We like to think of “first contact” with an indigenous society to be an event worth celebrating. It’s an opportunity to learn about native people who have never interacted with modern society before. Fascinating as this meeting of cultures may be for us, history reveals it’s often a death knell for them.
Scientists recently decided to take a look at what has happened to indigenous cultures in Brazil after Europeans colonized and explored that country beginning in the 16th century. Brazil became the study’s focal point because of a surprising and unique wealth of privately gathered census information available on Brazilian indigenous tribes reaching back five or more decades. It’s a treasure trove of data unequaled anywhere in the world.
Within the last 50 years or so, about 238 indigenous tribes in Brazil have been contacted by people from the “modern” world. What happened to those 238 tribes after “civilization” waltzed in to say hello is startling and concerning. Approximately 75 percent of them died out completely, and those that survived lost 80 percent of their population.
Only about 23 to 70 tribes in Brazil today remain uncontacted and untouched by 21st century society.
First Contact as a Life-Threatening Scenario
Why should there be such disastrous and relatively sudden catastrophe simply because one civilization reaches out to another? Don’t we bring with us some pretty useful things like technology and improved health care options? Certainly we do. However, we bring other not-so-nice things as well.
When “modern” man comes to town, disease and violence inevitably accompany him. Native tribes are ill-prepared for diseases unknown to their people. They have no natural immunity and no vaccinations to guard them from infection. Measles, chicken pox and a host of other illnesses we never worry about can kill those with no defenses.
Modern visitors also bring violence to indigenous populations in the form of guns, deforestation, poaching, land grabs, environmental devastation, and conflict between cultures. We don’t always come in peace. Often, we come for profit and we don’t care who’s in the way.
These factors, in combination, overwhelm small tribes. On average, after first contact 43 percent of the populations of these tribes were lost. According to the study, this population collapse finally halts approximately eight or nine years later.
For tribes first contacted within the past few decades, study leader Marcus Hamilton told Phys.org, “all of them went through a collapse, and for the majority of them it was disastrous.”
The Silver Lining: Some Populations Will Rebound
There is good news too, according to the study. If a population isn’t completed decimated within the first eight or nine years, it can bounce back:
[S]omewhat surprisingly, our results show that within a decade of peaceful contact most surviving populations rebound extremely fast, exhibiting annual population growth rates of ~4%. Moreover, these growth rates are independent of year of contact and proximity to major roads and towns.
If they can just hang on long enough, tribes of as few as 100 individuals can survive the arrival and influence of 21st century mankind.
“[D]espite the catastrophic mortality of indigenous Amazonians over the 500+ year contact period, the surviving populations are remarkably resilient and remain demographically viable,” the study noted.
Modern society has a lot going for it. How sad, then, to know that despite all our advances, the mere act of introducing ourselves to a formerly secluded, unknown culture can so completely and reliably devastate it.
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