SNAPSHOTS AT YEAR'S END: How many people were already there?


An allegation concerning the role of Storyline: At one time, every schoolchild knew the doggerel verse:

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Well, maybe not every child. But what did Columbus actually find when he arrived at the island known today as Hispaniola—the island which is shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

More specifically, how many people were already living there? How many people were already there when Columbus arrived?

In last Saturday's New York Times, two scholars presented a fascinating new estimate of that pre-Columbian population. For our money, their fleeting portrait of Storyline may have been even more striking.

What role does Storyline play in human affairs? At one point, the professors offer a striking observation on that very point.

Storyline is powerful! First, though, here's the way Professors Reich and Patterson started last Saturday's column:

REICH AND PATTERSON (12/26/20): In 1492, Christopher Columbus touched land for the first time in the Americas, reaching the Bahamas, Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) and eastern Cuba. After he returned to Spain he reported that he had encountered islands rich in gold. A few years later his brother Bartholomew, who also traveled to the Americas, reported that Hispaniola had a large population whose labor and land could be put to the advantage of the Spanish crown. He estimated the population at 1.1 million people.

Was this figure accurate? It soon was a matter of dispute. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish monk and colonist who became the first chronicler of the human disaster that unfolded in the Americas after the arrival of Europeans, estimated a far larger number: three million to four million.

The population size of “pre-contact” Hispaniola would continue to be a contested issue until the present day, not least because of its profound emotional and moral resonance in light of the destruction of that world. Modern scholars have generally estimated the population at 250,000 to a million people.

According to Reich and Patterson, modern scholars have made a range of estimates which fit within that range. At the low end of the scale, they've estimated the population at a quarter million people.

As they continue, Reich and Patterson explain the methodology which has led them to believe that the population was actually a great deal smaller than that. First, though, they offer this overview of the previous scholarly discussion:

REICH AND PATTERSON (continuing directly): Some of the arguments for large population numbers in the pre-contact Americas have been motivated by an attempt to counter a myth, perpetuated by apologists for colonialism like the philosopher John Locke, that the Americas were a vast “vacuum domicilium,” or empty dwelling, populated by a handful of Indigenous groups whose displacement could be readily justified. In a similar vein, some of the arguments for large population sizes have been motivated by a desire to underscore how disastrous the arrival of Europeans was for Indigenous people.

By any measure, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic for Indigenous Americans. This is true whether the numbers of people were in the hundreds of thousands or millions—or for that matter, the tens of thousands. It is questionable to pin our judgments of human atrocities to a specific number. To learn from the past, it is crucial to be willing to accept new and compelling data when they become available.

In the case of the pre-contact population of Hispaniola, such data have arrived. By analyzing the DNA of ancient Indigenous Caribbean people, a study published in Nature on Wednesday by one of us (Professor Reich) makes clear that the population of Hispaniola was no more than a few tens of thousands of people. Almost all prior estimates have been at least tenfold too large.

Reich and Patterson are well-regarded scholars. According to the New York Times, "Dr. Reich is a geneticist at Harvard who specializes in the study of ancient DNA. Dr. Patterson is a sociologist at Harvard with expertise in the Caribbean."

Reich and Patterson are now saying that the population of Hispaniola was "no more than a few tens of thousands of people" when Columbus arrived. As described in the rest of their column, their methodology sounds strong to us, but we have no way of knowing if their new estimate is correct.

What we were most struck by was their account of the genesis of those larger estimates. The professors say that earlier, much larger estimates were driven by "motivated reasoning"—by love of Storyline.

Where did those earlier, allegedly erroneous estimates comes from? According to Reich and Patterson, some scholars wanted to counter a myth in which European colonialism was OK because the Americas had been largely uninhabited.

Other scholars wanted to drive a related point. They wanted to emphasize the obvious fact that the arrival of Europeans tended to be disastrous for indigenous people.

In these throw-away comments, Reich and Patterson say that their scholarly colleagues were driven by Storyline as they composed their population estimates. Wanting to tell a certain story, they put their thumbs on the scale.

How many people were already there when Columbus arrived? Was the number as large as one million? Or was the number as low as nine thousand to eighty thousand, the range of possibilities which seems to be implied by another part of this column?

We don't know how many people were already there. But as we read this fascinating essay, we were struck by the portrait the professors drew of the role of Storyline.

"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is widely said to have said. Our work of the past twenty years has suggested an alternate anthropology:

We humans are the animal which put its thumbs on the scale.

