be used in life, whereas many, both used and unused, appear in burial contexts as adornments or burial furniture."

(Kathleen L. Ehrhardt, "Copper Working Technologies, Contexts of Use, and Social Complexity in the Eastern Woodlands of Native North America", in "Archaeometallurgy in Global Perspective")

David Stannard and and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz also argue for a number closer to Dobyns's 18 million. If we follow this high end and apply it for Canada, the US and Greenland for the year 1492, we would have a population density of less than 1 person for every square kilometre. So in fact, even high ends still gives us a highly underpopulated region when compared to other regions of the world like Europe, the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and even Latin America. Current estimates of Latin America in 1492 range from 40 to 90 million people, some like Stannard and Dobbyn going well over 100 million. Even the low end of this number gives us a population density of less than 3 people for every square kilometre, which is still significantly above North America. It's also vastly below the population density of the 13 colonies in 1776, which is nearly 3 people/km2 too. In other words, despite being a very high number for a society that is widely deemed to have been pre-medieval (in spite of the enormous division of labour and technological achievement that shows how simple this view is), it actually turns out to be still very low overall. Excessively doubting Dobyns thus can be seen as an exercise in ultra-skepticism.

Here's an article by Charles Mann summarising some of my points as well as expounding the debate on how underpopulated North America is or should be:
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Ad Honoris
May 2014
I wonder what exactly caused Dobyns to deviate so much from the other historical estimates in regards to this--with his second estimate being even more of an aberration than his first estimate was--and his first estimate was at least almost two times larger than the largest non-Dobyns estimate.

BTW, I wonder how the Native American population in what is now the US has changed in the centuries after 1492. As in, when did it begin declining, and by just how much?