An important factor in the economic development of the Aksumite state would have been its demographic history. Kobishchanov (1979: 122-5), in his discussion about Aksumite population, somewhat adventurously concluded that the largest towns, including Aksum, were, `judging by the area they occupied’ to be `numbered in thousands or a few tens of thousands of persons’, and that the population of the whole Aksumite kingdom without Arabia and Nubia, was `at the outside half a million’. This was presumably based on available archaeological evidence. It has been mentioned above that a survey conducted by Joseph Michels in 1974 revealed a concentration of population in the immediate area around Aksum, where he identified eight `culture historical phases’ (Ch. 3: 3). His plans (Kobishchanov 1979: 24; Michels 1988) show many large and small élite residences, which he identified as belonging to the phases within the Aksumite period, but the entire city plan for anyone period is not available. Accordingly, no valid population estimates can be made.
There is in reality little evidence which allows us to even try to estimate Aksumite urban populations. We cannot really judge population from the size of the towns, since their peripheral areas, where we may suppose a considerable number of people would be concentrated in contrast to the probably more sparsely-populated élite areas, were doubtless occupied by impermanent dwellings untraceable without excavation. Though such areas can be partially identified archaeologically by the surface collection of sherds and so forth, this has only been done for Aksum, with the results shown on Michels’ survey plan. From the chronological point of view, Michels (1986) considered that some of the élite residences behind Enda Kaleb dated from a late period in Aksumite history when the capital had been `reduced to a loose cluster of villages’. In earlier times the town would not have extended so far, and only after much more concentrated archaeological investigation can we expect to assemble an accurate picture of the town’s various expansion phases over the centuries. Nevertheless, the general impression of the capital resulting from Michels’ survey is of a town of considerable size, containing a corresponding population.
Doubtless the same applies to Adulis and Matara, where excavations have revealed sizeable areas of settlement (Paribeni 1907; Anfray 1963; Anfray and Annequin 1965). We have no real information about the extent of the other Aksumite towns and villages known so far only by their few surviving stone monuments (Ch. 3: 4), but their very number seems to hint at a substantial population in certain areas of the country. A few foreigners’ descriptions of Aksumite towns imply that they were of a fair size, an interesting observation when such visitors were, like Nonnosus (Photius, ed. Freese 1920), familiar with towns of the importance of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch or Alexandria. When the number of known Aksumite town or village centres is taken into account, without considering the supporting rural population whose local centres these were, the estimate of half a million at the outside for the whole kingdom seems perhaps too cautious, since whole regions of the former Aksumite kingdom have only been cursorily surveyed for archaeological sites, if at all. Manpower, particularly in the military and agricultural sectors, must ultimately have been one of the most important bases of Aksumite power, and perhaps it was with this in mind that Ezana took such pains over moving troublesome Beja groups from their traditional lands to Matlia, instead of simply destroying them (see Ch. 11: 5).
The rather better climatic conditions deduced by Butzer (1981) may indicate that the carrying capacity of the land was greater in earlier Aksumite times, especially if the methods of agriculture were reasonably sophisticated, and therefore sizable town populations could have been supported by the work of fewer food-producers than might be expected. But as yet our knowledge about such questions as agricultural methods and possibilities, or about the area of cultivated or cultivable land, and the availability of easy transport to enlarge each town’s food-catchment area, is completely inadequate. The land-charters of later ages, and some which claim to be of Aksumite or just post-Aksumite date, give the impression that adequate records about the land had been compiled (Huntingford 1965), but unfortunately, information which might lead to the preparation of population estimates based on statistics of hearths or families per village is lacking. It is not beyond imagination that Aksumite government officials maintained some records about the numbers of the population.
Some sort of census would have helped in estimating such matters as taxation returns, available labour for large projects, or the size of military musters, and the accounting machinery was certainly available. The inscriptions DAE 4, 6 & 7 (Ch. 11: 5), for example, detail the exact numbers of the Beja tribes being moved to Matlia, and record precise amounts of food supplied to them. The establishment of a church organisation in the country might further have encouraged a population survey to some extent, as boundaries between parishes or dioceses were fixed. No extensive cemeteries, with their useful information on the people’s diet, diseases and mortality, have been excavated, although the bones collected by Leclant (1959i) and de Contenson (1959i) and Chittick (Munro-Hay 1989) may eventually supply some information on the people of Aksum through the centuries. The first two found bones conjectured to date from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, while Chittick cleared a few tombs, notably that called Shaft Tomb A, in the main cemetery, and a tomb near the Kaleb/Gabra Masqal building, which contained a number of bodies.