Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century

Alphabetical Index

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This is an incomplete listing of some very bad things that happened before the 20th Century. I've scoured the history books and collected most of the major atrocities that anyone has bothered to enumerate.

However, just because an event is missing from these pages doesn't mean that it wasn't very bloody. There are undoubtedly many other events that were never recorded and have now faded into the oblivion of forgotten history. This makes it difficult to prove whether brutality is waxing or waning in the long term. Maybe the 20th Century really was more barbaric than previous centuries (as some people say), but you'll need more complete statistics to prove it. [n.1]

(Possibly) The Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other:

Rank Death Toll Cause Centuries
1 66 million Second World War 20C
2 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C
40 million Genghis Khan 13C
4 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C
5 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C
6 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C
20 million Joseph Stalin 20C
8 18½ million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C
9 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C
10 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C
11 15 million First World War 20C
15 million Conquest of the Americas 15C-19C
13 13 million An Lushan Revolt 8C
14 10 million Xin Dynasty 1C
10 million Congo Free State 19C-20C
16 9 million Russian Civil War 20C
17 7½ million Thirty Years War 17C
7½ million Fall of the Yuan Dynasty 14C
19 7 million Fall of Rome 5C
7 million Chinese Civil Wars 20C

Buy the Book!

Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History

What other people say:

World Historical Population

For perspective

Population of the World In Millions

1991 Information Please Almanac Livi-Bacci Concise History of World Population, 2nd, 1997 Colin McEvedy Atlas of World Population History 1978 United Nations 1999
BCE 400 153
CE 1 252 170 300
200 257 190
400 190
600 208 200
800 220
1000 253 265 310
1200 400 360
1400 442 360
1500 461 425 500
1600 578 545 600
1650 470 545
1700 680 610
1750 694 771 720 791
1800 954 900 980
1850 1091 1241 1200 1260
1900 1571 1634 1625 1650
1950 2513 2520 2500 2520
1990 5321 5270
2000 6236 6060

(See also and and

Western Wars, Tyrants, Rebellions and Massacres (800-1700 CE)

Before the rise of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and the rest of the gang, these atrocities were the bywords of barbarism. Now that populations have gotten bigger and body counts have grown proportionally, they don't seem that bad; however, this says more about us than it does about them.

  1. Charlemagne (768-814 CE)
  2. Wars of the Carolingian Succession (840-843 CE)
  3. William the Conqueror, (r.1066-87) the Harrying of the North: 100,000 [make link]
  4. Crusades (1095-1291) 3,000,000 [make link]
  5. Albigensian Crusade (1208-49) 1,000,000 [make link]
  6. Padua, Tyranny of Ezzelino da Romano (fl. 1237-1259)
  7. Sicilian Vespers (1282)
  8. Hundred Years War (1337-1453) 3,000,000 [make link]
  9. Spain
  10. West Europe (1348)
  11. France, Jacquerie Revolt (1358)
  12. England, Wat Tyler's Rebellion (1381)
  13. General Religious Mayhem:
  14. Witch Hunts (1400-1800) [make link]
  15. England, War of the Roses (1455-85) [make link]
  16. Vlad Dracula, Wallachia (r.1456-1462) [make link]
  17. Turkish War (1456+)
  18. Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) [make link]
  19. Lisbon (1506)
  20. Tudor England [make link]
  21. Peasants' War, Hungary (1514) [make link]
  22. Germany, Knights' War, von Sickingen (1519-1523)
  23. Peasants' War, Germany (1524-25) [make link]
  24. Ivan the Terrible, Russia, (r.1533-84) [make link]
  25. Persecution of the Waldenses (1540s) [make link]
  26. Dutch Revolt (1566-1609) [make link]
  27. France, Religious Wars, Catholic vs. Huguenot (1562-1598) 3,000,000 [make link]
  28. St. Bartholomew's Massacre, France (1572) [make link]
  29. Russo-Tatar War (1571) [make link]
  30. Spanish Armada (1588) [make link]
  31. Russia, Time of Troubles (1598-1613) 5,000,000 [make link]
  32. Transylvania, Countess Elizabeth Bathory (1604-1611)
  33. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) 7,500,000 [make link]
  34. British Isles, 1641-52 [make link]
  35. France, The Fronde (1648-53)
  36. Poland, The Deluge (1648-67)
  37. England (17th C)
  38. Russia, (1667-71)
  39. Franco-Dutch War (1672-78)
  40. New England, King Philip's War (1675-76)
  41. Habsburg-Ottoman War (1682-99)
  42. Russia, Peter the Great (Pyotr Alekseyevich, r.1682-1721) [make link]
  43. War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97)
  44. (For the 18th Century, see wars18c.htm
  45. (For the 19th Century, see wars19c.htm)
  46. (For the 20th Century, see 20c5m.htm, et seq.)

