How Many Native Americans Were There before Columbus, and Why Should We Care?

The manner of their attire.

The online edition of The Atlantic recently republished the following article that first appeared in 2002:

The Atlantic wants us to take advantage of Columbus Day to reflect on the historiographical debate concerning the pre-Columbian population of the Americas. We should take the monthly up on its offer because this debate is, in many ways, exemplary in that it expresses what is so interesting and significant about these kinds of controversies.

First, it indicates very clearly what historians do. Historians, of course, dispute what happened and how it happened. They almost always have to do so with limited evidence. Perhaps even more important, they also argue about the significance of what occurred. The debate over America’s pre-Columbian population revolves around a number of very big and difficult questions. Before Europeans exerted any influence on the Western hemisphere, how many people lived in the Americas? How did they live, and what was the nature of their influence on the land? What was their quality of life when compared with the Europeans who arrived on their shores? How did they die, and how did this death lead to important changes?

Second, this debate involves a variety of fields. Any historical debate of significance is, to some extent, interdisciplinary. That’s because big questions bleed into a variety of fields. This particular argument involves not only historians, but also archeologists, anthropologists, geographers, epidemiologists, ethnographers, demographers, botanists, and ecologists. In some ways, the interdisciplinary nature of this discussion is a virtue in that a variety of fields can see a question in the round. At the same time, however, conversations between disciplines can become chaotic because they employ varying approaches and see the world from different perspectives. That kind of situation can lead to specialists talking past one another, making it difficult to reach agreement.

Third, as all the participants seem to recognize, this discussion informs a series of important contemporary arguments. The most significant ones have to do with, first, our relationships to each other and, second, our relationship to the land. To start with the first one, as Mann points out, “given the charged relations between white societies and native peoples, inquiry into Indian culture and history is inevitably contentious.” Controversies revolving around such issues, of course, touch upon the responsibilities of white societies to native peoples. While the contemporary discussion influences how each group sees the other, it also shapes the way each groups understands itself. In other words, this debate has much to do with identity. This feature of the argument partially explains its ferocity. All historiographical debates of any worth involve a collision of world views, but this collision is fraught with emotion. As for the second contemporary argument, the one revolving around our relationship to the land, this historiographical debate has great significance. For centuries, the myth of the noble savage led many to believe that native Americans were a part of nature rather than actors who molded that nature. The modern environmental movement took inspiration from that vision. If you don’t believe One Thing after Another, take a look at this famous public service announcement produced by Keep America Beautiful in 1971 (otherwise known as the “Crying Indian ad”). Here, the iconic native American represents nature and serves as the standard by which to criticize a dysfunctional and polluted modern world. But as experts in a variety of fields increasingly appear to believe, native Americans were a sort of “keystone species” who influenced the land to suit their own needs. In other words, as long as there have been humans in the Americas, there has been no such thing as “pristine” nature.

Because of their political consequences, these kinds of debates tend to smolder for decades, occasionally breaking out into open flame. For the same reason, the findings that issue from these arguments often find their way to the public in distorted form via the news media. It is for these reasons that it makes sense to read up on these controversies from the beginning. We should all take a look at Dobyns, Crosby, and Cronon’s works.  Of course, who has time for that except historians?


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