Demographic history

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Demographic history is the reconstructed record of human population in the past. Given the lack of population records prior to the 1950s, there are many gaps in our record of demographic history. Historical demographers must make do with estimates, models and extrapolations. For the demographic methodology, see historical demography.

Graph showing population by continent as a percentage of world population (1750 - 2005)

Historical population of the world[edit]

Population of the world from 10,000 BC to 2000 AD (logarithmic scale)

Estimating the ancestral population of anatomically modern humans, Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones chose bounds based on gorilla and chimpanzee population densities of 1/km2 and 3-4/km2,[1] respectively, then assumed that as Homo erectus moved up the food chain, they lost an order of magnitude in density. With a habitat of 68 million km2 ("the Old World south of latitude 50° north, minus Australia"), Homo erectus could have numbered around 1.7 million individuals. After being replaced by Homo sapiens and moving into the New World and de-glaciated territory, by 10,000 BC world population was approaching four million people.[2] McEvedy and Jones argue that, after populating the maximum available range, this was the limit of our food-gathering ancestors, with further population growth requiring food-producing activities.[3]

The initial population "upswing" began around 5000 BC. Global population gained 50% in the 5th millennium BC, and 100% each millennium until 1000 BC, reaching 50 million people. After the beginning of the Iron Age, growth rate reached its peak with a doubling time of 500 years. However, growth slackened between 500 BC and 1 AD, before ceasing around 200 AD. This "primary cycle" was, at this time in history, confined to Europe, North Africa, and mainland Asia.[4] McEvedy and Jones describe a secondary, "medieval cycle" being led by feudal Europe and Song China from around 900 AD.[5]

During the period from 500 to 900 world population grew slowly but the growth rate accelerated between 900 and 1300 when the population doubled. During the 14th century, there was a fall in population associated with the Black Death that spread from Asia to Europe. This was followed by a period of restrained growth for 300 years.[6]

John F. Richards estimated the following world populations from the early modern period, 1500–1800.[7]

  • 1500 world population 400-500 million
  • 1600 world population 500-600 million
  • 1700 world population 600-700 million
  • 1800 world population 850-950 million

In the 18th century world population entered a period of accelerated growth. European population reached a peak growth rate of 10 per thousand per year in the second half of the 19th century. During the 20th century, the growth rate among the European populations fell and was overtaken by a rapid acceleration in the growth rate in other continents, which reached 21 per thousand per year in the last 50 years of the millennium. Between 1900 and 2000, the population of the world increased by 277%, a fourfold increase from 1.5 billion to 6 billion. The European component increased by 124%, and the remainder by 349%.[6]



The Indian population was about 100 million in 1500. Under the Mughal Empire, the population rose to 160 million in 1700 by 1800 the population rose to 185 million.[8] Mughal India had a relatively high degree of urbanization for its time, with 15% of its population living in urban centres, higher than the percentage of the urban population in contemporary Europe at the time and higher than that of British India in the 19th century.[9] Under the British Raj, the population reached 255 million according to the census taken in 1881.[10][11][12][13]

Studies of India's population since 1881 have focused on such topics as total population, birth and death rates, growth rates, geographic distribution, literacy, the rural and urban divide, cities of a million, and the three cities with populations over eight million: Delhi, Greater Mumbai (Bombay), and Kolkata (Calcutta).[14]

Mortality rates fell in 1920-45 era, primarily due to biological immunization. Other factors included rising incomes and better living conditions, improved better nutrition, a safer and cleaner environmental, and better official health policies and medical care.[15]

Severe overcrowding in the cities caused major public health problems, as noted in an official report from 1938:[16]

In the urban and industrial areas ... cramped sites, the high values of land and the necessity for the worker to live in the vicinity of his work ... all tend to intensify congestion and overcrowding. In the busiest centres houses are built close together, eave touching eave, and frequently back to back .... Indeed space is so valuable that, in place of streets and roads, winding lanes provide the only approach to the houses. Neglect of sanitation is often evidenced by heaps of rotting garbage and pools of sewage, whilst the absence of latrines enhance the general pollution of air and soil.


