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What was the population of Earth through history?


Today, it’s hard to imagine our entire planet populated by fewer people than we currently find in a single major city. And tens of thousands of years ago, it would have been shocking — and quite possibly terrifying — to imagine a world in which humans had built settlements as vast and crowded as those that exist today.

Population growth has, for the most part, been a long and steady process. But while it took most of human history for the population to reach 1 billion, it  took only a little more than 200 additional years to hit 8 billion. Because of this rapid growth, the face of our planet and the influence that we’ve had on it have shifted massively in the last few centuries. Where it will all lead is an open question. But one thing is certain: People are currently living longer than ever before, and as things stand, the population will only continue to grow. Here’s a rundown of the world’s population throughout history, from prehistoric times to the present day. Population growth has, for the most part, been a long and steady process. But while it took most of human history for the population to reach 1 billion, it took only a little more than 200 additional years to hit 8 billion. Because of this rapid growth, the face of our planet and the influence that we’ve had on it have shifted massively in the last few centuries. Where it will all lead is an open question. But one thing is certain: People are currently living longer than ever before, and as things stand, the population will only continue to grow. Here’s a rundown of the world’s population throughout history, from prehistoric times to the present day.

Prehistoric Times

Historians believe that around 55,000 early humans walked the Earth some 1.2 million years ago. By the end of the last ice age — about 20,000 years ago — the population had risen to about 1 million members of Homo sapiens. Over the next 15,000 years, as human societies improved, the population increased more rapidly. By 5000 BCE, the world population was at least 5 million, and some estimates go as high as 20 million. But even that higher number is still less than the present-day populations of cities such as São Paulo, Shanghai, and Tokyo.

Antiquity

Classical antiquity — the period that saw the original Olympic Games and the first of Homer’s epic poems — began in the eighth century BCE. During this time, the global population was an estimated 50 million to 100 million. By 1 CE, the estimated population was at least 170 million. A significant chunk of this population was soon controlled by Rome. The Roman Empire reached its height in 117 CE, comprising all the land from Western Europe to the Middle East, with a total population between 50 million and 90 million people. 

Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, or medieval period, lasted from around 500 CE to 1500 CE, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance era in Europe. The greatest growth occurred in Europe during the high Middle Ages, when developments in agriculture, the rise of cities, and a decrease in invasions helped the population swell from 35 million to 80 million between 1000 CE and 1347 CE. Then disaster struck. Between 1347 and 1351, the “Black Death” (bubonic plague) ravaged the continent, killing some 20 million people — at least 30% of Europe’s entire population. It took until the 16th century for the population of Western Europe to once again reach pre-1347 levels. 

Globally, the worldwide population during the medieval period is estimated to have been at least 190 million in 500 CE, rising to around 425 million by 1500 CE. One of the greatest dents in the global population outside of Europe was caused by the Mongol invasion of China. Beginning in the early 13th century under the command of Genghis Khan, the war led to the deaths of tens of millions of people — at the time, the global population was around 360 million.

Renaissance Era

The Renaissance period in Europe spanned from the 15th century to the early 17th century, and can be seen as the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity in the West. The era saw a demographic shift as European powers colonized much of the Americas. Trade routes and colonies were founded, and nations began to engage in empire building. The worldwide population grew from around 350 million in 1400 to about 545 million in 1600 — a significant amount, but nothing compared to what was to come next.  

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution changed nearly every aspect of human society. Previously, birth rates and death rates were both very high, keeping the global human population comparatively stable. But when the Industrial Revolution began around 1760, improvements in technology, agriculture, medicine, and sanitation brought about a massive population growth spurt. In Western Europe, with people living longer and infant mortality on the decline, the population doubled during the 18th century from around 100 million to almost 200 million, and doubled again in the 19th century to roughly 400 million. Globally, a population landmark was reached in 1804 when the number of humans on Earth reached 1 billionfor the first time.  

Today and beyond

It took many thousands of years for the human population to reach 1 billion. But once that figure was reached, the growth rate became mind-boggling — and a source of concern due to the potential overpopulation of our planet. By 1950, the global population reached an estimated 2.5 billion. Today, the number of humans stands at a staggering 8 billion — and is currently growing by more than 200,000 people each day. According to the United Nations, the global population is expected to increase by nearly 2 billion in the next 30 years, and could peak at around 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s.

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