Medieval wars as a whole:

Pitirim Sorokin estimated that Europeans lost some 435,000 men on the battlefield between 900 and 1450 CE:

Total War Dead Throughout History

I haven't the foggiest, but here's an interesting essay on the subject: The Great "War Figures" Hoax: an investigation in polemomythology

The Conquest of the Americas

[make link]

Estimate Death Toll from war, murder, genocide, aggravated disease and avoidable famine: 15 million (Matthew White, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities (W. W. Norton, 2012)

The number of Indians who died at the hands of the European invaders is highly debatable, and it basically centers on two questions:

  1. How many people lived in America before the population plummeted?
  2. How many of the deaths during the plummeting can be blamed on human cruelty?

Pre-Columbian Population:

Pick a number, any number.

Sometimes it seems that this is the way historians decide how many Indians lived in the Americas before the European Contact. As The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference puts it, "Estimates of the Native American population of the Americas, all completely unscientific, range from 15 to 60 million." And even this cynical assessment is wrong. The estimates range from 8 to 145 million.

If you want to study the question of pre-Columbian population and its subsequent decline in detail, two good books to start with are David Henige, Numbers From Nowhere (1998) and Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival (1987).

Population of the Western Hemisphere in 1492 according to various experts:

The problem, of course, is that by the time that the Europeans got around to counting the Indians, there were a lot fewer to count

I've graphed the estimates chronlogically to show that the passage of time and the gathering of more information is still not leading toward a consensus. Over the past 75 years, estimates have bounced around wildly and ended up right back where they started -- around 40 million.

I've also graphed the population of Europe in 1500 because this is magic number to which many of the estimates aspire. Native American history is traditionally treated as marginal -- a handful of primitive kingdoms that were easily overwhelmed by the most dynamic civilization on Earth -- but if it could somehow be proven that the Americas had even more people than Europe, then history would be turned upside down. The European conquest could be treated as the tail wagging the dog, like the Barbarian invasions of Rome, a small fringe of savages decending on the civilized world, wiping out or enslaving the bulk of humanity.

The advocates of large numbers, however, are often their own worst enemies. On page 33 of American Holocaust, David Stannard declares, "[P]robably about 25,000,000 people, or about seven times the number living in all of England, were residing in and around the great Valley of Mexico at the time of Columbus's arrival in the New World".

Now, I've been to England, and I can vouch that the English have left their mark on the land. You can't throw a brick in England without hitting some relic of the earlier inhabitants -- castles, cathedrals, Roman walls and roads, Stonehenge, etc. -- not to mention books, tools, coins, weapons and all the little pieces of the past that turn up anytime someone plows a field or cleans their attic.

Now go back and read what Stannard has written. I'm sure that the point that he's trying to make is that since there were seven times as many Mexicans as English, truly the Mexicans were seven times more civilized than the English, so if anyone deserved to be called "savages", it's the English. Unfortunately, the point that nags at me is "If there were seven times as many people in Mexico, shouldn't there be seven times as many relics in Mexico?" Yes, I've read the archaeological reports that discuss irrigation systems, and I've seen the big, colorful picture books showing jungle-encrusted ruins of ancient pyramids, but the fact is that seven times the population of England should have left behind a lot more stuff than that.

