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My initial google session resulted with no luck. Does anyone know of any papers that discuss how historians attempt to calculate population sizes? That way I can better work out population sizes of my island nation through time easier.

Thanks in advance.

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    $\begingroup$ Possibly useful Quora post $\endgroup$
    – Atog
    Jun 24, 2023 at 2:43
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    $\begingroup$ I don't get it at all. Historical demography is complicated because historians have to look back through the mist of time to infer demographic history in the absence of records and statistics. On the other hand, in your world you are the author, which means you have god-like perfect knowledge. Why do you need to estimate the demographic indicators of your world at various moments of time in the past when you are the One Supreme God of that world and you know them exactly? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 24, 2023 at 3:13
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    $\begingroup$ Generally - the way it's been done is to look at agriculture and food production or looking at birth/death/marriage notices $\endgroup$ Jun 24, 2023 at 3:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP it is abundantly clear that the OP would like to have a somewhat realistic estimate of how their population should change over time, rather than just choosing some random numbers and calling it a day $\endgroup$
    – M S
    Jun 24, 2023 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ @MS: It is also abundantly clear that "a somewhat realistic estimate of how their population should change over time" has nothing to do with "how historians attempt to calculate population sizes". Yes, a somewhat realistic estimate of how their population should change over time is useful; this is why I put a link to the Wikipedia article of demographic history in my comment. Learning how the estimations were derived is useless. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 24, 2023 at 23:12

3 Answers 3

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This Wikipedia article will provide you with links to various estimates of historical world population and you can get into their metholodolgy as to how they make their estimates. One thing to bear in mind is that there is not a formula that you can simply plug numbers into: numbers vary wildly until you get to periods where the numbers converge because of actual counting through censuses.

My suggestion would be to focus on a specific part of the real world that resembles what your island-nation is like (it doesn't have to have been an island) and use its historical population estimates over time as a base that you can then tweak as desired.

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  • $\begingroup$ I will say, there is a formula, it is actually rather simple. The thing is, it is an approximation, and it requires you to know the average population growth rate, which varies over time. Which makes the simple formula much more complicated, but still viable for a worldbuilding situation. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2023 at 21:27
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I'm putting this out there in case it's useful.

Another way of estimating the population of an ancient city is through cemeteries. Humans have been burying their dead for millennia, and cemeteries are often found on the outskirts of ancient cities. The date when the humans to whom the skeletons belong lived can be estimated isotopically. So an estimate of the population of a city can be made from there.

Moreover, agent-based modeling can be used to simulate the population change in a city through time. See here.

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Generally, main factors in the population size of a place were how much food it could produce, how remote it was and how economically important it was. Worldwide, like other answers have pointed out, population increased very gradually until a dramatic increase in 17th-18th centuries thanks to many advances in adricultural tools and techniques, and a really really dramatic increase in mid 20th century due to mechanisation of agriculture and increased use of chamical fertilizer.

Of course the size and terrain of the island will be important, as will be fishing resources around it.

The main economic factor for your island nation would probably be naval trade. This would depend on natural resources or proximity to other big and prosperous population centers. An island that is economically important would have bigger cities and so more population.

Economic importance of the island could hugely increase and decline with changing technology. For example an island that used to be hugely important as a stopover port along an important trade route could become much less important after ship range increased or a canal has been dug. Or if the island provided a very scarce resource, but later more plentiful supplies of that resource started coming from newly discovered (for that part of the world) far-away lands. The opposite could also happen, when a resource that used to be unknown, unimportant or previously impossible to mine has become available (e.g. discovery of oil on the island) and the island suddenly became more economically important. Or perhaps its beaches and wildlife suddenly turned it into a major tourist attraction - that would have a dramatic effect on the population size.

Of course, natural disasters, war and epidemics would have a huge impact on the islang population. After a cataclysmic event the population could eventually recover, or it could never return to previous levels.

It's hard to say any more without knowing the history of your world and especially the part of the world where the island is.

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