Empire and global climate change
Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin, Simon Lewis, January 31, 2019, The Conversation
While Europe was in the early days of the Renaissance, there were empires in the Americas sustaining more than 60m people. But the first European contact in 1492 brought diseases to the Americas which devastated the native population and the resultant collapse of farming in the Americas was so significant that it may have even cooled the global climate.
The number of people living in North, Central and South America when Columbus arrived is a question that researchers have been trying to answer for decades. Unlike in Europe and China, no records on the size of indigenous societies in the Americas before 1492 are preserved. To reconstruct population numbers, researchers rely on the first accounts from European eyewitnesses and, in records from after colonial rule was established, tribute payments known as “encomiendas”. This taxation system was only established after European epidemics had ravaged the Americas, so it tells us nothing about the size of pre-colonial populations.
Early accounts by European colonists are likely to have overestimated settlement sizes and population to advertise the riches of their newly discovered lands to their feudal sponsors in Europe. But by rejecting these claims and focusing on colonial records instead, extremely low population estimates were published in the early 20th century which counted the population after disease had ravaged it.