I find the estimates for Virginia even more awkward because I live here. Stannard estimates the population of Powhatan's Confederation at 100,000, yet there's not a single site in the Virginia Tidewater that remotely hints at the complex infrastructure necessary to support even half this number. There's not one ruin of any permanent building. Artifacts of any kind are rare -- barely even a single burial mound worth pilfering. And it's not like there's some forgotten ghost town deep in the desert or jungle waiting to be discovered. This is Virginia. It's been settled, plowed and excavated for 400 years.

I also find it difficult to believe that the Europeans obliterated all traces of the earlier inhabitants. After all, I've been to Germany too. I've seen that bombed-out cities still have a substantial presence of the past, and I doubt that the conquistadores could be more destructive than a flock of B-17s. [n.3]

In any case, the median of all the estimates charted above is 40 million. It's the type of number that half the experts would consider impossibly big, and the other half would consider impossibly low, so it's probably exactly right.

And then, within a century of the European Contact, the hemispheric population plunged to a fairly well-proven residue of less than 10 million. How many of these deaths count as indictable atrocities?

The Death Toll:

In American Holocaust, Stannard estimates the total cost of the near-extermination of the American Indians as 100,000,000.

The problem here (aside from the question of whether there were even this many people in hemisphere at all) is that Stannard doesn't differentiate between death by massacre and death by disease. He blames the Europeans for bringing new diseases which spread like wildfire -- often faster than than the Europeans themselves -- and depopulated the continent. Since no one disputes the fact that most of the native deaths were caused by alien diseases to which they had never developed immunity, the simple question of categorization is vital.

Traditionally we add death by disease and famine into the total cost of wars and massacres (Anne Frank, after all, died of typhus, not Zyklon-B, but she's still a victim of the Holocaust) so I don't see any problem with doing the same with the American genocides, provided that the deaths occurred after their society had already been disrupted by direct European hostility. If a tribe was enslaved or driven off its lands, the associated increase in deaths by disease would definitely count toward the atrocity (The chain of events which reduced the Indian population of California from 85,000 in 1852 to 18,000 in 1890 certainly counts regardless of the exact agent of death, because by this time, the Indians were being hunted down from one end of California to another.); however, if a tribe was merely sneezed on by the wrong person at first contact, it should not count.

Consider the Powhatans of Virginia. As I mentioned earlier, Stannard cites estimates that the population was 100,000 before contact. In the same paragraph, he states that European depredations and disease had reduced this population to a mere 14,000 by the time the English settled Jamestown in 1607. Now, come on; should we really blame the English for 86,000 deaths that occured before they even arrived? Sure, he hints at pre-Jamestown "depredations", but he doesn't actually list any. As far as I can tell, the handful of European ventures into the Chesapeake region before 1607 were too small to do much depredating, and in what conflicts there were, the Europeans often got the worst of it. [see and and]

Think of it this way: if the Europeans had arrived with the most benign intentions and behaved like perfect guests, or for that matter, if Aztec sailors had been the ones to discover Europe instead of vice versa, then the Indians would still have been exposed to unfamiliar diseases and the population would still have been scythed by massive epidemics, but we'd just lump it into the same category as the Black Death, i.e. bad luck. (Curiously, the Black Death was brought to Europe by the Mongols. Should we blame them for it? And while we're tossing blame around willy-nilly, aren't the Native Americans responsible for introducing tobacco to the world -- and for the 90 million deaths which followed?)

Other Guesses:

I can't confidently estimate the number of unnatural deaths (i.e. indictable killings, as a result of violence and oppression, both direct [war, murder, execution] and indirect [famine, avoidable disease]) among Amerindians across the centuries, but as a guess, I'd say 20 million, for no reasons other than it's half of the original 40M, and it seems to be near the median of the 4 previous estimates. (Rummel, Barrett, Althea, Stannard)

Not the most solid grounds, I'll grant you.