This behavior is widely observed, even here in Our Town. In modern times, we in Our Town are especially inclined to behave this way with respect to matters of gender and race.

We don't think that this is a wise or winning play. We don't think this tendency serves progressive interests and human values. We expect to discuss this tendency at length in the coming year.

Millions were already here: As far as we know, many millions of people were already living in the Americas before Columbus arrived. 

Charles Mann told this paradigm-shattering story in his acclaimed book, 1491. It's one of the two or three most fascinating books we've read in the past twenty years.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, we don't know whether earlier scholars were right or wrong in their population estimates. If they were wrong, we don't know if any form of "motivated reasoning"—devotion to Storyline—helps explain their errors.

On what basis do Reich and Patterson feel they can say that earlier estimates were influenced by attraction to Storyline? We have no idea.

That said, we were struck by the ease with which this suggestion was made, even on the highest academic level. We should have noted the difficulties which attend such ascriptions of motive, but we were battling our failing computer every step of the way.

Storyline seems to drive much of what we humans do, even over here in Our Town. That's especially true of the way we approach race and gender over here. We expect to explore such important matters in the year ahead.


  1. "What role does Storyline play in human affairs?"

    There is always a storyline. The question is which storyline, not whether there is to be one or not.

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  2. "What we were most struck by was their account of the genesis of those larger estimates. The professors say that earlier, much larger estimates were driven by "motivated reasoning"—by love of Storyline."

    All thought is "driven by" motivated reasoning. One motive is to get as close to truth as possible. Another is to justify colonization. These researchers have a motive to prove the value of genetics-based analysis in determining historical accuracy.

    History, like the sciences, operates on the basis of consensus. When you have a variety of people contributing to shared knowledge, many with different motives and methods, you have a better chance at arriving at an understanding of reality that is independent of our human embeddedness in our own contexts, including the motives that accompany every action of our lives.

    Somerby naively thinks that there is some way of thinking that avoids this. He imposes a value judgment about having a thumb on the scales when there is no alternative.

    When Somerby goes off on this rant, I wonder whether he understood anything he read by the Greeks, who clearly understood that reality can only be perceived through the filter of human subjectivity. I wonder why Somerby never was taught that this does not preclude knowledge of reality distinct from human subjectivity because we have developed methods for overcoming our embeddedness, whether the field of study is history or anthropology or physics. Somerby pretends that this dooms all human thought when that is far from the truth, and Somerby devalues subjectivity when it is expressed in art and literature, because he ignores the author's meaning in order to bend their creations to his own purposes.

    It is hubris for Somerby to think that he alone has no storyline, that he has somehow escaped his own subjectivity, that he has the ability, much less the right, to judge others for having their own motives. That hubris is what makes it so painful to read his essays, which reek of assholery because he had the chance to understand how knowledge is created in the world and apparently muffed it.

    1. Left out the phrase "converging evidence." Sciences create a corpus of shared belief that consists of the results of hundreds or thousands of studies that result in that convergence on what is true in a field of study. Somerby thinks the variety of results in estimating the pre-colonial population of Hispaniola is a bad thing. It is, instead, an inevitable result and the closest estimate will emerge from the variety of sources, including this newest one (which cannot be presumed to be correct simply because it is the most recent).

  3. "We don't know how many people were already there."

    Whatever number were already there, the fact remains that they were decimated by contact with Spanish invaders. When you are talking about people being killed, does it matter if there were 10 or 10,000? If your reply is "yes," what is the moral foundation for that?

    Somerby should discuss Holocaust revisionism (or denialism) next. It is the same "motivated" revision of a past atrocity. Is the Holocaust less of an atrocity if you dispute the number of people killed? Why would it be?

  4. One tenet of historical thinking is that you must evaluate the events of the past in terms of the context in which they occurred, not impose the values of the present upon the past.

    However, that does not prevent us from using our understanding of past events to decide what is right to do in the present.

    Somerby suggests that current efforts to frame race and gender in new ways are "motivated thinking" or storyline, as if that were something to avoid. How does he know that it is today's approach that is incorrect, and not the past thinking that was wrong?

    Both race and gender differences propped up a social system that privileged certain people over others. Preserving that social structure was a motive that resulted in attributing characteristics to those in a less-privileged status to justify their lower position in society. Over time, subjected people have been eroding both that system and the myths that justified it. But Somerby sees that process as a bad thing, based on his complaint today.