China has older bureaucratic records than any other country.[17] For example, Chinese imperial examinations can be dated back to 165 AD.[18] British Economist Angus Maddison estimated Asia's past populations through detailed analysis of China's bureaucratic records and the country's past gross domestic product.[19]

Population of Asia 1-1820 C.E. (million)

Source: Maddison[19]

Year 1 1000 1500 1600 1700 1820
China 59.6 59.0 103.0 160.0 138.0 381.0
India 75.0 75.0 110.0 135.0 165.0 209.0
Japan 3.0 7.5 15.4 18.5 27.0 31.0
Korea 1.6 3.9 8.0 10.0 12.2 13.8
Indonesia 2.8 5.2 10.7 11.7 13.1 17.9
Indochina 1.1 2.2 4.5 5.0 5.9 8.9
Other East Asia 5.9 9.8 14.4 16.9 19.8 23.6
Iran 4.0 4.5 4.0 5.0 5.0 6.6
Turkey 6.1 7.3 6.3 7.9 8.4 10.1
Other West Asia 15.1 8.5 7.5 8.5 7.4 8.5
Total Asia 174.2 182.9 283.8 378.5 401.8 710.4

In the 15th century, China had approximately 100 million population.[20] During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, China experienced a high population increase. From the years 1749 to 1811 the population doubled from approximately 177 million to 358 million.[21] Advances in China's agriculture made feeding such a growing population possible. However, by 1815 increased rice prices caused landless households to favor feeding male infants which caused an increase in infant female mortality.[22] Middle class households did the opposite due to their higher economic means and their infant female mortality rate declined.[23] The rising cost of rice additionally affected the adult demographics, adult male mortality rate increased more than the adult female mortality rate.[24]

The growing population of China continued into the 21st century. The country continued to face the strenuous issue of how to feed its ever-growing population. In 1979 extreme reform was put into place with the implementation of China's one-child policy.[25]

Early modern Europe[edit]

The population of early modern Europe, circa 1600 is estimated as follows (per Karl Julius Beloch,[26] except for Russia for which Vodarsky's estimate is provided[27]):

