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Take up the White Man’s burden— 
The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease
(Rudyard Kipling [1899])

Demographic Collapse - 1520–1620

The Spanish Conquest of the Americas was one of the most significant human events in terms of natural and cultural consequences. When Francisco Pizarro and his small band of Spanish conquistadores landed in northern Peru in A.D. 1532 to begin their conquest of the vast Inca Empire, they initiated profound changes in the culture, language, technology, economics, and demography of western South America.

R. Alan Covey notes that expanding empires have often justified territorial annexation and colonial administration in ideological terms, touting the salubrious effects of bringing civilization, salvation, and security to the benighted margins of their worlds. Rather than alleviating native conditions of internal warfare, pestilence, and famine, the intrusion and policies of colonial empires frequently introduced or intensified them, with devastating consequences for millions of rural farmers and herders living in colonized regions. The dynamics and intensity of imperial disruption are complex, depending on local social and environmental conditions, the ideologies and policies of expanding states, and the degree of resistance to diseases spread by colonists and their domesticated animals.

R. Alan Covey, Geoff Childs, and Rebecca Kippen note that "Cusco is an ideal region to dispense with the myth of benevolent state expansion. The Inkas conquered many neighboring groups by force, bullied friends and allies, and forcibly resettled many local populations in unstable peripheral regions. Inka nobles expropriated land and labor to develop royal estates, staffing their private properties with people who were permanently dislocated from functioning provincial communities—the Yucay yanakuna are the best known of these subordinated populations." The Columbian encounter brought together two worlds that, in their separation over the previous thousands of years, had experienced drastically different disease histories. While the Americas may have had more people than Europe (estimates range between 30-100 million for the Americas and 50-80 million in Europe) the overall population of the Eastern Hemisphere was larger and diseases more prevalent.

Europe, Africa, and Asia were the source of smallpox, measles, whooping cough, bubonic plague, malaria, diphtheria, amoebic dysentery, and influenza, all of which were unknown in the Americas—while an American disease, syphilis, was quickly spread eastward where it caused great suffering and death. The peoples of the Eastern Hemisphere had built up immunities to their own diseases to varying degrees, but American peoples had no immunity to the imported diseases and were struck down by the millions.

Throughout the Americas, the impact of the Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization was to bring about a cataclysmic demographic collapse of the indigenous population. The Andes would be no exception. Even before the appearance of Francisco Pizarro on the Peruvian coast, the lethal diseases that had been introduced into the Americas with the arrival of the Spaniards — smallpox, malaria, measles, typhus, influenza, and even the common cold—had spread to South America and begun to wreak havoc throughout Tawantinsuyu. Indeed, the death of Huayna Capac and his legitimate son and heir, Ninan Cuyoche, which touched off the disastrous dynastic struggles between Huascar and Atahualpa, is believed to have been the result of a smallpox or measles epidemic that struck in 1530-31.

With an estimated population of 9 to 16 million people prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Peru's population forty years later was reduced on average by about 80 percent, generally higher on the coast than in the highlands. The chronicler Pedro de Cieza de Leon, who traveled over much of Peru during this period, was particularly struck by the extent of the depopulation along the coast. "The inhabitants of this valley [Chincha, south of Lima]," he wrote, "were so numerous that many Spaniards say that when it was conquered by the Marquis [Pizarro] and themselves, there were . . . more than 25,000 men, and I doubt that there are now 5,000, so many have been the inroads and hardships they have suffered."

The deeply-incised valley of the Colca River is 100 km north of the city of Arequipa in the southern Peruvian Andes. Despite unfavorable climatic conditions, Colca Valley landforms and soils offered pre-Columbian farmers opportunities to practice permanent agriculture in an environment few Westerners would consider hospitable to farming. Snow-covered peaks flanking the valley are permanent repositories of moisture, and farmers capture snow melt during the planting season using complex systems of canals and channelized streams. Slopes between series of ancient alluvial plains are heavily terraced to take advantage of the thermal belt between higher cold regions and the lower frost-prone alluvial plains.

There appear to have been historical reasons for the development of sophisticated agriculture in the valley, although the archaeological sequences needed to clarify the valley's history are not yet well defined. The village of Coporaque is one of several villages in the Colca Valley. Coporaqueilos believe the genesis of terracing in the valley was due to the need to create level surfaces to irrigate maize.

Over 40 percent of all agricultural fields in the Colca Valley are abandoned, and two-thirds of all abandoned fields are terraces, supporting widespread speculation that similar percentages of terraces elsewhere in the Andes are now uncultivated. Discovering why terraces are abandoned bears heavily on the future of reconstruction efforts. Post-conquest depopulation, Spanish resettlement policies, loss of irrigation management skills, crop changes, and climatic change are possible causes of terrace abandonment in the Colca region, and these may also apply to other areas of abandoned terracing.

The Coporaque data indicate abandonment was not unicausal nor within one historical epoch. The demographic collapse following the Spanish conquest, when the pre-Hispanic population of over 70,000 dwindled to less than 5,000 by the mid-eighteenth century. There is compelling reason to believe agricultural production also diminished substantially. Since current population levels in the Colca Valley have yet to reach pre-Hispanic levels, land loss may be linked to demographic collapse.

Demographic anthropologists Henry F. Dobyns and Paul L. Doughty estimated that the native American population fell to about 8.3 million by 1548 and to around 2.7 million in 1570. Unlike Mexico, where the population stabilized at the end of the seventeenth century, the population in Peru did not reach its lowest point until the latter part of the eighteenth century, after the great epidemic of 1719. War, exploitation, socioeconomic change, and the generalized psychological trauma of conquest all combined to reinforce the main contributor to the demise of the native peoples—epidemic disease.

The Spanish Conquest in Peru, starting in 1532 A.D., resulted in extreme depopulation of the Chira coast within a century of the conquest (4, p. 125), which drastically changed the local economy, devastating traditional coastal shellfish harvesting.

Isolated from the Old World for millennia and therefore lacking immunities, the Andean peoples were defenseless against the deadly diseases introduced by the Europeans. Numerous killer pandemics swept down from the north, laying waste to entire communities. Occurring one after the other in roughly ten-year intervals during the sixteenth century (1525, 1546, 1558-59, 1585), these epidemics did not allow the population time to recover and impaired its ability to reproduce itself.

Modern demographic histories of colonial Peru and Upper Peru (present-day Bolivia) indicate that the population began to recover beginning sometime between 1710 and 1730, and the population of the colony continued to grow as the century progressed.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2016 20:52:16 ZULU