“Low Count” for Hispaniola completely vindicated

I wrote two posts back in 2014 on the population size of Hispaniola estimating its precontact population at around 250K (generously assuming 9-10% Native population decline per year since contact and Old World urban population density for the island’s largest settlements); it appears the actual population size (based on a genetic study profiled in the New York Times) was closest to Miguel de Pasamonte’s estimate of 60,000.

Some Clarification on the Previous Post

There is a discrepancy between the two translations of the relevant text I linked to the day before yesterday regarding whether Bartolomé de las Casas meant that the Hispaniolan native population declined by over two-thirds between 1494 and 1496 or between 1494 and 1506. The text is ambiguous, stating that this decline occured “from the year 94 to 6”.

The archaeological facts do not support the idea that the pre-Columbian population of Hispaniola was much greater than a quarter million. The site of Bas Saline/Navidad, said to be a “chiefly residence” and “one of the largest Taíno village sites reported in Haiti” is only some “95,000 square meters”, or 23 and a half acres, in area. Using the typical urban 100 person per acre rule (which is probably highballing in this context), this Taíno capital village was home to only some 2350 people. Assuming five other such capital villages on Hispaniola and 95% of the Hispaniolan population living outside these capital villages, one gets a pre-Columbian population of Hispaniola of some 235,000 people-pretty close to the results of my exponential model published a day before yesterday.

Also, by my estimate, the peak population density of pre-Columbian Hispaniola was just over 3 persons per square kilometer. This is the same as the population densities of such lands as Iceland, Australia, and Suriname. Population densities higher than those of Laos (population of capital: over half a million) or Estonia (population of capital: over two fifths of a million) are highly implausible for pre-Columbian Hispaniola.

I’m now wondering what the pre-Columbian population of Cuba was. Using the population density figure mentioned above, I guess something like 300,000 , but I’m probably overestimating.

The Pre-Columbian Population of Hispaniola

There have been many attempts over the past century to figure out the pre-Columbian population of the island of Hispaniola, which is now home to some 20 million people. What native population was left by the end of the 16th century apparently completely mixed with the Spanish ruling class and black majority. This was due to extensive enslavement, starvation, war deaths, and spread of infections of European origin throughout Hispaniola. The highest serious estimates of Hispaniola’s pre-Columbian population are something like half to a quarter of the present population; the lowest are around 60,000 natives. I have recently created two very similar and very simple exponential models of the 15th-16th century population of Hispaniola since the arrival of Columbus. Column C is an exponential model relying only on the first four data points (1508-60,000 natives, 1510-33,528 [not 33,523 as in the Born to Die book], 1514-26,334, 1519-18,000). These data points come from the Born to Die book. Column D is an exponential model which includes the last two data points. 1900 natives in 1542 is based on the “less than 2000” natives mentioned in the Born to Die book. 150 natives in 1565 is based on a data point mentioned in Cook and Borah’s infamous piece of work, which happens to be fully available online. Both models have an R2 of over .98 if the last two data points are considered. The results of the model which includes the last two data points are shown below. I have excluded the dubious 1496 count Borah and Cook so often rely on as it does not seem that any count of the Spanish-held area of Hispaniola took place at the time. The Excel file I made is available here.

This is a decline of some 9-10% of the native population per year. However, it still only gives us roughly an eightieth of the present population of the island, or roughly a quarter million, as the supposed pre-Columbian population of Hispaniola. Even Bartolomé de Las Casas, who famously advocated a pre-contact population of Hispaniola of some 3-4 million natives, is only bold enough to say “it was believed that not one-third were left of the multitudes of people who had been on this island from the year 1494 to the sixth (probably 1506)“. This fits my exponential models remarkably well, with them yielding declines for the native population of Hispaniola of some 70% during those years. It is thus fairly safe to say that the population of Hispaniola at the time of first Columbian contact was around a quarter million, perhaps a bit less. This is the same figure that the U.S. News and World Report reported back in 2007.