In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Post-Conquest Demographic Collapse

  • Introduction
  • Edited Volumes
  • Source Material for Population Estimates
  • Precontact Culture and Society
  • Precontact Morbidity and Mortality
  • Early Historical Demography
  • Debates in Historical Demography
  • Regional Population Estimates
  • History of Contact by Region
  • Vectors of Disease
  • Regional Patterns of Post-Contact Disease
  • Cultural Implications of Conquest
  • Region-Specific Cultural Factors
  • Skeletal Studies
  • Post-Contact Genetic Admixture

Latin American Studies Post-Conquest Demographic Collapse
Douglas Ubelaker, Keitlyn E. Alcantara
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0134


The post-contact demographic collapse is firmly documented in Latin America but not fully understood. Much academic discussion has appropriately concentrated on the numbers. Assessments focusing on population size at contact and timing and dimensions of the populational nadir have struggled with obtaining accurate and realistic population counts, with the gradual realization that the nadir varied throughout Latin America. An understanding of this variation calls for comprehensive and integrated information on the nature of epidemic disease, genetics, history, human skeletal biology, archeological evidence, and cultural factors. Such an understanding must avoid superficial, naïve generalizations but rather seek synthesis of the diverse relevant data with an appreciation for regional variation and nuance. This bibliography was compiled with these general considerations in mind. The resources begin with Edited Volumes, because many syntheses originate from such broad, interdisciplinary efforts. Primary sources then present a sampling of the type of evidence used for historical evaluation (Source Material for Population Estimates). Precontact Culture and Society provides some sense of the cultural and demographic landscape on the eve of European contact. Precontact Morbidity and Mortality adds important detail from studies of human skeletal biology, and ethnohistoric and archival records. Early Historical Demography examines variations of the population-size impact of initial European contact. Because this scholarly area has proven controversial, Debates in Historical Demography presents different points of view on the methodology employed. Regional Population Estimates reveals how assessments have been made within different areas of Latin America employing a range of academic approaches. History of Contact by Region evaluates the effect of timing and circumstances on contact throughout Latin America. Vectors of Disease provides a scholarly examination of the nature of the influential diseases themselves. Regional Patterns of Post-Contact Disease documents the varied ways that disease affected aboriginal populations throughout Latin America. Cultural Implications of Conquest and Region-Specific Cultural Factors focus on important cultural factors that influenced demographic collapse and contributed to regional variation. Skeletal Studies examines the evidence for morbidity and mortality presented by the skeletal remains of the affected populations. Finally, Post-Contact Genetic Admixture documents contributions from population genetics. This selection of predominantly English works is not intended to reflect the available literature but rather material that can be used to establish a solid overview of the topic. Many Spanish-language sources provide detailed, region-specific studies and should be consulted for more intensive scholarly research. Similarly, while online resources certainly exist, at this time the following sources were thought to provide the most appropriate material for the topic at hand.

Edited Volumes

Understanding the complexity of demographic collapse in Latin America demands an overview of bioarchaeology, human skeletal biology, archaeology, history, archival studies, demography, epidemiology, pathology, and related fields of study. Several key edited volumes have been instrumental in bringing together the diverse scholarship involved in holistic interpretation, such as Bray 1993 and Cook and Lovell 1991, while others provide a synthetic view of specific topics, such as population estimates in Denevan 1992 and disease factors in Kiple 1993, Kiple and Beck 1997, Swedlund and Armelagos 1990, and Verano and Ubelaker 1992. Kepecs and Alexander 2005 use archaeological and historical material to create a chronological overview of demographic change in Mesoamerica. The scholarly inclusive nature of these volumes has broken new academic ground and made them required reading for anyone entering this field. Too often, scholars concentrate on topics within their own academic areas and ignore relevant perspective from other fields. The following edited volumes break down these barriers to reveal the complexity and interface of the diverse information involved.

  • Bray, Warwick, ed. The Meeting of Two Worlds: Europe and the Americas, 1492–1650. Proceedings of the British Academy 81. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    This assemblage of essays covers a variety of post-contact topics in an effort to present a general summary of the European and indigenous experience. Useful for individuals interested in an overview that touches on multiple viewpoints and aspects.

  • Cook, Noble David, and W. George Lovell, eds. “Secret Judgments of God”: Old World Disease in Colonial Spanish America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

    An edited collection using region-specific essays to disentangle the distinct contexts of post-contact disease outbreaks. Concentrating on indigenous and colonial cultures, ecology, demography, health, levels of violence, and social organization, this volume affirms the complex and varied circumstances of demographic collapse. Regions include Central Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. See also Regional Patterns of Post-Contact Disease.

  • Denevan, William M., ed. The Native Population of the Americas in 1492. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Predominantly concentrates on precontact Latin American population estimates. Gives a good overview of methods of estimation, estimates by region, and estimates for the Americas as a whole. Useful volume for those with little experience in the topic who require background regarding previous approximations and the debates surrounding them. See also Debates in Historical Demography.

  • Kepecs, Susan, and Rani T. Alexander, eds. The Postclassic to Spanish-Era Transition in Mesoamerica: Archaeological Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

    Broadly appraises the many transitions occurring in Mesoamerica from the post-classic to colonial eras. Combining historical and archaeological evidence, the contributing authors examine the multitude of cultural shifts that made up the widespread changes in Mesoamerican life after contact. See also Region-Specific Cultural Factors.

  • Kiple, Kenneth F., ed. The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521332866

    Encyclopedic reference of human disease. Helpful chapters on the disease ecology of South America (Section VII.9, pages 535–543) and disease in the New World (Sections V.8, V.9, and V.10, pages 305–333). Descriptions of specific diseases provide such details as history of transmission, environmental factors, vectors, and symptoms. Valuable for understanding the impact and spread of post-contact disease. See also Precontact Morbidity and Mortality and Vectors of Disease.

  • Kiple, Kenneth F., and Stephen V. Beck, eds. Biological Consequences of the European Expansion, 1450–1800. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate/Variorum, 1997.

    Compilation on the topic of disease following European contact. Originally published in a variety of noteworthy journals, these articles provide an overview of influential sources in this area of study. The majority of articles focus on Latin America, although Australia, Europe, and North America are also discussed. See also Vectors of Disease.

  • Swedlund, Alan C., and George J. Armelagos, eds. Disease in Populations in Transition: Anthropological and Epidemiological Perspectives. New York: Bergin & Garvey, 1990.

    Selection of essays discussing the adaptive responses of populations in transition worldwide and across time. Touches on topics that are often overlooked in epidemiology, such as social change, environmental change, and genetics. Maintains a productive, broad perspective, recognizing the frequency and complexity of transition and culture exchange in human history. See also Skeletal Studies.

  • Verano, John W., and Douglas H. Ubelaker, eds. Disease and Demography in the Americas. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

    Authors interpret the bioarchaeology and ethnohistory of pre- and post-contact disease and health and the role of population estimates in understanding these topics. Overviews include the limits and applications of bioarchaeology and historical sources. Latin American regions of discussion include the Andes and the Amazon. See also Precontact Morbidity and Mortality, Regional Patterns of Post-Contact Disease, and Skeletal Studies.

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