03 December 2007

Depopulation: Ubelaker’s Low Estimate

The Writers’ Source

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, authors of A Patriot’s History of the United States, offer a long aside entitled “Did Columbus Kill Most of the Indians?” followed by a lengthy footnote (7-10). Reading this portion of the text in the aisle of Borders, I observed that the authors:

* mention several sources with which I was unfamiliar,
* omit certain texts that are central to the field of Native American Indian demography, and
* put forth a perspective regarding disease and depopulation far out of step with the norm.

These three observations provoked my interest in close reading and critical examination of A Patriot's History, and thus contributed to my decision to purchase the book. That decision spawned this blog.

Schweikart and Allen claim, “several studies put the native population of North America alone within a range of 8.5 million (the highest) to a low estimate of 1.8 million” in 1500. Their low figure likely comes from Douglas H. Ubelaker, “North American Indian Population Size, A.D. 1500 to 1985,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 77 (1988), 289-294, which they cite. Ubelaker based this article on the work of hundreds of reputable scholars. He constructed a tribe-by-tribe estimate, the first since that done by James Mooney (1910), based largely on the work of scholars contributing to the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians (1978-1986)—several more volumes have been published since 1986.

Ubelaker states that his “estimated total figure is 1,894,350 with a minimum-maximum range from 1,213,475 to 2,638,900” (291). It seems to me that 1.9 million is a better reflection of Ubelaker’s estimate than rounding down his figure the lowest round number as must have been done to arrive at 1.8.

Ubelaker explains variances built into his estimates due to the uneven progress of European colonization of the continent—initial contact ranged from just after 1500 in the east to 1740 in Alaska. His estimates assumes that population at the time of “initial contact was maintained as far back as A.D. 1500”; he notes that such “stability is unlikely but must be assumed in the absence of specific data to the contrary” (291).

Methods of Scholarship
There are more American Indians alive today than there were when Columbus arrived or at any other time in history. Does this sound like a record of genocide?
Rush Limbaugh, See, I Told You So (1994)
Ubelaker identifies efforts to estimate the aboriginal population at time of contact as rooted in either ethnohistorical or in archeological methodologies. Ethnohistorical approaches rely upon primary sources: “direct observations by Europeans in early contact” (289). Archeological approaches draw upon settlement patterns, including housing and refuse, and analysis of skeletal remains. Bias, limitations of an etic perspective and unreliable counting procedures affect the reliability of ethnohistorical sources, while sampling challenges affect archeological data. Ubelaker notes also that “ecological resource potential [estimated] from environmental and cultural data” can establish upper limits of population. Henry Dobyns, who is cited in the next paragraph, employs such methodologies for Their Numbers Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (1983).

Seizing upon the low estimate, Schweikart and Allen report “800,000 Indians … died from disease and firearms,” which “still represented a destruction of half the native population” (8). Ubelaker’s figures differ: “numbers at nadir for all areas total 515,757, or a reduction of 73%;” due to variability in “average dates of nadir” he finds a probable “reduction of 1,364,350 from [his] estimate for 1500 of 1,894,350 or about 72%” (291). If Schweikart and Allen arrived at their figure of 1.8 million through improper rounding of Ubelaker’s figures, they nevertheless ignored his other figures.

Ubelaker’s article offers superficial support for Rush Limbaugh’s contention (1985’s 2.5 million is greater than 1.9), but not for the strange figures reported by Schweikart and Allen. His work, however, neither supports the contention of polemicist Limbaugh nor of historians Schweikart and Allen that aboriginal depopulation was insignificant, or greatly exaggerated. He states, “the end result was devastating” and the “remarkable demographic recovery has occurred in spite of the extensive cultural disruption, morbidity, and populations losses sustained in the centuries immediately following initial European contact” (293-294).

I am indebted to Erik Carter for bringing me a copy of Ubelaker's article. Some of Dr. Carter's scholarship is referenced in the post "Library Acquisitions".


doghouse riley said...

Well, we could always just ask the Arawak. Oh, right.

Someone of my approximate height and shoe size could be tempted to suggest that if "genocide" were acknowledged to be something less than 100% accurate in 100% of the instances of contact in North America, the other side might drop the notion that some ridiculously narrow parsing of the term somehow debunks 500 years of ugly history. But I'm thinking now that nothing short of an apology to Mr. Limbaugh (and Michael Medved ) for all they've suffered can possibly begin the healing process.

James Stripes said...

When I was teaching Racism 101 at Mediocre State U, students became enraged at their prior education and the worlds wrought by teachers enamored with Medved, Limbaugh, and their kin. Naturally, as I was close by, they directed this anger at me.

All I could do was ask them to consider how it might have been to be a kid growing up on a military base during the Vietnam conflict, carrying a surname reflected on the banner hanging in every classroom, every public assembly, and flying at half mast after the death of General Eisenhower; and this kid also carrying the name of five previous United States Presidents (one more came along in the 1970s).

Patriotism is no stranger. One must recognize the pain before one can heal, and we must always remember what Simon J. Ortiz made so clear in From Sand Creek (1981):

They shouldn't have understood
those Biblical words that way
and become simple as death.
And, finally, complex liars.
And thieves. (51)

Larry Cebula said...

Precolumbian population estimates are the Rorschach tests of our profession, our estimates say more about ourselves than they do about how many Indians lived in 1491.

John D. Daniels wrote "The Indian Population of North America in 1492" in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1992. He reviewed the five ways that scholars have estimated populations and showed where each method was full of unsupported assumptions and logical fallacies. He concluded (as I recall) that none of the estimates had any intellectual validity, that averaging bad estimates was the worst course of all, and that barring some breakthrough we are just never going to know.

James Stripes said...


Thanks for the comments.

I've been reading Daniels' article off and on for the past week or so. Look for my critique of his approach in a few days--hopefully by this weekend. His article is more a thinly disguised defense of the lowest estimates than a careful analysis of the range. He does not scrutinize the reasons Mooney, Kroeber, and othesr discount primary sources with the same skepticism he exhibits towards Borah and Cook, Dobyns, etc. Moreover, much of this skepticism is appropriated from Rudolph Zambardino, but Daniels obscures the degree to which he rejects Zambardino's conclusions.

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