First contact (anthropology)

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In anthropology, first contact is the first meeting of two cultures previously unaware of one another.[1][2][3] Notable examples of first contact are those between the Spanish Empire and the Arawak (and ultimately all of the Americas) in 1492; and the Aboriginal Australians with Europeans in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney.[1]

Such contact is sometimes described as a "discovery", such as the British and United States did with the legal theory using a "Doctrine of Discovery.[4] It is generally the more technologically complex society that is able to travel to new geographic regions to make contact with those more isolated, less technologically developed societies.[5] However, some object to the application of such a word to human beings, which is why "first contact" is generally preferred. The use of the term "discovery" tends to occur more in reference to geography than cultures; for an example of a common discovery debate, see Discoverer of the Americas.[citation needed]


The historical record indicates that when one culture is significantly more technologically advanced than the other, this side will be favored by the disruptive nature of conflict, often with dire consequences for the other society. However the introduction of disease plays a critical role in this process. More isolated peoples who lived across broader territories in low density succumbed to the illnesses brought from the comparatively higher density of Europe. The Indigenous populations simply had not had the time to develop immunity to the multiple foreign diseases, all introduced at once, for which the more urbanised European populations had had many years to develop some population immunity to.[6] Furthermore, this process was enhanced via the colonisers' intentional spread of disease as a biological weapon, one notable example of this being in North America with the colonisers giving Native American tribes smallpox-infested blankets as gifts.

Marshall Sahlins' work Islands of History uses an ethnohistorical perspective to attempt to come to grips with the way that non-European peoples saw the first contact phenomenon. In it he argues that native people, while being changed by contact with Europeans, nonetheless did so through their own cultural frame of reference.

See also



  1. ^ a b Scuppin 2014, p. 1.
  2. ^ Serge Tcherkezoff (1 August 2008). First Contacts in Polynesia - the Samoan Case (1722-1848): Western Misunderstandings about Sexuality and Divinity. ANU E Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-1-921536-02-1.
  3. ^ Joshua A. Bell; Alison K. Brown; Robert J. Gordon (6 November 2013). Recreating First Contact: Expeditions, Anthropology, and Popular Culture. Smithsonian. p. 128. ISBN 978-1-935623-24-3.
  4. ^ Suzan Shown Harjo (30 September 2014). Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Smithsonian. p. 39. ISBN 978-1-58834-479-3.
  5. ^ Jean Stockard (2000). Sociology: Discovering Society. Wadsworth. p. 512. ISBN 978-0-534-56521-3.
  6. ^