If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Data Exploration - Population

There are a lot of humans living on the planet today. But for most of our history, our population was much smaller. Demography provides one window into our shared history.
The data exploration article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview – what do we have?

This will be your quickest read. It should help you get the general idea of what this chart is about and the information it contains. Pay attention to:
  • Labels and titles. What is the title? How are the axes labeled? Is anything else on the chart labeled?
  • Data representation. How many variables are there and what are they? What are the scales? What time period does the chart cover? Is the chart interactive?
  • Data source. Where did the data for this chart come from? Do you trust it? Who created the chart?

Second read: key ideas – what do we know?

In this read, you will pay attention to the information that most helps you understand the chart and the information it is trying to convey. Pay attention to:
  • Claim(s). What can you say about the data? What story does it tell? Can you make any claims about this data? Does it change when you zoom in compared to when you look at the data as a whole?
  • Evidence. What data from the chart supports this story? Does this change if you change the scale or variables?
  • Presentation. How does the way this chart is presented influence how you read it? Has the author selected certain variables or scales that change the conclusions that can be drawn? Is there anything missing from this chart?
By the end of the second read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How has the global human population changed in the last 12,000 years?
  2. In what 50-year period did the human population increase most dramatically?
  3. Has the global human population ever shrunk? When? What events might have caused this?
  4. What argument is this chart is making? How did the creator of this chart want you to feel after seeing it?
  5. What dates do we seem to have the best data for? Do you think you can trust the population data used in this chart? Why or why not?

Third read: making connections – what does this tell us?

The third reading is really about why the chart is important and what it can tell us about the past and help us think about the future. Pay attention to:
  • Significance. Why does this matter? Does this impact me, and if so, how? How does it connect what is going on in the world right now? How does it relate to what was happening at the time it was created?
  • Back to the future. How does this data compare to today? Based on what you now know, what are your thoughts on this phenomenon 25 years, 50 years, and 100 years from now?
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Why does this chart matter? What do global changes in population tell us about changes in human societies? How has population growth affected the way we organize ourselves, communicate with each other, and make and use goods?
  2. Using this chart, make one prediction about how the global human population will change in your lifetime. What evidence from the chart supports your prediction? Is there any evidence that challenges it?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Population Data Introduction

Hundreds of pedestrians cross the intersection of a busy, large city.
By Max Roser, adapted by Mike Papritz and Trevor R. Getz
There are a lot of humans living on the planet today. But for most of our history, our population was much smaller. Demography provides one window into our shared history.

Demography data

World history courses require you to test claims made through historical narratives that have a global geographic scope and cover long periods of time. In most cases, the evidence you will use to test these claims covers shorter periods of time and smaller regions of the world. Most of that evidence comes in the form of written text or videos. Some of it is quantitative, which means that it comes in the form of numbers that count people and things. That data is then represented in maps, charts, and tables. Those representations make it easier to understand the data, but you will also get to work with the numbers themselves, if you choose to.
One of the most important types of data for this course is demographic. That is the data we begin the course with, and it is also the data with which we will end the course.
Demography is an interesting word. It’s made up of two parts that give it meaning. It ends with the suffix -graphy, which appears in many other words, such as geography, cartography, photography, and biography. So, what does the suffix -graphy mean? In short, -graphy means the “study of” something.
So, what is demography the “study of”? The word begins with the prefix demo-. This prefix comes from the Greek language and refers to people or population. If we combine the two parts of the word, we see that demography is the “study of populations.” Through your work in this course, you will come across historical demography information or population scenarios that you’ll investigate in order help you understand modern population statistics of today.

Human demography in the long term

Demography is an important element in understanding the past and the present. It is also crucial in trying to anticipate the future. Demographers study changes in birth and death rates, incidence of disease, life expectancy, and where people live.
Over time, of course, the human population has grown dramatically. That’s the biggest demographic trend of them all. From about 250,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago, there were important shifts in demographics. At the beginning of this time period, there were few people on the Earth and their main activities for survival were hunting and gathering. They were nomads. By 5,000 years ago, migration to new regions and the Agricultural Revolution had sparked the rise in human population we see continuing today.
From its modest beginning, human population has today grown to about 7 billion people living just about everywhere on the Earth. In many ways, world history is the story of this growth. Now, you might think that population grows steadily, century after century, and across all the regions of the globe. However, historical demographers have shown in their studies that this has not been the case.
The chart below shows the increasing number of people living on our planet over the last 12,000 years. A mindboggling change: The world population today is 1,860 times the size of what it was 12 millennia ago when the world population was around 4 million—half of the current population of London.
Data chart shows how the human population stayed about the same for 9,000 years, then rose a little, then jumped dramatically in the last 200 years.
The size of the world population over the last 12,000 years. Explore an interactive version of this chart here: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-population-since-10000-bce-ourworldindata-series By Our World in Data, CC BY 4.0.
What is most striking about this chart is that almost all of this growth happened just very recently. For a long period—from the appearance of modern Homo sapiens up to the starting point of this chart in 10,000 BCE—it is estimated that the total world population was often well under 1 million. Historical demographers estimate that around the year 1800, the world population was only around 1 billion people. This implies that on average the population grew very slowly from 10,000 BCE to 1700 (by 0.04 percent annually). After 1800, however, this slow growth fundamentally changed. From around 1 billion people in the year 1800, the global population has increased 7 times since then. We are now over 7 billion humans.
Around 108 billion people have ever lived on our planet. Some demographers estimate that today’s population size makes up 6.5 percent of the total number of people ever born.
What are the big patterns driving the history of human global population? What happens when we look at this interpretation of the data—and the data itself—more closely?
Author bio
Max is the founder and director of Our World in Data. He began the project in 2011 and for several years was the sole author, until receiving funding for the formation of a team. Max’s research focuses on poverty, global health, and the distribution of incomes. He is also Programme Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development at the University of Oxford, and Co-executive Director of Global Change Data Lab, the non-profit organization that publishes and maintains the website and the data tools that make OWID’s work possible.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.