I feel sorry for Afrocentrists—those weird and wonderful folk who claim that civilization, philosophy, and science were discovered in ancient Africa, before being stolen by the white man. True, members of the movement are cranks, with nothing worthwhile to support their positions, but they are no more ridiculous than many other historians who dominate the intellectual mainstream.

To illustrate this, let me point to the “American Holocaust” story that can fairly be described as scholarly orthodoxy. The story goes like this: Before the European invasion of 1492, the New World was home to a vast population, often placed around 100 million. Mexico alone had 25 million people, and New World cities dwarfed such European communities as Paris and Rome. Visitors to the great New Mexico site of Chaco Canyon are told that the population there would actually have exceeded that of medieval London. After the conquest, a combination of brutal treatment and European diseases caused a catastrophic decline in native populations—by 90 percent or more in many areas. The European civilizations that emerged in the New World were literally built upon the bones of tens of millions of slaughtered victims. Every day of their lives, Americans are walking through graveyards.

A great deal about this story should inspire suspicion. For one thing, the account of European motives and behavior fits too well with contemporary academic politics to be plausible. Above all, this seems to be yet another of the obligatory holocausts that have become so fashionable in the creation of victimologies. In the 1940’s, the Jews suffered an appallingly genuine outbreak of mass murder, as did other European communities, like the Poles and Ukrainians. In subsequent years, though, other groups have tried to construct their own parallel experiences, always with impressive-sounding numbers, but never with anything like the historical evidence we can find concerning the World War II era. Feminists and pagans look to the tens of millions of witches supposedly killed during the “burning times” in early modern Europe; African-Americans cite 60 million or so victims murdered by the slave trade; and anyone wishing to discredit American history points to the American genocide, the “Great Dying.”

The idea of a demographic collapse in the Americas was popularized by widely read historians like William McNeill, while David Stannard coined the term “American Holocaust” in his 1992 book of that name. Though the idea has gained the status of a social fact, it is simply wrong. The supporting data, which had been questioned for some years, were decisively discredited in a fine book by David P. Henige, appropriately titled Numbers From Nowhere (University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

In order to judge the truth of “genocide” charges, we would need to know roughly what the population of the Americas was in, say, 1480, and what it was a century later. We are on reasonably solid ground with the later figures, but pre-contact data is very hard to come by. Before the 1940’s, most scholars would have estimated the pre-Columbian population at around eight or ten million for the whole of North and South America combined. If that is correct, then the Americas certainly suffered from European-introduced plagues, but the decline in population was only a fraction of what we are told in the “genocide” story. We are talking about two or three million disease-related deaths, not 90 million: a plague, not a genocide.

So why did anyone ever believe differently? In essence, demographic historians found what appeared to be tax records for colonial Mexico, and used wildly implausible multipliers to convert the households recorded there into population statistics. Even if these projections were true, they would only inflate the population of central Mexico. But there was a second phase, in which historians (I use the word loosely) started applying the same hyperbolic principles across the continent. North America above the Rio Grande can plausibly be estimated to have had around two million people in 1492. By the 1990’s, overheated scholarly books were giving contact-era figures of seven or ten million in North America, estimating a ludicrous four million in the Mississippi Valley alone.

At every stage, the improbability of these claims is self-evident. Just where did all these people live? At Chaco Canyon, which supposedly housed 30,000 residents, there is no evidence whatever that the great “apartment” structures were residential: Far from being “bigger than London,” Chaco was barely even a village. And any time we find reasonably hard data about actual Indian populations, they are astonishingly small. Any reader of colonial history knows of the vast political influence wielded by the legendary Iroquois Confederacy, that looming presence that played English and French empires off against each other for a century. Who would have thought that this military juggernaut never mobilized more than 5,000 or so warriors at its height? Or that the medieval population of these tribes, which are among the best studied of any native community, was in the low thousands, not even the tens of thousands?

Why, then, have scholars permitted themselves to engage in such consistent self-delusion? The reasons, unfortunately, are obvious: The worse the atrocity of the conquest, the greater the guilt to be expiated by the modern-day descendants of the conquerors. And while conscience demanded that we place the number of victims as high as possible, any contrary argument, any expression of doubt, would be seen as acquiescence to genocide.

Our standard historical view of the Columbian era and the European contact with the Americas is therefore wildly inaccurate, the result of politicized scholarship. Unfortunately, nobody seems concerned about discrediting the modern-day myths. Remind me: Just why do we pick on the crazy Afrocentrists?