The Death Toll Comparison Breakdown

One of the things about humans is that they die sometimes, and one of the things humans pay a lot of attention to is other people dying. We do a pretty good job of distracting ourselves from the whole “I’m gonna die one day” thing, but the fixation is there, underneath the surface, and one way it shows through is how riveted we are by other people’s deaths.

The news is an obvious example—just open up and typically, at least half of the headlines are about people dying. Entertainment is another—nothing locks eyes on a screen like the death of a character.

History is a less obvious example, but it’s the parts of history that involve a lot of people dying that usually compel us the most. That’s why there are so many war movies and so few movies about critical legislation being passed.

But for a crowd so interested in death, humans know surprisingly little about the actual numbers of people that died in key moments throughout history. Most of us know that 3,000 people died on 9/11, but how many Americans know how many Katrina victims there were, or how many people died in the American Revolution. Did the Christian Crusades kill 100 times as many people as the Vietnam War? Or were they identical in their death tolls? Given how much we talk about historical human tragedies, it seems like something we should have a better handle on. So let’s take a look.

Some quick notes:

  • The area of each circle in the graphic is exactly proportional to the number it’s representing and to the other circles in the graphic. Note the scale, and how it changes as the numbers grow. I chose circles and area because a one-dimensional scale like a bar graph doesn’t work when numbers are growing 1,000-fold over each other—you need two dimensions to be able to handle such a wide range. But keep in mind that with the way area works, a circle with double the diameter of another circle represents four times the deaths, not two.
  • I focused on human tragedies of various kinds, but sprinkled normal death statistics (the gray circles) throughout as comparison points to help put things in perspective.
  • I tried to maintain integrity in my research. There are many “sources” citing various death tolls online—so I made sure there was a reasonable consensus for all the numbers below. When there were too many differing opinions (like Howard Zinn saying European Colonialism killed 100 million people, with other sources saying it was 2 million), I left it out. Sometimes, there is genuine uncertainty to the exact death toll in an event, but a consensus about the lower and upper bound that the death toll might be. In those cases, I made the upper bound a big, faded circle, and the lower bound a smaller, brighter circle inside. For example, the total number of lucky people who had their hearts cut out and sacrificed by the Aztecs is unknown. But historians are pretty sure that the number is somewhere between 300,000 and 1,500,000. So I represented that like this, with two circles:


Alright, on with it.  The Death Toll Comparison Breakdown:


Deaths Key

DEATH1Death Final4DEATH3


More Wait But Why history brush-ups:

From Muhammad to ISIS: Iraq’s Full Story

The American Presidents—Washington to Lincoln

And another one in infographic form: Putting Time in Perspective

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  • Daniel Lancaster

    This is one of the most interesting infographics I’ve seen. I was completely surprised by so many of them. The Haiti earthquake killed 316k, more than the tsunamis—probably the most shocking to me. Please do more of these!!

  • James Faction

    A picture paints a thousand words.

    • Anonymous

      What a shitty thing to say.

  • Wait But Why

    Well played

  • Julie Bolton

    Fabulous and fascinating infographic. Krakatoa eruption 1883, 40,000 people- great book by Simon Winchester on the natural disaster.

  • Anonymous

    i wonder how many death people there are compared to living. I always had the idea there’s a lot more people dead than living, but someone brought up that we are now at break even.

    • Chris

      I read in “The Fault in our Stars” that there are 14 dead people for every person alive today.

      • Sam

        thats a terrible source. It’s not scientific at all. That statistic may be wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Really good and thought-provoking. However as I reached the black death I couldn’t help thinking, that human population size has varied throughout the time. The black death wiped out two thirds of the continents population, which would be equal to 500 million people had it happened today. While at the same time the annual death toll of natural causes and other than the plague at the time would have been considerably lower. It would be interesting to see time-population adjusted version of this!

    You also might want to compare todays death causes, as there are quite accurate statistics of those these days. At least in Finland, where I come from (

  • Anonymous

    Any particular reason why you just deleted Edie Nahoy’s comments?

  • Anonymous

    Could you post source citations? I find this really interesting, but it’s tough to cite to this website.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent synthesis. I know the numbers are contested, but next time do consider the Russian Civil War (1917-22) ~9million and then (low number) of 8million in the pre-WWII period thanks to Stalin’s paranoia and agricultural schemes.

  • Jay MacDonald

    Nice representation. However, I suggest that the 31K figure on gun deaths includes suicide. Having a suicide bubble next implies that the gun deaths bubble doesn’t include them.

    Time to recheck the figures. Maybe here:

    • Anonymous

      That’s a good point. If suicide figures are presented separately, it’s slightly misleading to also include them with “firearm deaths” even though it’s *technically* accurate. But often times suicides are left with “gun deaths” because it makes the “gun violence” picture look more grim than it really is.

    • Wait But Why

      Good point. Clarification added.

  • wnpaul

    Interesting that deaths by abortion are not listed …

    • Anonymous


    • Anonymous

      You can’t kill what has no life.

    • Paul David Radford-Hancock

      you cant give life to what you kill.

  • Anonymous

    Did I miss it, or why is there no mention of the millions of Africans killed during Slavery?

    • Anonymous

      What about non-African slaves? And do we include every person who died a slave or only those that were somehow killed by slavery?

  • Anonymous

    Deaths by abortion aren’t listed because no one dies in an abortion…dickhead troll.

    • Anonymous

      just the baby

    • Anonymous

      Depending on country where it’s perform, the abortion need to be done before it’s cellular division is complete enough for any kind of conscience. Conscience being what segregate a being from carbon assembly. So… not the baby.

    • Anonymous

      According to you, a victim of liberal brainwashing…

    • Anonymous

      Says the victim of religious indoctrination and non-rational thinking…

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    What about the other 6 million people who were victims of the Holocaust?

  • Anonymous

    Not to be that jerk that points out something wrong, but the Haitian Earthquake death toll is thought to be greatly overestimated. USAID came up with a figure under 100,000. Not minimizing what a tragedy it was, just saying.

  • Anonymous

    Another amazing chart. Thank you. Was this ancient Volcano eruption mentioned yet? I know the numbers of deaths aren’t large. But it almost caused the extinction of the human race. The bottleneck theory referred to below suggests it caused “relatively low level of genetic variation among present-day humans”.
    From Wikipedia: “The Toba eruption has been linked to a genetic bottleneck in human evolution about 50,000 years ago,which may have resulted from a severe reduction in the size of the total human population due to the effects of the eruption on the global climate.
    According to the genetic bottleneck theory, between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, human populations sharply decreased to 3,000-10,000 surviving individuals.It is supported by genetic evidence suggesting that today’s humans are descended from a very small population of between 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs that existed about 70,000 years ago.”

  • Anonymous

    You forgot the Great flood that wiped out the Earth (Noah)…oh yeah and SLAVERY!

    • Anonymous

      >great flood

      Didn’t happen.

    • Anonymous

      Not to mention all the deaths from the Clone Wars. (Or perhaps it was an editorial decision to just stick with non-fiction?)

    • Anonymous

      Couple million people DEFINITELY died when Superman tore the shit outta Metropolis…

  • Sarah B

    I just spent at least 80 minutes reading about the Black Death and related subjects. Wait But Why, you are nothing if not a source of wikipedia binges.

    • Wait But Why

      This entire post was the result of like a 250 hour Wikipedia binge on my part, so I don’t feel bad about you being brought down with me.

  • RobiDon

    Also not included: The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor estimated the number of deaths during the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999 from famine and violence to be between 90,800 and 202,600 including between 17,600 and 19,600 violent deaths or disappearances, out of a 1999 population of approximately 823,386. The truth commission held Indonesian forces responsible for about 70% of the violent killings. Also the 2005 killing of 7 people at Red Lake Senior High School on Red Lake Reservation, Minnesota. Seems like you gave Native Americans short shrift in your presentation.

    • Anonymous

      The author also didn’t include the Australian massacre at a theme park that led to all their guns being taken away. I don’t think it was the author’s goal to list every time someone on Earth died – just to provide an interesting comparison of those that are most forefront in people’s minds. How about, instead of grilling the author for every incident you think they should have included, you be cognizant of and grateful for the amount of work that went into what they’ve got already? (By the way, the author also gave people with purple hair the short straw as I see none of their deaths listed here either.)

      • Rachel

        I agree with you, this is a great article, and the writer deserves praise, not being picked apart. Also liked your comment about the purple people.

        I’d just like to point out that ‘the Australian massacre at a theme park” was not at a theme park but rather at a place called Port Arthur, which is of significant (colonial, thus white) history. To call it a massacre at a theme park trivialises it. We’re a small nation, population-wise. 36 people being killed in one event is of huge significance, It was a catalyst for strict gun control laws. Our guns weren’t ‘taken away’. People still have guns in Australia, and you can legally own a gun. Our gun-control laws were strengthened, and a buy-back scheme was put in place for self-loading rifles and self-loading and pump action shotguns. It’s the only thing our then-Prime Minister ever got right. In my humble opinion. Because otherwise he was a tool.

        But, none of that is on point. This WBW guy is clever, and I appreciate the effort. Even if he did miss the purple-haired folk.

  • Daniel Zoeller

    Christopher Columbus killed 3 million in 20 years. Has that been mentioned yet?

    • Anonymous

      That guy must have been pretty handy with a sword or musket or something.

    • Anonymous

      He was handy with Smallpox. He got syphilis in return…

  • Brian Lehman

    Jonestown. American Indian genocide.

  • Hannah Fontana

    Sun goes supernova in 7 billion AD – 750 billion deaths. Beat that.

  • Anonymous

    I love the basic idea, and I think another 5-10 could be profitably added. Why not make a second edition of this?

    Just off-hand I noted most of the missing things that other commentators have pointed out (Stalin; Japanese in WWII; slave trade; Rwandan massacres; why not also show the number of Jews and Muslims killed in Jew/Muslim warfare or the Intifadas?). It’d be interesting to see abortions on the chart too; those who don’t consider abortion murder could just ignore it, but for people on the fence it might be interesting food for thought and for anti-abortion types it’d be sweet vindication.

    One correction I’d offer is that Haitian 2010 earthquake figures may have been grossly inflated; you already have a good mechanism to reflect lower and upper bounds so why not show a lower bound (which in this case is 100k)?

    Citations would also be nice. One final idea is to color-code the death rate in the circles? (EG: red for high deathrates, blue for low rates.) I note you have a different color assignment but from the graph titles its already pretty clear.

  • Cheng

    I wish I knew HTML5 coding, this would be a very cool chart that could be zoomed in and out, rather than having to change the scale periodically.

  • Anonymous

    Why don’t you start a crowd sourced History Commons timeline or a wikipedia page of of mass death events in the world which everyone could contribute to?

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  • Ryan

    Let me be the first to say “booooo!”. This goes far beyond procrastination. Hopefully I’m missing something here. :)

    • Anonymous

      But wait — Tim says this at the bottom of the post: “Going away for two weeks. Next new post coming 4/22.” I think we have to cut him some slack, right?

  • Julia

    Your next post should be about ideological rage among WBW comment writers…..

  • Kevin

    Nice re-post. I enjoyed this more the first time I read it. Slacker.

    • Anonymous

      Sometimes people need a break… if you’re so bothered by recycling content–like This American Life, RadioLab, and other public radio shows do all the time, maybe you should just stop visiting this site.

    • Anonymous

      And, by the way, it says at the bottom of the post that he’s traveling for 2 weeks and will start writing again when he’s back. You have a problem with allowing someone a 2 week summer vacation?

  • Kevin

    Yay you posted something new today! Oh…wait….

  • Maggi

    If you’re going to include abortion “deaths” for the “sweet vindication” of Anonymous, I’d like to see the total deaths from child abuse and neglect, malnutrition, poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and all the other consequences of not allowing choice in whether or not to bring another child into the world.

  • Ryn

    I love your site and I know you put *a lot* of work into your posts, but I had one hang up with this data: it never touches on gender. The fact that this data didn’t touch on the violence that women often experience in conjunction with war, felt like a missing piece to me. Or how about domestic violence and the number of women killed by partners each year? Women who die in childbirth? Or the number of women burned at the stake for being “witches”? I feel like it’s important that gender issues be included in these conversations rather than omitted as they so often are.

    None of this is accusatory, just something to consider for your future work. Seriously, you rock and I really admire the time and thought you put into your posts. : )

    • Tim

      Well, he did give the gender breakdown for suicide. In the US, as throughout
      the developed world, men commit suicide at a rate over 3 times that
      of women.

      I guess you also meant to list other statistics that bias heavily in favour of women, like workplace deaths (92% of which are male, see, and of course soldiers’ deaths in combat. (Soviet Russia was unusual for having 8% of its front line troops female in WWII, the highest proportion of any nation involved.)

      Regarding DV, it’s true that over twice as many women were murdered by their intimate partners as the other way round in the US in 2007 ( But regarding homicide overall, men represent 77% of victims for the period 1980-2008 ( Men also represent 90% of perpetrators.

      Regarding the burning of witches, I was surprised to see estimates as high as 100,000 from Wikipedia. That’s around 1 woman per day over the entire period from 1400 to 1700. There have been many things in history that had the effect of reducing women’s power in some way, but I think this is one of the few that specifically focused on killing women.

  • Deb W

    This is fascinating; thanks for putting this together.

    If people want other information included, there is nothing to stop them producing their own graphic (except perhaps laziness??).

  • Nick

    Very cool.

    Everyone is a critic and wants something that emphasizes their agenda, but I am surprised to see smallpox left out. It killed an estimated 300-500 million people in the 20th century, in the millions of deaths per year into the 1960’s. The disease was a ravenous scourge throughout human history, many cultures have gods of smallpox.

    That an article on historical death tolls can ignore the scars smallpox left on human history is a testament to the work done by the disease’s eradicators.

  • Saskia

    Hey, so great, love it. Put’s us all in perspective.

    You can’t include everything… Gee that would be worth a doctorate…. Human killing machines everywhere…

    One event I thought was worth looking up out of interest and I thought I share, just for those that are interested, not as a critic that it was missed!!….. The of Native Indian genocide in the US … close to 12 million. Bruts!!!

    “Thus, according to Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a”vast genocide . . . , the most sustained on record.” -” See more at:

  • Gigi

    There is absolutely nothing about the COMUNISM victims in Eastern Europe + Russia. They always seem to go unnoticed… there have been more victims of comunism all around the world than in WWI and II combined !

  • Znap!

    10 to 20 million Chinese were killed in World War II? That’s something I had never heard before.

  • Renato

    Homocide? That’s probably a whole different thing than homicide.

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  • Anonymous

    Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot in Cambodia in the 70’s: mass genocide. Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda.

  • Tom

    As usual with your posts, great work. Small point – when you say”- All circles are exactly proportional to the numbers they’re representing and to the other circles in the graphic. Note the scale, and how it changes as the numbers grow.” I checked this with a ruler and a few calculations on a piece of paper, and it looks as though it’s the radius//diameter that is proportional to the number rather than the circle’s area. Knowing what my maths is like, though…

    As for homocide, I’m surprised the GLBT community haven’t added you to the statistics. They are obviously a very forbearing lot.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Anonymous

    Really love your graphic here, but I have a few suggestions. The U.S. War Against Iraq started in 1990 and continued through the 2000s. Your death figure has to include the Iraqis killed by U.S. sanctions if it is to be totally accurate. You also list Hiroshima and Nagasaki deaths, but it would be interesting to include all deaths in Japanese cities killed during WW II by U.S. bombing campaigns.

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  • Giles

    I searched for the word ‘area’ in the comments, and only found the comment I was looking for near the end (thanks, Tom). I am amazed that no-one else has cried ‘foul’, since we must surely gauge the ‘size’ of a circle to be it’s area and not it’s diameter. If you want to make the whole thing less ambiguous and – to be honest – misleading, then use a graphical object where length and area are in fixed proportion. It is called a ‘column’. OK, boring, less impactful, less attention-grabbing, but less misleading and more honest, and the message, which is an interesting one, will still be relevant.

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  • Mrs. Eby

    Thank you. This was fascinating. I had NO IDEA more Russians died in WWII than Jews and I never would have guessed.

  • Liz

    Thank you for this! Just a quick point that people often forget that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust IN ADDITION to 6 million “others” in concentration camps, etc. These “others” were homosexuals, communists, political dissidents, Romani, and basically anyone else the Nazi regime wanted to eradicate.

  • Melissa

    This is a super awesome infographic. I love statistics!

  • victor_ludorum

    Hi there Wait But Why,

    You should add the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (Hutu and Tutsi). That’s about 500,000 to 1,000,000 people.

    • Claire

      He did include the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

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  • Anonymous

    Holodomor…..where is that ?…the declassified number of deaths is around 10,000,000….. It’s thought that around 20,000,000 died in this man-made famine.

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  • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

    There are no statistics of people killed in Bengal Famine of 1943, which was a man made engineered Genocide. Read: Winston Churchill.

  • mike

    I wonder why wouldn’t you put Poland loses in WW2 but you put British and American.
    Poland lost over 5 mln people and biggest population percentage in the world.

  • Guest

    Hmm I still didn’t see numbers for the crusades.

  • PADI CD Dan Robinson

    Tom, Giles
    a = 2 x pi x r = pi x d
    If r, d proportional, then so is a

  • MindOpener

    I think you also forgot my grandma’s death on your graph …! Please give Tim some props for doing this. I’m sure he spent a great amount of time doing his research and producing this graphs, and he probably thought about adding all the possible large death events but his graph would probably be too big. I don’t think he meant to “ignore” any other massacres like Armenian genocide, Rwanda or Congo. Death is part of our lives and we have to accept it. I personally believe that we should be focusing on birth now, 6 billions and counting, it’s becoming alarming and it will create more and more tension on our natural resource eco-system, our weather, etc .. which in turns will create deadly diseases and maybe zombies … jk. If we want to preserve our human race, we ought to preserve our planet first and think about others (which we don’t really do).

    • Suzie R

      Seriously? ! Why don’t you volunteer you and all your family and friends to ease the burden?

  • CitizenPeace

    Also interesting that there are multiple mentions in various ways about the German caused genocide of the Jews. Talk about agenda driven articles..

  • jeet

    Doc Daneeka decided and directed him to basically demand to be sent house because clearly he was insane and therefore unsuitable for fight.

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  • Chiel Wieringa

    So that’s 222,603,232 deaths as a result of government. Not counting “collateral damage” from war or things like the inquisition and stuff like that oh and let’s forget about the native Americans all together since people can’t agree on the number… since those are not in above numbers and I’m lazy.

    (counting terrorism and religion as government to, not counting corporate deaths but these could be accounted to government also)
    (if there’s a min and a max number I took the average of the 2)

    • jim

      where did you get such precise bullshit? there is no way to add up the dead, for any death toll there can only be approximate numbers. do you believe that exactly 6,000,000 jews died in Europe from 1932 to 1945 ? or exactly 2,500,000 Armenians, exactly,died in turkey prior to ww1? what about the irish in the potato famine? or Africans during the middle passage?

      • Chiel Wieringa

        Does “approximately 225 million based on the numbers mentioned in the main article” make you feel any better?

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  • JimBob Jones

    Christian Crusades? Not sure exactly what you mean by that, but it sounds awfully derogatory to Christians. Google “steve weidenkopf crusades” and do a little more research instead of buying in to mainstream thought.

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