The population history of Latin America has received considerable attention in the past twenty years from historians, anthropologists, geographers, and demographers. While gaps and disagreements remain, reasonable synthesis is now possible and is admirably provided by Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz, a noted Argentine historian now teaching at New York University. The present work is a completely revised and expanded version of an earlier book published in 1968 in Buenos Aires by Sánchez-Albornoz and José Luis Moreno (La población de América Latina: Bosquejo histórico). The text is sound, the documentation is thorough and up-to-date, and the translation is excellent.
Population change is examined in terms of the basic variables: fertility, mortality, migration, and distribution. The temporal span is from pre-Columbian times to the year 2000. The objective is a comprehensive survey based mainly on secondary sources. The book thus serves as a basic reference for both professional historians and students. As the author points out: “An understanding of the overall development of the region is made much easier once one has grasped the basic facts of its demographic evolution” (p. xiii).
Sánchez-Albornoz first examines source materials for reconstructing population history, concentrating on documents with only passing mention of other forms of evidence. The pre-Columbian period is treated in general terms, with probably unjustified skepticism that archaeology can reconstruct population from “inert matter.” The author does acknowledge evidence that population growth was not a linear progression but rather oscillated, with some regions, such as in Peru and Yucatan, reaching peaks well before European conquest. However, the statement that population “expanded with the availability of increased resources” (p. 30), rather than production expanding as result of population pressure, would be challenged by some prehistorians.
A good review is provided of the debate over the size of the aboriginal population on the eve of the conquest and the subsequent rapid decline of that population. Sánchez-Albornoz does not clearly take sides, but he is impressed with the work of the Berkeley School (Lesley B. Simpson, Woodrow Borah, and Sherburne F. Cook) on central Mexico. He also cites David N. Cook on population change in Peru from 1570 to 1620, particularly a 1970 paper which suggested rapid decline. However, Cook’s subsequent dissertation in 1973 derives a 1530 population for Peru of only 2,738,000, certainly a revival of the conservative view.
The core of the book discusses the growth and expansion of Iberians in the New World, the African influx, mestizaje, the stabilization and recovery of the native population, the later flow from Europe, and urbanization. Internal growth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was slow, and Latin America remained relatively empty, but in the nineteenth century many governments actively encouraged growth through immigration.
The final section treats the population explosion that has followed the Depression, with population doubling in thirty years and the overall annual growth rate increasing from 1.9 to 2.8 percent. The unparalleled demographic disaster of the sixteenth century is now being reversed, the lack of disease control contributing to the former, the control of disease contributing to the latter. Manifestations of the population explosion include not only massive rural to urban migration and movement to tropical frontiers, but substantial movement out of Latin America. Nevertheless, the author argues that “compared with Europe and Asia, Latin America does not appear overpopulated” (p. 229), but rather has a population which is poorly distributed.
In looking ahead to the year 2000, Sánchez-Albornoz sees present trends continuing but with some decline in the birth rate and the growth rate, and he cites a projected population of 645 million. He anticipates a more homogeneous population, a greater proportion of the total in the tropics, and a much lower proportion in agriculture than in Asia and Africa. He does not choose to speculate on the conditions of life for urbanized Latin Americans, but one can hardly be optimistic.