  • Italy, 13,000,000
  • Spain and Portugal, 10,000,000
  • France, 16,000,000, in its boundaries in 1600[28]
  • England and Wales, 4,500,000
  • Scotland and Ireland, 2,000,000
  • Netherlands, 3,000,000, including the Spanish Netherlands in 1600[29]
  • Denmark, 600,000
  • Sweden, Norway, and Finland: 1,400,000
  • Poland with Prussia: 3,000,000
  • Germany: 20,000,000, probably including most or all of the territory of the Holy Roman Empire outside Italy.[30]
  • Russia: 7,000,000 (the population of the Tsardom of Russia within the 1600 borders)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Colin McEvedy; Richard Jones (June 29, 1978). Atlas of World Population History. p. 13.
  2. ^ Colin McEvedy; Richard Jones (June 29, 1978). Atlas of World Population History. p. 14.
  3. ^ Colin McEvedy; Richard Jones (June 29, 1978). Atlas of World Population History. p. 15.
  4. ^ Colin McEvedy; Richard Jones (June 29, 1978). Atlas of World Population History. p. 343.
  5. ^ Colin McEvedy; Richard Jones (June 29, 1978). Atlas of World Population History. p. 345.
  6. ^ a b Historical Demography in Encyclopedia of Public Health, Retrieved on 3 May 2005
  7. ^ Richards, John F. (1997). "Early Modern India and World History". Journal of World History. 8 (2): 197–209. doi:10.1353/jwh.2005.0071. ISSN 1527-8050. S2CID 143582665.
  8. ^ Colin McEvedy; Richard Jones (1978). Atlas of World Population History (PDF). New York: Facts on File. pp. 184–185.
  9. ^ Abraham Eraly (2007), The Mughal World: Life in India's Last Golden Age, page 5, Penguin Books
  10. ^ Anatole Romaniuk, "Glimpses of Indian Historical Demography." Canadian Studies in Population 40.3-4 (2014): 248-251. Online
  11. ^ Parameswara Krishnan, Glimpses of Indian Historical Demography (Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation 2010) ISBN 978-8176466387
  12. ^ Kingsley Davis, The Population of India and Pakistan (Princeton University Press, 1951).
  13. ^ Kingsley Davis, "The population of India." Far Eastern Survey (1943): 76-79. in JSTOR
  14. ^ J.H. Khan, "Population growth and demographic change in India," Asian Profile (2004) 32#5 pp 441-460
  15. ^ Ira Klein, "Population growth and mortality in British India: Part II: The demographic revolution," Indian Economic Social History Review (1990) 27#1 pp 33-63 doi: 10.1177/001946469002700102 Online
  16. ^ Klein, "Population growth and mortality in British India: Part II: The demographic revolution," p 42
  17. ^ Creel, H. G. (1964). "The Beginnings of Bureaucracy in China: The Origin of the Hsien". The Journal of Asian Studies. 23 (2): 155–184. doi:10.2307/2050130. ISSN 0021-9118. JSTOR 2050130.
  18. ^ Creel, H. G. (1964). "The Beginnings of Bureaucracy in China: The Origin of the Hsien". The Journal of Asian Studies. 23 (2): 156. doi:10.2307/2050130. ISSN 0021-9118. JSTOR 2050130.
  19. ^ a b Maddison, Angus. "Growth of World Population, GDP and GDP Per Capita before 1820" (PDF).
  20. ^ "The origins of the modern world: a global and environmental narrative from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century". Choice Reviews Online. 53 (4): 53–1875. 2015-11-18. doi:10.5860/choice.191856. ISSN 0009-4978.
  21. ^ "Issues and Trends in China's Demographic History | Asia for Educators | Columbia University". Retrieved 2020-08-31.
  22. ^ Bengtsson, Tommy; Campbell, Cameron; Lee, James Z. (2004). Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900. The MIT Press. p. 433. doi:10.7551/mitpress/4227.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-262-26809-7.
  23. ^ Bengtsson, Tommy; Campbell, Cameron; Lee, James Z. (2004). Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900. The MIT Press. p. 433. doi:10.7551/mitpress/4227.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-262-26809-7.
  24. ^ Bengtsson, Tommy; Campbell, Cameron; Lee, James Z. (2004). Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900. The MIT Press. p. 434. doi:10.7551/mitpress/4227.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-262-26809-7.
  25. ^ Howden, David; Zhou, Yang (2015). "Why Did China's Population Grow so Quickly?". The Independent Review. 20 (2): 227–248. ISSN 1086-1653. JSTOR 24562066.
  26. ^ Julius Beloch, "Die Bevölkerung Europas zur Zeit der Renaissance" in Zeitschrift für Socialwissenschaft, 1900, pp. 765 to 786.
  27. ^ Gorskaya, Natalia (1994). Историческая демография России эпохи феодализма: итоги и проблемы изучения (in Russian). Наука. pp. 93–96. ISBN 9785020097506.
  28. ^ Beloch gives it an area of 470,000 km2, too small for France in 1900.
  29. ^ Beloch gives it an area of 75,000 km2, enough to include Belgium and possibly even Luxemburg.
  30. ^ Beloch gives it an area of 720,000 km2, about twice the size of modern Germany.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cipolla, Carlo M. The economic history of world population (1974 online free
  • Fogel, Robert W. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World (2004)
  • Fogel, Robert W. Explaining Long-Term Trends in Health and Longevity (2014)
  • Lee, Ronald. " The Demographic Transition: Three Centuries of Fundamental Change," Journal of Economic Perspectives (2003) 17#4 pp. 167–190 online
  • Livi-Bacci, Massimo. A concise history of world population (Wiley, 2012) excerpt
  • McEvedy, Colin. Atlas of World Population History (1978) Basic graphs of total population for every region of the globe from 400 BC to 2000 AD online free
  • Wrigley, E.A. Population and History (1976)


  • Bagnall, R.S. and Frier, B.W. The Demography of Roman Egypt (1994) Using data on family registers during the first three centuries AD, and modern demographic methods and models. Reconstructs the patterns of mortality, marriage, fertility, and migration.
  • Scheidel, Walter, ed. Debating Roman Demography (Brill: Leiden, 2001)
  • *Scheidel, Walter. Roman Population Size: The Logic of the Debate, July 2007, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics


  • Davis, Kingsley. The Population of India and Pakistan (1951) Snippets
  • Dyson, Tim, ed. India's Historical Demography: Studies in Famine, Disease and Society (, London: Curzon, 1989)
    • Mari Bhat, P. N. "Mortality and fertility in India, 1881–1961: a reassessment." in India's Historical Demography (1989).
  • Hanley, Susan B., and Kozo Yamamura. Economic and demographic change in pre-industrial Japan 1600-1868 (1977).
  • Krishnan, Parameswara. Glimpses of Indian Historical Demography (Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation 2010) ISBN 978-8176466387
  • Lee, James Z. and Feng Wang. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000 (2002); argues China's marital fertility was far below European levels esp, because of infanticide and abortion, as well as lower rates of marriage for men, low rates of marital fertility, and high rates of adoption
  • Peng, Xizhe. "China’s demographic history and future challenges." Science 333.6042 (2011): 581–587.
  • Taeuber, Irene Barnes. The population of Japan (1958).


