Country Listing

Peru Table of Contents


Demographic Collapse

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 Cápac and his legitimate son and heir, Ninan Cuyoche, which touched off the disastrous dynastic struggles between Huáscar 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 (see table 2, Appendix). 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." Demographic anthropologists Henry F. Dobyns and Paul L. Doughty have 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, it did not reach its nadir in Peru 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. Isolated from the old world for millennia and therefore lacking immunities, the Andean peoples were defenseless to the introduction of the deadly viruses by the Europeans. Numerous killer pandemics swept down from the north, laying waste to entire communities. Occurring one after the other in roughly tenyear intervals during the sixteenth century (1525, 1546, 1558-59, 1585), these epidemics did not allow the population time to recover, while impairing its ability to reproduce itself.

Data as of September 1992