The BBC website has a neat interactive where you can plug in your date of birth, and it will output the numbern of where you fit “in the story of human life.”
But the more interesting part was the link to the Population Reference Bureau, where an article attempted to guess the total number of humans that have ever lived on Earth.
First, a caveat:
And semi-scientific it must be, because there are, of course, absolutely no demographic data available for 99 percent of the span of the human stay on Earth. Still, with some speculation concerning prehistoric populations, we can at least approach a guesstimate of this elusive number.
Continuing, the article explains a number of assumptions about early human life:
At the dawn of agriculture, about 8000 B.C., the population of the world was somewhere on the order of 5 million. (Very rough figures are given in the table; these are averages of an estimate of ranges given by the United Nations and other sources.) The slow growth of population over the 8,000-year period, from an estimated 5 million to 300 million in 1 A.D., results in a very low growth rate—only 0.0512 percent per year. It is difficult to come up with an average world population size over this period. In all likelihood, human populations in different regions grew or declined in response to famines, the vagaries of animal herds, hostilities, and changing weather and climatic conditions.
In any case, life was short. Life expectancy at birth probably averaged only about 10 years for most of human history. Estimates of average life expectancy in Iron Age France have been put at only 10 or 12 years. Under these conditions, the birth rate would have to be about 80 per 1,000 people just for the species to survive. Today, a high birth rate would be about 45 to 50 per 1,000 population, observed in only a few countries of Africa and in several Middle Eastern countries that have young populations.
Our birth rate assumption will greatly affect the estimate of the number of people ever born. Infant mortality in the human race’s earliest days is thought to have been very high—perhaps 500 infant deaths per 1,000 births, or even higher. Children were probably an economic liability among hunter-gatherer societies, a fact that is likely to have led to the practice of infanticide. Under these circumstances, a disproportionately large number of births would be required to maintain population growth, and that would raise our estimated number of the “ever born.”
The site starts tallying population growth from 50,000 B.C., and comes to the following conclusion:
This semi-scientific approach yields an estimate of about 108 billion births since the dawn of the human race. Clearly, the period 8000 B.C. to 1 A.D. is key to the magnitude of our number, but, unfortunately, little is known about that era. The assumption of constant population growth in the earlier period may underestimate the average population size at the time. And, of course, pushing the date of humanity’s arrival on the planet before 50,000 B.C. would also raise the number, although perhaps not by terribly much.
So with the current population approaching 7 billion, about 6.5% of humans living today have ever lived on Earth.