Monday, November 06, 2006

Oregon Indigenous Population Densities

I just sent an email to some friends and thought this part was worth posting here too...I'm reading L. S. Cressman's The Sandal and the Cave: The Indians of Oregon, published back in 01962, summarizing what's known (or what was known back then) about the indigenous populations of Oregon. I'm not too far into the book, but I got a partial mind-blow regarding indigenous population densities which seems worth posting here.

Obviously any number for pre-European native population involves a lot of speculation--guesstimates for the population of the Americas as a whole range from 10 million to 200 million. (See Charles Mann's 1491) But even with a huge margin of error, the Oregon numbers are astounding. The numbers in the book are based on 1939 figures from A. L. Kroeber, who seems to have been a respected anthropologist. Listed for each group is the number of people per square mile, then the number of square miles per person (the numbers are inverses of each other.)

Pacific Coast.651.54
Chinook on Columbia River from The Dalles to the sea3.86.26
Coos around Coos Bay & south to the Coquille2.6.38
Columbia River east of the Dalles.128.33
Klamath (the author says densities were likely higher than these numbers, since much of the claimed land was used only lightly).137.69
Northern Great Basin.0616.67

So the densest population of Oregonians pre fossil-fuels were the Chinook, living in a fully functioning ecological community that wasn't half-asphalt, with abundant salmon runs and game to hunt. And they had one person per quarter of a square mile, or 160 acres. That means I'd have 9 city blocks by 9 city blocks of land supporting me. Damn but are we in overshoot.

Not that this is news...but there's a difference between knowing that we have 600+ million extra people on the continent vs the close-to-home comparison of 9 city blocks square just for me or 9 city blocks square for 600 households.

Similarly, if you assume a population density of 1 person per 3 square miles, the 1 million acres of Mt. Hood National Forest could support a whopping 555 people. Boy, looking at the facts sure puts a damper on hopes for a soft landing.

Granted, we still have to fossil fuels we can burn to support our overshoot for a while yet, and there's been a tremendous mingling of plants and techniques from all over the world which could allow for the most productive horticultural (or permacultural) communities humans have ever managed. But weighed against those bonuses in the carrying capacity equation are the impacts of climate chaos, toxification of the environment, degradation and paving over of soil, loss of even the most rudimentary naturalist skills, and the ongoing mass extinction. All in all, we know that population needs to decrease, and numbers like these give us a good indication of the general order of magnitude we're looking at, at least in the long-run.


Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that Kroeber's estimates are in the low end, as he was part of an anthropological trend that tended to minimize indigenous population.

With that said, yes we have surpassed sane population densities.

FarmerScrub said...

Hi there,

Thanks for your comments! I agree that Kroeber was probably on the low end. I haven't been actively researching the question of how many people lived here pre-European contact, but expect to find other estimates as I read more. It'll be interesting to see other numbers that are out there and get a sense of the range given in the literature...