The population for Pre-Columbian Americans, in the symbolic year of 1491, ranges from 4 million to 400 million. The extreme edges of the population estimates are very political, with those arguing the former implying the death and desolation to follow were not as large and tragic as the Holocaust, and those arguing the latter suggesting it was more enormous than any event in human history. Determining pre-historic numbers is not an exact science and requires lots of educated guesswork.
The widely espoused and accepted middle range is from 60 million to 100 million for all the Americas combined, roughly equivalent to Europe at that time. Central and South America each outnumbered North America by 3:1. South America had the vast Inca Empire that stretched the entire length of continent’s west coast by the time of its defeat by Pizarro in the 1530s. Central America had both the Aztec and Maya Empires, before they too were destroyed by Spanish invasion in the 1500s.
Population centers require adequate food supplies. The more people you have, the more food you need, and the more you land you need to grow the food to feed the people. Central and South America with their proximity to the equator were well supplied with fruits, vegetables, meat, and water allowing for large congregations of people.
North America was not as accommodating to large population centers and empires. The largest city in North America was Cahokia, located in present day southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. That region with its river system, forests, animals, fruits, and vegetables sustained a city of 30,000 to 100,000 people. In contrast, Philadelphia, the largest city in the English Colonies had only 30,000 citizens by the American Revolution. New Orleans, the largest Southern city on the eve of the Civil War also only numbered 30,000.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.