Terena people in Brazil. Image: Wikimedia Commons
It’s a story we all know—Christopher Columbus discovers America, his European buddies follow him, they meet the indigenous people living there, they indigenous people die from smallpox and guns and other unknown diseases, and the Europeans get gold, land, and so on.
It’s still happening today in Brazil, where 238 indigenous tribes have been contacted in the last several decades, and where between 23 and 70 uncontacted tribes are still living. A just-published report that takes a look at what happens after the modern world comes into contact with indigenous peoples isn’t pretty: Of those contacted, three quarters went extinct. Those that survived saw mortality rates up over 80 percent. This is grim stuff.
Image: Scientific Reports
“Our analysis dramatically quantifies the devastating effects of European colonization on indigenous Amazonians. Not only did ~75 percent of indigenous societies in the Brazilian Amazon become extinct, but of the survivors, all show evidence of catastrophic population declines, the vast majority with mortality rates over 80 percent,” writes Marcus Hamilton of the University of New Mexico in a paper published in Scientific Reports.
Those numbers shouldn’t be surprising—like I said, this isn't much different from what has happened time and time again to the Native Americans, to the Incas, to the Mayans, and to hundreds of other small tribes throughout North and South America.
Sure, people don’t go in and kill entire tribes directly, they offer indigenous people the chance to assimilate into modern culture. But, as Hamilton notes, the trappings of modern society—access to better healthcare, technology, and education—haven’t improved tribes' overall outcomes.
“We tested to see whether absolute year of contact (a proxy of the technological evolution of medicines), and other proxies of access to medicine including distance to major roads and distance to closest town had substantial effects on post-crash population growth rates. None of the effects were significant and so are not reported here,” Hamilton wrote.
It’s important that someone qualitatively took a look at the effect—it’s one thing to say “modern civilization killed the indigenous people,” another to have the cold, hard facts to back it up.
But Hamilton also highlights the good news, which I’d argue is a little bit misguided. He notes that, after the initial “crash,” indigenous populations are often able to recover, and some of the communities have some of the highest growth rates in the world. I'm not calling Hamilton out here—if that's what the data shows, it's what it shows. And it's better that the population "rebounds" rather than dies out completely. But that doesn't excuse the crash in the first place.
I don’t know that we should be talking about these people’s deaths and their communities’ subsequent recovery as if we’re looking at our stock portfolio. Hamilton notes that “despite the catastrophic mortality of indigenous Amazonians over the 500+ year contact period, the surviving populations are remarkably resilient and remain demographically viable.”
That’s probably what’s running through these people’s minds when they watch their loved ones die: The demographic viability of their community as a whole, as if their imminent “recovery” isn’t one that’s plagued with a forced change in lifestyle, a loss of culture, the utter destruction and pollution of the land that they’ve lived in for lord knows how many years. Their numbers might recover in some cases, but what about what they lost in the process?