Proposal preview

Indigenous people in economic history

Economic history of the developing world has undergone an impressive revitalization over the past decade. What is significant about this body of scholarly work is the systematic use of quantitative data to shed new light on the economic past. One strand of this renaissance of research uses aggregated macro-economic variables – production, taxation, and exports – published in colonial reports and available in the archives of the colonizer. These contributions are important but hampered by some limitations: because the figures are aggregated, often at the country level, they lack regional variation; because they provide only one observation annually and many confounding factors are usually at work at the national level, they rarely allow for hypothesis testing that identifies causes; and because primacy is given either to figures for settler activities or, in non-settler colonies, to figures for the formal colonial economy, such as cash crop production or urban workers, they fail to go beyond the limited scope of the colonial authority.
The emphasis is now shifting towards understanding the colonial experience from below. Economic historians are increasingly turning to archives: large data sets at the individual or household level. These are not survey data in the usual sense. Often, information was collected for administrative purposes orthogonal to its use for researchers today. Attestation records of soldiers and police officers, for example, which list the individuals’ heights and other biographical information, are used as proxies for investigating living standards, and marriage records in mission station archives, which list age-at-marriage of converts, are used to investigate changing demographics and social trends, such as urbanization, during colonial times.
While the greater interest in economic history from below is welcome, it should be noted that the use of quantifiable micro-level evidence also raises important questions about those groups not well documented in colonial records. Anthropometric investigations, for example, may suffer from sample selection bias. This is not to discredit these and other historical data sources, nor to suggest that the authors are unaware of these limitations. But, in general, economic historians have sidestepped this problem in one of two ways: they ignore it, or they narrow the inference drawn from the results to apply to the sample only. Yet both strategies are problematic for methodological and moral reasons: by excluding the missing people, we risk reproducing the views of the colonial authorities or the European economic elite.
Missing people are not only of concern for colonial history. Our knowledge about indigenous people in North America and Latin America, for example, is equally limited, especially for the pre-Columbian period. Historians have to rely mainly on archaeological evidence, with the implication that they are better equipped to analyse pre-Columbian political systems than the lives of the people whose labour upheld those systems. For the post-Columbian period, it is commonly assumed, or has been until recently, that the indigenous people, especially in the hacienda-based rural economies, played a negligible role as their numbers had effectively been reduced by European ‘guns, germs, and steel’. An emerging literature is complicating these broad assumptions.
The aim of this session is to bring together scholars working on the economic histories of indigenous people. We have no regional or period preference. Papers on all aspects of indigenous economies, frontier economies, interactions between settler and indigenous peoples, cross-regional comparisons, and environmental, social, political or legislative aspects of indigenous people are welcome. We especially hope to shed light on new quantitative tools and novel data sets to investigate the economic histories of indigenous peoples.


  • Johan Fourie, Stellenbosch University,,
  • Ann Carlos, University of Colorado-Boulder,,
  • Erik Green, University of Lund,,

Session members

  • Justin Bucciferro, Eastern Washington University,
  • Frank Lewis, Queen's University,
  • Bokang Mpeta, Stellenbosch University,>
  • Kris Inwood, Guelph University,

Proposed discussant(s)

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