    If Somerby were to consider the motivated thinking that gave men privilege and women a lesser status, he would see that there is little difference between a belief that too much education caused women physical problems that would interfere with bearing children, and a belief that women cannot hold top jobs or serve in the military because of their physiology (widely believed in the 1950s), to "Kamala Harris is a terrible candidate because she believes women earn less money than men in their jobs," something Somerby himself has said.

    Somerby supports the storyline that says women are awful at what they do, ignoring his own embeddedness and motivated thinking, his need to preserve his own ego and privilege as a failure in a female-dominated profession and his eagerness to keep women out of stand-up comedy and other male preserves. He puts his fingers all over that scale in what he writes here, with no insight into his own motives.

    Somerby has nothing to tell us about race and gender because he rejects the idea that he needs to reexamine his own thoughts on these subjects. This is going to be a long, long year, if he persists in trying to tell us that minorities and women need to sit down and shut up.

    1. "Somerby supports the storyline that says women are awful at what they do...his eagerness to keep women out of stand-up comedy...he persists in trying to tell us that minorities and women need to sit down and shut up."

      Looks like you found big a storyline there. Do you have more evidence other than his statement that Harris was a failed candidate, which seems to be a statement of fact.

    2. Yes, I once watched a video of him being interviewed in the green room before his stand-up act. There were other comedians in the room with him. He introduced the males and ignored the woman who was there.

      How is Harris a "failed candidate" given that she was just elected VP?

      There is lots of evidence that he doesn't like women. Stick around and pay attention. The most egregious was his attitude toward Chanel Miller, but he doesn't like Hillary, or Rachel Maddow, or Amanda Marcotte or Rebecca Traister, or any woman who insists there is a pay differential (even though the Dept of Labor has documented one), or most of the female journalists and book authors and professors, and he refused to acknowledge the way Trump bullies female reporters. Now he's going to talk about gender. That should be a hoot!

    3. He called Hillary a "failed candidate" even though she has been acknowledged as the most competent and well-qualified candidate ever nominated.

    4. He incessantly defended Hillary against unfair attacks by Dowd and Chris Matthews. So at best it's a mixed picture.

    5. No, it is not a mixed picture because he only defended Hillary in order to point out that the same thing happened to Al Gore. Somerby cares about Al Gore. He dislikes Hillary. He, to some extent, blames the Clintons for the attacks on Gore.

      If you remember his so-called defense of Hillary against Chris Matthews, you will recall that he also said that feminists did not defend Hillary, something that is entirely untrue. His attacks on Dowd and Matthews were part of a vendetta against an Irish "mafia" that he felt existed within the NBC organization, built by Jack Welch and headquartered in the Hamptons. Any defense of Hillary was purely incidental, as became clear when she ran on her own for the 2008 and 2016 nominations.

    6. Hillary was a failed candidate.

    7. @6:34 PM
      Yes, I once watched a video of him being interviewed in the green room before his stand-up act. There were other comedians in the room with him. He introduced the males and ignored the woman who was there."

      There could be lots of reasons for that, maybe he didn't know the women. Since hating B.S. seems to be your lifework, you should able to come up with more compelling evidence. Maybe you could go back through his more than 10,000 posts and give us a gender count of the people he criticized.

    8. You do the count yourself. It is the only way you will be convinced.

    9. Trump is a failed candidate, and a failed president.

    10. Pointedly, Somerby has indeed showered praise on two professional women:

      Tami Lahren and Kayleigh McEnany.


      Somerby once took a much younger woman out to lunch, he thought it might have been a date, she gently mocked him for such a silly notion, it was been slowly burning in his mind ever since.

    11. It's odd, but women generally don't like to go out with men who dislike and disrespect them.

  5. In a just world, Mitch McConnell and the GOP Senate would be forced to share their concerns about the deficit with the Chairmen of the nation's 20 largest defense contractors.

  6. The new estimate given in the piece by Reich and Patterson is the result of painstaking scientific research, made possible by DNA analysis. Thus, it has only been made possible by more recent scientific discoveries.

    When the authors describe the “motivated reasoning” for past population estimates, the only concrete example given was John Locke, who was not a scientist. But was Locke inventing numbers, or was he using numbers commonly cited at that time? The authors don’t say. For that matter, neither Columbus nor de las Casas were scientists either.

