The population of South Asia (defined here as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was larger than previously thought during the Middle Ages. A new study estimates that around the year 640, this region’s population was about 58 million, and that by the year 1600 it had risen to 145 million people.
The research appears in the journal Regional Environmental Change from a team of scholars based at the China University of Geosciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The focus of their study was to understand long-term patterns of cropland areas in the region from the Middle Ages to the present day. But in doing so, the team also analyzed population trends over the same period.
The team began their estimates by using the travel account of Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese scholar who visited India around the years 630 to 644. With some revisions to previous estimates, they pegged the population at that time to be 58.1 million. They then recalculated population estimates from other periods to state that South Asia had 85.2 million in the year 1000, 105 million in 1400, 125 million in 1500, and 145 million by 1600.
These numbers represent about a ten to fifteen percent increase in the estimated population from the last previous study on the topic, which was done in the 1970s. It can also be noted that throughout the medieval period, the population of South Asia was larger than Europe – for example, it has been estimated that 56.4 million Europeans were around in 1000 and that number increased to 90.7 million in 1500.
The authors find that South Asia’s population had strong growth in the early medieval period, but that after the year 1000 was relatively stagnant. It would not be until the beginning of the Mughal Empire in 1526 that the region saw more robust population growth. They write:
South Asia’s medieval period (around AD 600–1500) was dark. During this time, the whole region was divided into numerous small kingdoms busy fighting. Moreover, following the Muslim conquests of the Indian subcontinent in the Late Medieval Era, there was a more sluggish development. However, these wars or disasters were not enough to cause population decline. Especially, the subcontinent did not experience a demographic collapse from the Black Death, which happened in coetaneous Medieval Europe. Moreover, fragmented politics in medieval periods provided a local population growth in kingdoms where disasters did not touch certainly. Thus, the slow population growth for this period is credible and consistent with Indian population history.
The study also estimated the amount of land used for the cultivation of crops in South Asia grew relatively slowly throughout the Middle Ages, from an estimated 42.89 million hectares (Mha) in the year 640, to 71.95 Mha in 1600. These estimates are also higher than previous studies.
The authors write:
The existence of a vast number of land grant records in South Asia during the early medieval period indicated its development of cultivation, which validated the rationality of a moderate increase of cropland area for AD 640–1000. Our result shows that cropland expansion was stagnant during AD 1000–1400 in South Asia, which can be explained by the monarchical polity for the expansion of agrarian settlements and some negative factors, including internal wars, external invasion, and calamities. And then, by the Mughal period (AD 1526–1857), agriculture was practiced in almost all parts of the empire since the social situation was stable and the government attached great importance to agricultural projects.
The article, “Reconstruction of cropland areas for South Asia from AD 640 to 2016,” by Xin Liu, Shicheng Li, Fanneng He and Lei Hua, is published in Regional Environmental Change. You can access the article through Springer.