Specific Events:

Chinese Population Crashes

Despite a few temporary interruptions, China has existed as a political entity longer than any other nation on Earth, and the civil servants of the Chinese Empire have been keeping detailed records for centuries.  Surprisingly, many fragments, copies and summaries survive — among them are sporadic census records going back several dynasties, showing the impact of war, plague, flood and famine. The following documented population collapses have been accepted as authentic by some scholars, but doubted by others.

  1. Xin Dynasty/Red Eyebrows Revolt (interrupting the Han Dynasty: 9-24 C.E.) [make link]
  2. Three Kingdoms (189-280 C.E.) [make link]
  3. An Lushan Revolt (756-763 CE) 13,000,000 [make link]
  4. China, fall of the Yuan Dynasty (ca. 1368) [make link]
  5. China, fall of the Ming Dynasty (1618-44) [make link]

Miscellaneous Oriental Atrocities

Here are just a few of the estimates that are kicking around:

  1. China, Shang Dynasty (ca. 1750-1050 BCE) [make link]
  2. Assyrians
  3. Qin Shihuangdi (First Emperor of China: 221 to 210 BCE) [make link]
  4. India, Ashoka's Conquest of Kalinga (261 BCE)
  5. China, Yellow Turban Revolt (184 CE) [make link]
  6. China (4th-6thC CE)
  7. China, something? (600s CE):
  8. Korea, Chinese Invasion (612 CE) [make link]
  9. Arab Outbreak, et seq. (7th Century CE and beyond) [make link]
  10. Morocco (1035 CE):
  11. Fang La Rebellion (China: 1120-22) [make link]
  12. Chinggis Khan (ruled 1206-27) 40,000,000 [make link]
  13. India, Muhammad Shah, Sultan of Kulbarga vs. Bukka I, Raya of Vijayanagar (1366) [make link]
  14. Timur Lenk (1369-1405) [make link]
  15. Ottoman Empire (16th Century) [make link]
  16. Campaign around Belgrade (1456): Chronicles of Enguerrand de Monstrelet by Enguerrand de Monstrelet, p.240: 200,000 Turks slain in campaign.
  17. Misc. events in the Muslim Conquest of India [make link]
  18. Mughal India (1568)
  19. Burma-Siam (1500s) [make link]
  20. Korea, Japanese Invasion (1592-98) [make link]
  21. Ottoman Empire (17th Century) [make link]
  22. Japan, Shimabara Rebellion (1638) [make link]
  23. Mughal Empire, Alamgir Aurangzeb (1681-1707) [make link]

[FAQ: "How reliable are these numbers?"]

List of Recurring Sources


[n.1] "...more barbaric than previous centuries."

One contender for worst century has to be the Seventeenth (the 1600s). The 30 Years War was the bloodiest single conflict in Europe until World War One. Russia began the century in bloody chaos. The Manchu conquest of China was certainly responsible for one the top population collapses in East Asia, while the Mughal invasion of South India caused the highest alledged body count in South Asian history. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Native American population bottomed out, and the Slave Trade was accelerating. All this was clobbering a world with a population only a fifth that of the world in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

The primary cause of this was a quantum leap in military technology. The development of efficient muskets and artillery was allowing entire civilizations to be brought under the command of a single dynasty, creating so-called Gunpowder Empires. Although in later centuries, these new Empires would be a stabilizing influence, they began by destroying ancient power balances and unleashing chaos.

[The Dictionary of Military History, (1994, André Corvisier, editor) cites a French scholar who estimated that 2% of the non-military European population died of war during the 17th Century. My estimate (on another page) is that 4-5% of all deaths in the 20th Century were caused by war and oppression. I haven't yet figured out whether these two statistics are comparable ("non-military European ... war" vs. "all ... war and oppression".)]

