The population of South Asia (defined here as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was larger than thought in the Middle Ages. A new study estimates that around the year 640, the population of this region was around 58 million and by the year 1600, it had increased to 145 million people.
The research appears in the journal Regional environmental change by a team of researchers based at the Chinese University of Geosciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The goal of their study was to understand the long-term patterns of cultivated land areas in the region from the Middle Ages to the present day. But in doing so, the team also analyzed demographic trends over the same period.
The team began their estimates using the travelogue of Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese scholar who visited India around the years 630 to 644. With some revisions to previous estimates, they estimated that the population at that time was of 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 in 1600.
These figures represent an increase of about ten to fifteen percent in the estimated population compared to the last previous study on the subject, which was carried out in the 1970s. It can also be noted that throughout the medieval period, the population of South Asia was larger than that of Europe – for example, 56.4 million Europeans were estimated to be around 1000 and this number increased to 90.7 million by 1500.
The authors find that the population of South Asia experienced strong growth in the early medieval period, but after the year 1000 it was relatively stagnant. It was not until the start of the Mughal Empire in 1526 that the region experienced more robust population growth. They write:
South Asia’s medieval period (c. 600-1500 AD) was dark. Meanwhile, the whole region was divided into many small kingdoms busy fighting. Also, following the Muslim conquests of the Indian subcontinent in the late medieval era, development was slower. However, these wars or disasters were not enough to cause population decline. Importantly, the subcontinent did not experience a demographic collapse due to the Black Death, which occurred in contemporary medieval Europe. Additionally, fragmented politics in medieval times provided local population growth in kingdoms where disasters certainly did not touch. Thus, the low population growth for this period is credible and consistent with the Indian population history.
The study also estimated that the amount of land used for growing crops in South Asia increased relatively slowly throughout the Middle Ages, from around 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 large number of land grant records in South Asia in the early medieval period indicated its development of cultivation, which validated the rationality of a moderate increase in the area of cultivated land for AD 640–1000. Our results show that the expansion of cultivated land stagnated between 1000 and 1400 AD in South Asia, which can be explained by the monarchical regime for the expansion of agrarian colonies and some negative factors, including internal wars, external invasions and calamities. And then, in the Mughal era (1526-1857 AD), 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 Cultivated 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 via Springer.