  • Eversley, D. E. C. An Introduction to English Historical Demography (1966)
  • Houston, R. A. The Population History of Britain and Ireland 1500-1750 (1995)
  • Lindert, Peter H. "English living standards, population growth, and Wrigley-Schofield." Explorations in Economic History 20.2 (1983): 131–155.
  • Wrigley, Edward Anthony, and Roger S. Schofield. The population history of England 1541-1871 (Cambridge University Press, 1989)
  • Wrigley, E. A. ed. English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837 (1997)

Western Europe[edit]

  • Cain, L.P. and DG Paterson. The Children of Eve: Population and Well-being in History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) 391 pp.; Covers Europe and North America
  • Flinn, Michael W. The European Demographic System, 1500-1820 (1981)
  • Glass, David V. and David E.C. Eversley, Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, London: Edward E. Arnold, 1965
    • Henry, Louis. "The population of France in the eighteenth century." Population in History pp 441+
  • Herlihy, David. "Population, Plague and Social Change in Rural Pistoia, 1201–1430." Economic History Review (1965) 18#2 pp: 225–244. [ in JSTOR], on Italy
  • Imhof, Arthur E. "Historical demography as social history: possibilities in Germany." Journal of family history (1977) 2#4 pp: 305–332.
  • Kelly, Morgan, and Cormac Ó Gráda. "Living standards and mortality since the middle ages." Economic History Review (2014) 67#2 pp: 358–381.
  • Knodel, John. "Two and a half centuries of demographic history in a Bavarian village." Population studies 24.3 (1970): 353–376. Online
  • Livi Bacci, Massimo et al. Population and Nutrition: An Essay on European Demographic History (Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time) (1991).
  • Russell, Josiah Cox. "Late ancient and medieval population." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1958): 1–152. in JSTOR
  • Walter, John W. and Roger Schofield, eds. Famine, Disease and the Social Order in Early Modern Society (1991)

Eastern Europe[edit]

  • Katus, Kalev. "Demographic trends in Estonia throughout the centuries." Yearbook of Population Research in Finland 28 (1990): 50–66.
  • Katus, Kalev, et al. "Fertility Development in the Baltic Countries Since 1990: a Transformation in the Context of Long-term Trends." Finnish Yearbook of Population Research 44 (2009): 7-32.
  • Lutz, Wolfgang, and Sergei Scherbov, eds. Demographic Trends and Patterns in the Soviet Union Before 1991 (1993)
  • McCarthy, Justin. Population history of the Middle East and the Balkans (Isis Press, 2002)

Latin America[edit]

  • Cook, Noble David. Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520-1620 (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Sanchez-Albornoz, Nicolas, and W.A.R. Richardson. Population of Latin America: A History (1974)

Middle East[edit]

  • Karpat, Kemal H. Ottoman Population, 1830-1914: Demographic and Social Characteristics (1985)
  • McCarthy, Justin. Population history of the Middle East and the Balkans (Isis Press, 2002)
  • Todorov, Nikolai. "The Historical Demography of the Ottoman Empire: Problems and Tasks." in Dimitrije Djordjević, and Richard B. Spence, eds. Scholar, Patriot, Mentor: Historical Essays in Honor of Dimitrije Djordjevic (1992) pp: 151–171.

North America[edit]

  • Fogel, Robert W. "Nutrition and the decline in mortality since 1700: Some preliminary findings." in by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, eds. Long-term factors in American economic growth (U of Chicago Press, 1986) pp 439–556.
  • Hacker, J. David. "A census-based count of the Civil War Dead." Civil War History (2011) 57# pp: 307–348. Online
  • Haines, Michael R. and Richard H. Steckel.. A Population History of North America (2000)
  • Klein, Herbert S. A population history of the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2012) ) excerpt[permanent dead link]
  • Smith, Daniel Scott. "The demographic history of colonial New England." The journal of economic history 32.01 (1972): 165–183. Online
  • Smith, Daniel Scott, and Michael S. Hindus. "Premarital pregnancy in America 1640-1971: An overview and interpretation." The journal of interdisciplinary history 5.4 (1975): 537–570. in JSTOR


  • Lundh, Christer and Satomi Kurosu. Similarity in Difference: Marriage in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (2014)

External links[edit]