Population growth in the Pre-Modern Period

For most of human history, the human population was growing very slowly. But in the last century, we have seen such a huge growth in population that it leads to apocalyptic visions. In this blog post, we will look at the factors that affected the population growth in the pre-modern period and how they did so. Information provided in this post is collected from different sources but I added a few very small things on my own, based on logic rather than facts.

History of Human Race

About 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and they reigned over African Savanna, living the life of hunter and gatherer. About 70,000 years ago, they spread out from Africa into the world, and for almost the next 55,000-60,000 years, they live the same life but this time with fictive languages.

Because of languages, they can communicate more effectively and can corporate with a larger number of people. They had much more information about their environment. Their senses were highly tuned to the environment. They had a much more nutritious diet than in a day than an average person today. They made sophisticated tools that require fine motor skills. They used to live a rich social life in small groups or tribes.

But instead of all these advantages, their population wasn’t very large because of many reasons. The natural resources of the area were enough to only support its human population. Their hormonal and genetic mechanism help in controlling the population, like in unfavorable and stressed condition, female reaches puberty later and in favorable conditions, earlier.

To these natural populations, controls were added cultural mechanisms. Babies and children, who move slowly and demand much more attention, were a burden on nomadic foragers. People tried to space their children 3-4 years apart. Women did so by nursing their children around the clock and until a late age (around-the-clock sucking significantly decreases the chances of getting pregnant). Other methods included full or partial sexual abstinence (backed perhaps by cultural taboos), abortions, and occasionally infanticide.

And then around 10,000 BC, Sapiens started agriculture. They collected few plants and grow them in large amounts to get food. ‘Why they did so?’ is still a big question that has many different answers. But whatever might be the answer, the seed of a big population was sowed.

Agriculture and Early Societies

After the advent of agriculture, Sapiens can’t afford to wander over great distances from their fields. The fields require much more attention. They might have started with camps of a few weeks, then the time period for camps started increasing, and finally they set-up villages near their fields and stopped wandering over places.

Agriculture provided a huge supply of food so that they don’t need to wander in the jungle to fill their empty stomach (it doesn’t mean they stopped doing so). But it required much more hard work. More people were required to work in the field, so they started reproducing more children. Because they no more wander like nomadic and they have more food than before, they could afford more children. A woman now can have a child each year.

More children mean more people to work on the field and thus more food, but more mouths will also wipe out the surplus amount of food. In a sense, the average effort of each person remains more or less the same. But the population started increasing. Another reason to grow a larger population was it provided more protection to people of society from wild animals and violence of other tribe’s people.

Although the population of Sapiens was growing faster, the rate was still very low. Agriculture was not very beneficial actually. It brought many problems. Like Sapiens used to eat a wide variety of crops and fruit before but now they eat only a few selected things thus their diet became less nutritious. A larger quantity of food doesn’t provide more security for the future, instead, it increased the threat. Natural calamities like flood, drought, crop-failure, attack of insects on crops, etc were potential threats. People could starve in any of these cases.

Also because a woman had more children now, not every child could get proper attention. They fed more on cereals than mother’s milk. Their immunity started declining. As each child competed for his/her porridge with more and more siblings, child mortality soared. At least one out of three children dies before reaching 20.

Now, Sapiens were living in societies and it required governance to work smoothly. Then the so-called human rights, laws, values, diplomacy, justice, etc came into the scenario. Businesses and trade also came into being. Societies were evolving. Villages slowly transformed into cities, cities into kingdoms, kingdoms into empires.

Still, life depends on the food. Food depends mostly on agriculture. So societies try to do their best to ensure well being of farmers and provided help to them whenever needed. When a society functions at its best, its people have a more comfortable life, and the population of society increases. But it still took too much time to reach 1 Billion. The reason was the high death rate in primitive societies.

Causes of High Death Rate

The biggest problems that could cause death in huge numbers were Famines and Pandemics. People used to do prayers, offer sacrifices, conduct rituals to their gods and goddesses in order to avoid the havoc of nature. But still, many natural calamities occurred and killed a huge number of people. Another reason for mass death was wars. Individual death due to sickness, infection, or accidents also used to occur often.

The reason that the human population growth was so slow for many thousand years was that the birth rate was only slightly bigger than the death rate. They appear almost equal. And many times in history, there have been huge wars and natural calamities that reduced the significant number of humans, although only in a specific region at a time.

Like, Plague of Justinian, which emerged during the reign of Roman Emperor Justinian, caused Europe’s population to drop by around 50 % between the 6th and 8th century AD. The Black Death pandemic killed about 20 million and about 75-100 million in the whole world.

Due to various events that happened in China around the 13th and 14th centuries, like the Mongol invasion, Famine, and Plague, the population of China fall from 123 M in 1200 to 65 M in 1393.  Later it took about 200-250 years to recover the population. Other deadly pandemics like the Bubonic plague, Antonine plague, Cocoliztli Plague also caused Millions of Deaths.

Deadly wars like Punic Wars (264-241 BC), Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 AD) caused casualties of over 1 Million. Three Kingdoms War (184-280 AD) of China caused casualties of over 36 Million People. Other Deadly wars like the Gothic War, Probus’s German War, etc also caused casualties of thousands.

There had been many very steep declines in the human population at different places but the overall human population seems to increase continuously, although at a very low rate. The following graph shows the growth of population (estimated) over time starting from the advent of agriculture.

Population in India and China

Today, China and India are the two most populated countries. To date, their combined population is about 36 % of the total world population. Although their population growth rate was similar to the rest of countries in the modern period, their population is over a billion in each. The reason for this is because their population was already very larger in the pre-modern period. There are many reasons for this.

Like, India and China occupy the lands, best for agriculture. Ancients used to build villages and cities near a river so that they can have easy access to fresh water. Indian and Chinese lands are very fertile; their climates are moderate so they had great success in agriculture for a very long period. Because they were producing a huge quantity of food, their population was growing at a higher rate for a very long time.

Also, their lands have natural defense barriers for foreigners. Like, India has the Himalayan Mountain range in the north, dense forests in the east, the Thar Desert in the west, and Ocean in the south. China also has a Himalayan mountain range and Tibetan plateau in the south, Gobi and Taklamakan Desert in the west, Yellow river and hills in the north, and Ocean in the east.

These natural defenses make it difficult for foreigners to do invasions but it couldn’t prevent that from happening. In the ancient and medieval period, India was the world’s largest economy. India had about one-third (maybe slightly less or more) of the world’s wealth. But too many invasions occurred in India most of its wealth was looted by invaders.

Indus Valley Civilization was one of the earliest civilization located near the Indus River which was a part of India at that time. It was also a very advanced civilization. It used to do trade with Mesopotamia, who used to call it Meluha. Chinese also used to do trade via Silk Road. Both countries are also very rich in culture.

These and many other factors made it possible for the population to flourish in these countries in the pre-modern period. They both comprised almost 60 % of the world’s population for most of the period in history. Countries like the USA could also have flourished but diseases brought by European and brutal Battles with them, and other things wiped out most of its native population. The following chart shows how large was the population of India and China compared to others in 19th & 20th century.


After the advent of agriculture, the human population started growing at a higher rate than forager because they then had a greater amount of food. Also, they were no more nomadic, so they had no problem with having more children. A higher population within a society also provided more protection to individuals. But still, it wasn’t a huge population and the high birth rates were almost balanced by high death rates. Many individuals die due to sickness, malnutrition, infection, etc. The death occurred in large numbers due to Famines, Pandemics, Wars, etc. Hence the population growth was slow for most of our history.

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