Numeracy levels in the Guarani Jesuit missions

June 15, 2022 | Blog
Home > Numeracy levels in the Guarani Jesuit missions

by Èric Gómez-i-Aznar (University of Barcelona)

This blog post is based upon the author’s article forthcoming in the Economic History Review. The author is the winner of the 2022 Thirsk-Feinstein Dissertation Prize.


A central question in economic history is the role of institutions in the development of different societies. More than a few historians point to the relevance of the persistence of institutions for long-term development. For example, there are studies that compare the experience of countries with different institutions established during the colonial era, indicating that these early differences remain important today. In the case of Latin America, ‘extractive institutions’ feature prominently in the literature. But it is far from certain that there were only ‘extractive’ institutions in Spanish America, e.g. encomienda, mita, repartimiento, etc. The Jesuit Guarani missions of the eighteenth century would be an example of this plurality of institutions in the colonial period.


Figure 1.    Location of the Guarani Jesuit missions

Source: Author’s elaboration

The Jesuits formed up to 30 missions, also known as reductions, in this area, which, at its peak, housed more than 140,000 Guarani, a traditionally semi-nomadic indigenous tribe. They did so in an area that is now between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay; see Figure 1. The Jesuit Guarani missions were also a unique social experiment within the missionary experiences of the European empires in Africa, America, and Asia, arousing the admiration of philosophers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire. Based on self-sufficiency, the reductions were an alternative way of incorporating the Indians into the colonial system during the modern age. This presence began at the beginning of the seventeenth century and lasted for more than a century and a half, until 1767, when the Spanish Crown, under Charles III, expelled the Society of Jesus from America.


My article, forthcoming in the Economic History Review, uses the age-heaping methodology to provide data on human capital in the Jesuit missions during the 18th century. Data on arithmetical ability in the Jesuit Guarani missions in the 18th century were obtained from a novel source: the censuses of Indians, or padrones. The padrones contain data on the age of the entire male (in some cases also female) population of the reductions. The main contribution of my article is to provide numerical results for the missions when they were in operation. The aim is to be able to provide data on human capital for a particular case within the religious missions; the effects of which persist into the present, despite the expulsion of the Jesuits. Although the Jesuit missions were abolished in 1767, more than two hundred and fifty years ago, their political and economic consequences may have persisted, as the work of Felipe Valencia Caicedo (2019) shows.


The availability of censuses from other colonized areas and under the domination of the Spanish Monarchy in the 18th century also allows us to compare the results obtained in other colonial cases, e.g. the communities with an indigenous population in the region of Puno, in southern Peru, near the Bolivian border. Another case concerns Spanish Louisiana, now in the United States, and information is also available on the Franciscan missions during the colonization of California. This information is useful for a comparative analysis of the exceptional nature of the Jesuit Guarani missions.


Although the sample analyzed has more than 3,600 observations in total, the diversity of local situations means that an overall picture can only be drawn with caution. Nevertheless, the results obtained seem to indicate that the level of computing capacity in the Jesuit Guarani missions, as well as in those of Alta California that replicate the mission model, was close to 100 per cent in the eighteenth century; see Figure 2. The model of these missions based on productive self-sufficiency, egalitarianism, and cohesive social organisation, as well as respect for the pre-existing culture, exemplified by their Guarani-isation and adaptation to the Guarani worldview and language, could explain their successful educational performance and the intergenerational transmission of human capital after the disappearance of the Jesuit missions.


Figure 2.   ABCC index in different world regions, 18th century

Sources: Castilla: Álvarez and Ramos Palencia, ‘Human capital’; Catalonia: Gómez-i-Aznar, ‘Human capital’; Portugal: Stolz et al., ‘Portuguese living standards’; Latin America: Manzel et al., ‘Convergence’; Western Europe: A’Hearn et al., ‘Quantifying quantitative literacy’. See the article in the Economic History Review for full references


Overall, the results point to the role that the type of institution in a territory would have played in numerical education, which would have been particularly low in institutions based on models of extreme inequality with less respect for pre-existing social structure and culture, such as extractive institutions. This has implications for future research on this question, and this study contributes to the debate on the typology of institutions (whether they were more or less extractive), the effects of missions on the diffusion of human capital, and the relationship between missions and long-term economic development.



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Valencia Caicedo, F., ‘The mission: human capital transmission, economic persistence, and culture in South America’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 134 (2019), pp. 507–56.