It is well-established that the Conquest of the Americas by Europeans led to catastrophic declines in indigenous populations. However, less is known about the conditions under which indigenous communities were able to overcome the onslaught of disease and violence that they faced. Drawing upon a rich set of sources, including Aztec tribute rolls and early Conquest censuses, we develop a new disaggregated dataset on the pre-Conquest economic, epidemiological and political conditions both in 11,888 potential settlement locations in the historic core of Mexico and specifically in 1093 actual settlements recorded in an early Conquest-era census, the Suma de Visitas (1548).
Of these 1093 settlements, we show that 37% had disappeared entirely by 1790. Yet, despite being subject to Conquest-era violence, subsequent coercion and multiple pandemics that led average populations in those settlements to fall from 2377 to 128 by 1646, 13% would still end the colonial era larger than they started. We show that both indigenous settlement survival durations and population levels through the colonial period are robustly predicted, not just by Spanish settler choices or by their diseases, but also by the extent to which indigenous communities could themselves leverage nonreplicable and non-expropriable resources and skills from the pre-Columbian period that would prove complementary to global trade. Thus indigenous opportunities and agency played important roles in shaping their own resilience.