    The authors claim that “Modern scholars have generally estimated the population at 250,000 to a million people”, but they do not clearly accuse these unnamed scholars of motivated reasoning in their estimates. Again, it is only recent scientific developments that have allowed the population estimates that the authors cite.

  7. In 1500, there were 70 million people in Europe, including 3 million in England, an island about twice the size of Hispaniola (29,418 sq miles) and 8 million in Spain (195,314 sq miles).

    Reich & Patterson say: "A few years later his brother Bartholomew, who also traveled to the Americas, reported that Hispaniola had a large population whose labor and land could be put to the advantage of the Spanish crown. He estimated the population at 1.1 million people."

    This seems like a plausible number. The estimate of 250,000 seems low, given that contemporaneous accounts describe a lot of people (by then-current standards).

    Current attempts to minimize the decimation of indigenous people may be motivated by a desire to minimize the harm done by exploration and colonization. Why doesn't Somerby take that into account?

    Plague and sickness kept the European population artificially low during the 1400s. There was not a similar plague in the new world, so it would be expected that their population would be greater than, not considerably less than Europe's density.

    Where is Somerby's famous rationality when considering an idea he dislikes? Out the window, apparently. Reich's idea appeals to him, so he is uncritical about it and uses it as the standard to dismiss the ideas he dislikes. He is willing to call the ideas of others biased (which is what motivated storyline means) without examining his own biases.

    1. "it would be expected that their population would be greater than, not considerably less than Europe's density."

      Not if the two places had different types of development. The Spanish did not report any cities in Hispaniola, whereas they're were numerous cities in Europe and Asia. You would not expect places based on hunter-gathering and small-scale agriculture to have large and dense populations.

    2. Good theory, but England's economy was agricultural during that time period too. Most people did not live in large cities in England, or anywhere else in Europe.

      Characterizing indigenous people as akin to hunter-gatherer tribes in prehistoric times is wrong too. They don't get credit for their sophistication when people think of them as primitive.

    3. "Europe in 1500. The largest city in Europe in 1500 was Constantinople, but that had only 400,000 people. Only a few other cities approach the size of; say, Birmingham, Alabama, or Stockton, California, today: Paris had 200,000, Naples had 150,000, and Venice had l00,000."

    4. Cities do significantly increase a country's population size. They are a sign that agricultural output in the surrounding region is large enough to produce a surplus that can support a larger population.

      Portugal is slightly bigger than Hispaniola and it had a pop. of about 1M and one of Europe's significant port cities of 70K in 1500 with an extensive and prosperous ocean-going fishing fleet. I doubt that Hisp. could be expected to have a bigger population than Portugal.

    5. Why not?

      "Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Uaxactún, Copán, Bonampak, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Palenque and Río Bec; each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people. At its peak, the Maya population may have reached 2,000,000."

      "By the early 16th century, the Aztecs had come to rule over up to 500 small states, and some 5 to 6 million people, either by conquest or commerce. Tenochtitlán at its height had more than 140,000 inhabitants, and was the most densely populated city ever to exist in Mesoamerica."

      "It is estimated that the DeSoto expedition in the mid 1500s introduced epidemics which wiped out 75% of the Native American population. In the 1670s the Cherokee population was estimated at 50,000 but a series of smallpox epidemics in the early to mid 1700s cut this in half."

      It is difficult to estimate the size of indigenous populations in North America because early contacts with explorers brought small pox epidemics that greatly reduced their populations.

      The tendency to minimize the size and degree of civilization of the populations encountered by explorers to the Americas is self-serving.

    6. Mayan Empire: 120,000 square miles.
      Hispaniola: 30,000 square miles.

      Mayan Empire: 40 cities.
      Hispaniola: No cities.

      Mayan Empire: 2,000,000 people.
      Hispaniola: est. 100,000 - 1,000,000 people.

      My estimation that it wouldn't have more people than Portugal seems to be fair based on this comparison.

    7. You argued that there were no cities in the new world. My descriptions were aimed at that assumption.

      Eyewitnesses, from Europe, said there were over a million people in Hispaniola. Why is that not evidence of its population?

      Portugal was important for trade, but wasn't a large or populous country in the 1500s. Why would you focus on it? It seems like you plucked it out of thin air, except that it was the main perpetrator of the slave trade.

    8. There may have been cities in Hispaniola. There were large villages of 1-2k, these villages were often nearby other villages so that the area could reasonably be termed a city.

      These were sophisticated people with advanced agricultural abilities to feed large populations.