See also Total War Dead Throughout History.


[n.2] FAQ: "How reliable are ancient and medieval atrocity statistics?"

The short answer is, "We don't know."

The longer answer is that these are the numbers we've been given, so we pretty much have to take them or leave them at face value. We can't easily check behind them.

The principle argument against the accuracy of ancient atrocity statistics is that they come from innumerate societies without the modern skill in counting large numbers of people and keeping accurate records. Conquerors liked to brag about their exploits, and the vast hordes of the enemy army grew with each retelling. Civilization before the Enlightenment was rather flexible when it came to historic accuracy, and medieval historians never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Specific numbers from ancient history are often discredited by pointing out that it would have been physically impossible to crowd that many people onto that battlefield, or to fit them inside the walls of this city, or to carry that many arrows, or to slit that many throats in that length of time.

In fact, there are many historians who doubt ancient atrocity statistics as a matter of course, simply because the supporting evidence (if there ever was any) is now lost in the mists of time. Of course, in 300 years, historians will probably be treating the Holocaust the same way.

The principle argument in favor of these statistics is that they were considered credible at the time, and if eyewitnesses believed that it was logistically possible to field an army that huge, well, they would know better than we would, right? Our ancestors knew how to count sheep and cattle, so why would they suddenly turn stupid when it came to counting people. We often accept the word of ancient historians when they list a chronology of events, so why are we more skeptical when they list numbers?

Nor is technology the deciding factor. Even today, most killings are accomplished with traditional low-tech methods (starvation, disease, machetes), so we shouldn't automatically consider high body counts to be beyond the reach of our ancestors. In our lifetimes, we've seen massive genocides commited in Cambodia and Rwanda without any particularly advanced technology.

Many critics assume that modern war is always more destructive simply because the weaponry is more destructive. What everyone forgets, however, is that modern war can also be less destructive by rushing food and medicine into affected areas. A medieval peasant returning to his looted farm after the Mongols had passed through would face winter without any stockpiled food, ruins instead of shelter and rags on his back. A crowded medieval city under siege would be swept by epidemics without any vaccines to stop them. Say what you will about the brutality of the modern would, at least we have the Red Cross.

We should keep in mind that many of the numbers from well-documented modern horrors are too big to be believed, but true nonetheless. The danger in doubting too easily is that we'll approach the subject with a double standard, believing the stories we want to believe, and denying the ones we don't.

[n.3] Native American Population

I get a lot of comments on this, most of them trying to explain away the lack of artifacts.

In any case, it appears that they've conceded my main point -- that there are fewer archaeological relics than an equivalent number of Europeans, Asians or Africans would leave behind -- and are reduced to making excuses.

Let me try again: Everywhere we look in the Old World, from Zimbabwe to Angkor Wat to Shang China to Troy to Vedic India to Stonehenge, we see that populations of a certain density produce detritus such as the foundations of buildings, discarded bones of domestic animals, rusty tools, rusty nails, pottery shards, glass shards, lost coins, abandoned mineshafts, crumbling stone walls, broken bridges, broken piers, broken statues, inscriptions, tombs, shipwrecks and graffiti. We also see that town sites are inhabited for centuries at a time, generating layer after layer of this detritus.

You might want to point out that the Indians didn't even have the technologies listed above, but that's my point. They lacked the technology that other societies needed to maintain high population densities. In fact, the overall scarcity of artifacts across so much of pre-Columbian America is a strong indication that either ...

  1. The native population density was far less than ancient farming communities in comparable climatic zones of the Old World, or
  2. There's a vast cover-up of supporting evidence by chauvanistic Euro-Americans, or
  3. The natives were exceptionally frugal and tidy, or
  4. They used delicate and fragile materials that vanished without a trace.

You may take your pick, but I like Option One because it doesn't require that we invent hypothetical and mysterious technologies, psychologies or conspiracies out of thin air.

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Last updated Jan. 2012

Copyright © 1999-2010 Matthew White