First contact (anthropology)

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The Landing of Columbus, by Dióscoro Puebla

In anthropology, first contact is the first meeting of two communities previously without contact with one another.[1][2][3] Notable examples of first contact are those between the Spanish Empire and the Arawak 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 by creating the legal theory of the "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 fascination with first contact has gone through many transformations since the Age of Discovery, one of the earliest narratives being about contacting the Ten Lost Tribes and Prester John, and continues today as a trope in science fiction about extraterrestrial first contact, as well as being manifest in contemporary space exploration (for example the Pioneer plaque).[6]

Establishing contact with uncontacted peoples is still attempted, despite the negative effects, history and opposition by indigenous peoples, advocacy groups[7] and specialized institutions like FUNAI.


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, but the introduction of disease plays a critical role in the 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 foreign diseases, all of which introduced at once, to which the more urbanised European populations had had many years to develop some population immunity.[8]


Long before contemporary uncontacted peoples, there were many more cases of communities and states being isolated from each other, sometimes only having poor knowledge of each other and poor contact.

One such case is the poor formal contact between Europe and China in the course of the long history of the Silk Road trade and later contact with the Mongol Empire. Frustration with the lack of contact gave rise to the characterization of China as isolationist,[9] and after being identified with Greater India and Prester John, the European powers, such as the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator,[10] attempted to reach the isolated Greater India by travelling westward. The European colonial powers thereby mistakenly identified the Americas as the West Indies - a part of Greater India - and named the indigenous peoples of the Americas incorrectly as "Indians". This contacting has been called one-sided "discovery" as is the case with discovery doctrine, and has been reinvented contemporarily by narratives of first contact beyond Earth finding its way into actual space exploration (for example the Pioneer plaque).[6] It has been argued that, for colonialism, this seeking out of first contact proved to be a crucial element to gain control over knowledge and representation of the other, fetishizing and objectifying contact and its place on the frontier drawing a long history of one-sided contact, until today with indigenous peoples and specifically uncontacted peoples.[6]

Notable examples[edit]

Numerous important instances of first contact have occurred without detailed contemporary recordings across Eurasia and Africa, including the 330 BC invasions of Alexander the Great from Persia to India and the establishment of Romano-Chinese relations in the 2nd century AD. However, well-established trade routes from prehistoric times meant that many of the cultures would have been aware of the other before they met.

Year Date indigenous Name Exploring group Location Country Description of first contact
~1000 Unknown Beothuk Leif Erikson Vikings L'Anse Aux Meadows Vinland, present-day Canada Viking settlement established at L'Anse Aux Meadows in approximately 1000 CE. The vikings referred to the indigenous people as Skræling, who were in actuality likely the proto-Beothuk, with whom they had contact. It is debated whether this contact was peaceful or violent. Archaeological estimates for the Norse population of L'Anse Aux Meadows range from 30 to 120 people.[11][12]
1492 12 October Taíno, Galibi and Ciboney etc. Christopher Columbus Spanish Empire Unknown Bahamas and Cuba Friendly, permission to leave 39 men behind given.[citation needed]
1595 21 July Polynesians Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira Spanish Empire Marquesas Islands French Polynesia Initially friendly, but turning violent in the first encounter and leading to 200 local deaths in the first two weeks.[13]
1642 19 December Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri Abel Tasman Dutch Tasman District New Zealand Four Dutch killed, one Māori wounded, no other communication.[14]
1788 21 January Cadigal and Bidjigal etc. First Fleet Great Britain Sydney Australia Friendly, reserved, one aborigine likely beaten.[15]
1791 29 November Moriori William R. Broughton Great Britain Chatham Island New Zealand Shows of aggression by Moriori followed quickly by peaceful relations. Then a fight leading to the death of one Moriori.[16]
1930 Papuan people Mick Leahy Australian New Guinea Highlands Papua New Guinea Friendly, some Highland people thought they were ancestors and attempted to rub off their white skins.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Scuppin 2014, p. 1.
  2. ^ Serge Tcherkezoff (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 (2013). Recreating First Contact: Expeditions, Anthropology, and Popular Culture. Smithsonian. p. 128. ISBN 978-1-935623-24-3.
  4. ^ Suzan Shown Harjo (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. ^ a b c Grande, Alexander (2014). Erst-Kontakt (Thesis). Vienna: University of Vienna. doi:10.25365/thesis.31693. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  7. ^ Nuwer, Rachel (2014-08-04). "Future – Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes". BBC. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
  8. ^ "Historical Archaeology, Contact, and Colonialism in Oceania".
  9. ^ Millar, Ashley Eva (2011). "Your beggarly commerce! Enlightenment European views of the China trade.". In Abbattista, Guido (ed.). Encountering Otherness. Diversities and Transcultural Experiences in Early Modern European Culture. pp. 210f.
  10. ^ Baum, Wilhelm (1999). Die Verwandlungen des Mythos vom Reich des Priesterkönigs Johannes. Rom, Byzanz und die Christen des Orients im Mittelalter.
  11. ^ Kolodny, Annette (2012). In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery. Duke University Press. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-8223-5286-0.
  12. ^ Linda S. Cordell; Kent Lightfoot; Francis McManamon; George Milner (2008). Archaeology in America: An Encyclopedia [4 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. pp. 82–83. ISBN 978-0-313-02189-3.
  13. ^ Thompson, Christina (2019). