First settlers in Estonia, and today

​Archaeological finds prove that people inhabited the current territory of Estonia at least 11 000 years ago. In the course of the last 800 years, Estonia’s population has varied between 0.8 and 1.6 million. In early 2010, Estonia was home to 1,340 million people.

Critical periods for the population occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries, when wars with Christian conquerors, famines and plague diminished the population by one third to a half. Another demographically unstable period lasted from the mid-16th century to the early 18th century: wars, epidemics and drought-induced famines repeatedly killed off half the population, whereas in calmer decades the increase in population (enhanced by immigration) often reached two percent a year.

​After the low point in 1712, when the population in the Estonian territory had dramatically diminished to the level of the mid-13th century (under 200 000 people), the population started to grow again. In 1897, 986 000 people lived in the Estonian territory, of whom 89.2% were Estonians. The natural growth of population in the 20th century was low and the dynamics of population numbers were again influenced by emigration and immigration, the events of World War II (the loss of population during World War II is estimated at 300 000 – approx. 25% of the pre-war population), and the political and social changes of the 1990s. Intensive immigration into Estonia from other areas of the Soviet Union began after the war; e.g. between 1956 and 1991, 1.4 million people arrived in Estonia, about 200 000 of whom settled here permanently.

​The size of the Estonian population has been shaped by the fact that demographic transition, i.e. a unique period in demographic development when the population increases due to decreasing mortality and a high birth rate, began relatively early (in the 18th century) and followed the French type, i.e. the growth of the population was small. From the early 19th century onwards, the number of children per Estonian family diminished. As the fall in birth rates occurred almost simultaneously with diminishing mortality, the Estonian population increased, but the growth was more modest than in some other nations that reached the period of demographic transition later. In the 1950s, Estonia had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and in the world. Unlike in North America and western Europe, there was no post-world War II baby boom here. The number of births gradually went up again in the 1970s. One reason was the increase in women of child-bearing age, and the number of children per woman increased as well. In most developed western European countries, however, this indicator dropped. Compared with western Europe,  women gave birth at much earlier ages.

​Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Estonian population has been diminishing. The reasons include decreasing immigration, increasing emigration, and negative birth-death ratio. In 1997 the demographic situation began to stabilise, although the population has continued to decrease. Due to the drop in births and the increase in average age, in the long term Estonia faces, like several other European countries, an ageing and diminishing population. Considering this situation, the government has decided to support efforts to increase the birth rate, increase longevity age and encourage necessary immigration.

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