We’re Killing Indigenous Peoples by the Simple Act of Discovering Them

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.

Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock


trina firey
Trina D. firey2 years ago

"Modern man" seems to create problems wherever he goes...It's ignorant.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

We need to observe without contact! Introducing new things and items can be hazardous to their health.

Have you ever seen "The Gods Must Be Crazy." It speaks for all indigenous cultures. Rent the movie.

Melania Padilla
Melania P3 years ago

Leave them alone!

Star S.3 years ago

It is very sad and unfortunately, the drive to explore and exploit the last piece of land on this earth by the big corporations, is also a driver in discovering and not leaving isolated tribes alone.

Lori E.
Lori E3 years ago

We should just leave those tribes alone. They survived this long without us interfering. How sad.

Troy Grant
Troy Grant3 years ago

Money is a communicable disease

Pat P.
Pat P3 years ago

One thing that I've liked about Care 2 is that the commenters here are, generally, not as base and vulgar, or moronic, as those on YouTube. Lately, I have been seeing more people that don't know how to disagree without being rude, profane, obscene, etc.
Let's leave out the coarse and discourteous language and show that we can have intelligent discussions and heated debate (even with anger) without resorting to it.
There is enough violence and vitriol in our society. I'd like to think we can come to this site and avoid it.
As for the indigenous societies--they can and will survive without our help. The know how to live with nature. Modern man, too often, wants to control and defeat it.

Ernest Roth
Ernest R3 years ago

" can survive the arrival and influence of 21st century mankind" It is unlikely that 21st century mankind can even survive itself. " it can bounce back" ?:In numbers perhaps. Not culturally. @ Evanola D. ":Why can't so-called civilised people learn from their mistakes?" They did. They learned that they could make money once they cleared the pesky natives out of the real estate.@ Aurea W. "kept on the reservation of hunger, abuse, lack of education" The US reserves were the world's first concentration camps. That was a start that went on to kidnapping native children for residential schools in which children were humiliated, beaten, raped and systematically stripped of their culture. "the mere act of introducing ourselves" What?? ?

Fred L.
Fred L3 years ago

"First contact...an event worth celebrating?" Ask any Native American or Hawaiian if they think it's worth celebrating.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana G3 years ago

The general trend of what contact of so called "modern" civilizations with traditional or isolated tribes is well known: devastation to the latter. No excuses or embellishments.
I have a problem with this:
"the surviving populations are remarkably resilient and remain demographically viable,” the study noted."
"Demographically viable" as judged by whom? They had survived quite well before the "contact". This wording smacks of racism and imperialism. Tribes still un contacted would probably fare better if they didn't allow others to come and study or apply a census in any way. I hope their representative meets with some of them and see what or who is behind all this so called interest and from what country all these "intellectuals" come from.