    9. Me: The Spanish did not report any cities in Hispaniola.
      You: You argued that there were no cities in the new world.

      Do you work for Fox News? The GOP? Trump?

    10. "These were sophisticated people..."

      Luckily for some of us, not sophisticated enough to invade and colonize Europe first.

  8. "We humans are the animal which put its thumbs on the scale"

    Meh. Humyns are fine, dear Bob. It's just you liberals, zombified to the extent where you have no touch with reality whatsoever.

    1. you have no touch with reality whatsoever.
      Umm...that's quite ironic coming from someone who claims -- and supports our dear leader's claims -- that the election was stolen. That's just solidly based on facts, just like QAnon.

  9. Apparently a group of human beings from Spain did terrible things to a group of human beings living on Hispaniola 500+ years ago. What application does this have to me today? Should I feel guilty? Should I feel aggrieved? I don't think so.

    1. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Someone said that. Your desire to be ignorant of the past is unfortunate and unworthy of anyone wanting to be taken seriously.

    2. You should support the movement to rename Columbus Day Indigenous People's Day.

    3. mh - I agree that it's important to know history. If my comment implied otherwise, I apologize.

    4. @1:09 I can see arguments for and against celebrating Columbus Day. But, why should I celebrate Indigenous People's Day? Is it some sort of a guilt trip?

    5. "...human beings from Spain did terrible things..."

      Meh. Whatever they did, we are pretty sure it was perfectly conventional by the standards of the day.

    6. David, this is why you should celebrate "Indigenous People's Day":

      "As far as we know, many millions of people were already living in the Americas before Columbus arrived."

      There were not many millions of Italians (or Spanish) living in what became the USA when Columbus arrived. There are still many millions of Indigenous people living in the USA and there has been very little recognition of their contribution to our nation. You should care about all of the people who make up our nation.

      But, being a Republican, the hallmark of your party is that you care only about yourself. Based on that logic, you shouldn't care about Columbus day either.

    7. Why do you celebrate anything? Do you celebrate Independence Day? Why? You don't become "independent" on July 4th.

    8. It is nice to get a day off work every once in a while.

    9. You should celebrate Indigenous People's Day because our genocide against them cleared the way for our current culture. They had a really great culture that wasn't based exclusively on money and economic value like ours is. Wiping it out was bad karma. Paying respects to it would be a great thing for us psychologically.

      But we only do things if it has to do with money. Doing anything for moral, mystical, psychological, karmic or spiritual reasons is something we killed off with the Indians.

      All we care about is money. As you well know.

    10. Apparently a group of (white) human beings from the USA did terrible things to a group of (black) human beings living in the USA. What application does this have to David in Cal today? Should David in Cal feel guilty that the Republican Party suppresses the votes of black people in a representative democracy? Should David in Cal feel aggrieved? David in Cal doesn't think so.

  10. Somerby apparently believes that racism essentially no longer exists. He has scoffed at the idea that racism is a factor when black people are killed by police. His unwillingness to entertain even the possibility is his own way of putting his thumb on the scales as a way of countering “liberal” arguments.

    1. I don't believe that this is an accurate description of Somerby's views. He does believe that racism exists, but the police shootings, which are quite rare, are not the true representation of the racism issue. The true picture is much more diffuse and, largely, hidden from view. If one were just focus on the police shootings, then you'd miss the bigger picture. In fact, the police shootings on a statistical level fail to demonstrate the pervasive bias of our society.

    2. No one has argued that anyone should "just focus on the police shootings". It was given as one example of Somerby's bias -- there are quite a few others. For example, Somerby doesn't believe in microaggressions either, or in job discrimination or in school segregation.

      If Somerby won't acknowledge the most flagrant examples of bias, it is hard to argue that he recognizes the more subtle ones, such as internet dating website bias or AI algorithm bias or covid vaccine availability bias.

  11. Fox News is running that story about the life-ruiner, the one Somerby complained about when it appeared in the NY Times:

    As a liberal, I would be concerned if I found myself repeating the same ideas as I heard on Fox News.

  12. "philosopher John Locke, said that the Americas were a vast “vacuum domicilium,” or empty dwelling, populated by a handful of Indigenous groups whose displacement could be readily justified."

    Reminds me of a more recent storyline use to justify displacement of n indigenous population: "A land without a people for a people without a land.",the%2019th%20and%2020th%20centuries.&text=Anita%20Shapira%20wrote%20that%20it,beginning%20of%20the%20twentieth%20century.%22

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