Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 80.1 (2000) 166-167

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Book Review

Numbers from Nowhere:
The American Indian Contact Population Debate


Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate. By David Henige. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xi, 532 pp. Cloth, $47.95.

The size of the population of the Americas before European contact was once a topic of intense debate. For the past decade or so, however, it has been regarded as settled, and estimates on the order of 50 to one 100 million people have been accepted as proven. David Henige's book questions if this should be the case. In fact, the book not only takes issue with current estimates but attempts to argue that the contact population is, in fact, unknowable on the basis of the currently available evidence.

Henige's basic point is excellent. Most of the current estimates have been derived from an extrapolation based on rather dicey figures taken from less-than-reliable sources. In reminding us that these estimates are actually built on flimsy presuppositions that often involve circular reasoning, the author has provided a much-needed reality check for this field.

Unfortunately, his argument suffers from overkill. Henige is at his best when casting doubt upon the veracity of contemporary population estimates made by the conquistadores or Spanish colonial observers. But the book is poorly organized, and the author spends an inordinate amount of time criticizing estimates that are only marginally (if at all) relevant to the population estimates advanced by those to whom he refers as the "high counters." His argument does not unfold in a coherent fashion. Rather, it reads as though he had assembled every possible criticism of the high counters' methods and evidence in an almost random fashion. At times, the book cries out for a more detailed discussion of technical issues from the fields of epidemiology or population demography, and the author's methodological criticisms of archaeological evidence appear thoroughly misplaced.

The strongest criticism of the high counters' estimates comes from a statistician named Rudolph Zambardino, whom Henige discusses in chapter 4. Zambardino pointed out that fairly small margins of error in the assumptions made by the high counters (for example, the number of uncounted dependents per family) rapidly compound themselves and lead to a huge vagueness in the final estimates. For example, the population of Central Mexico in 1532 could be anywhere between 2.7 million and 35 million, based on this method of calculation.

However, Henige's book attacks the entire idea of attempting to estimate the precontact population, rather than simply criticize specific estimates. This reasoning preempts several potentially useful exercises. For example, if the lower bound of the estimates monotonically decreases despite assumptions that bias against the hypothesis of a population decrease, then we can take that as evidence of a sustained population decline. The high counters' methodology is flawed only in application. Had they been trained as statisticians or economic historians, and therefore been more cognizant of the need to consistently bias their assumptions against their hypotheses, then they would not have attempted to push their calculations so far. Henige is correct that these methods [End Page 166] cannot yield specific population estimates, but they might shed light on the timing and pace of the population decline.

Henige convincingly criticizes several accounts of the epidemics which putatively swept through the New World after the Spanish arrival, but at times the reader is left wondering whether he means to argue that the epidemics never happened at all. The "contact does not equal contagion" chapter cries out for more discussion of what we know about the epidemiology of the various diseases blamed for the depopulation. What do we know about the spread of these diseases? Are there better-documented cases of their introduction into unexposed populations that we could use? What evidence do we have about the epidemics?

In addition, Henige makes several unjustified epistemological claims that weaken an otherwise excellent case. For example, after an incisive criticism of several arguments by archaeologists about the timing...