Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Carl Sauer and Native American Population Size

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Carl Sauer and Native American Population Size

Article excerpt

Historical demography is not usually considered to have been a major research interest for Carl Sauer. Nevertheless, Sauer in his publications and lectures on New World Indians consistently maintained that when the Europeans arrived the natives were not only prosperous and well balanced ecologically but also numerous. His only serious research on contact numbers was for Northwest Mexico in the early 1930s. However, that work had a significant influence on colleagues and students at the University of California, Berkeley, and contributed to a shift from an establishment view of very low Indian numbers to the general acceptance today of much larger numbers, both regionally and for the hemisphere (West 1979, 77).(1) Many geographers have been involved in this shift, reflecting a particular geographical perspective which largely originated with Sauer. Here I will examine Sauer's research on Indian demography and his influence on other scholars working on the question of Indian numbers.


In 1560 the Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas estimated that 40 million Indians had died in Latin America between 1492 and 1560, a figure long considered a gross exaggeration (Denevan 1976b, 35-36). However, in the 1920s three scholars with deep experience in the field, literature, and archaeology of Native Americans argued, largely intuitively, for New World populations at the time of Columbus of between 37 and 50 million. These were the geographer Karl Sapper (1924) and the anthropologists Paul Rivet (and others 1924) and Herbert Spinden (1928). The ensuing controversy stimulated region-by-region or culture-by-culture examinations of available evidence, initially by the ethnologist James Mooney (1928) and by the philologist Angel Rosenblat (1935). These led to similar conservative hemispheric estimates that remained the dominant view for the next three decades: 8.4 million by the Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (1934, 1939); 13.4 million by Rosenblat (1935); and 15.6 million by the anthropologist Julian Steward (1949). All three relied on the earliest actual counts available, assumed no significant prior decline from introduced disease, and considered estimates by initial observers unreliable.

At the same time (1927-1935), however, Carl Sauer and his students Donald Brand, Fred Kniffen, and, particularly, Peveril Meigs were publishing field and archive studies on mission and Indian pueblo populations in Northwest Mexico that were to cast great doubts on the Mooney-Kroeber-Rosenblat figures, methods, and assumptions.

Also at Berkeley during the early 1930s were Steward, who later presented his case for low numbers of Indians in the Handbook of South American Indians (1949), and Sherburne Cook, who in 1937 published the first systematic study of Indian population decline due to European epidemic diseases. All of these faculty members and graduate students interacted, but out of that time and place developed two fully opposed interpretations of Indian numbers at contact in the New World: the conservative estimates of Kroeber and Steward; and the liberal estimates of Sauer, Meigs, Cook, and later Lesley Simpson, Woodrow Borah, Homer Aschmann, and others. The assumptions of the two groups were different and irreconcilable regarding early declines and eyewitness reliability. The early story can only be hinted at here by means of the published record and from correspondence with the few surviving participants.


Sauer began field trips into Baja California and Northwest Mexico in the summer of 1926, with students Meigs, Kniffen, and Samuel Dicken. They examined the ruins of pre-Hispanic and Spanish settlements, among them the Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missions, as part of a larger interest in the expansion of Spanish culture. Research on the mission documents, particularly baptismal records, led to an indication of the numbers of Indians present at various dates. …

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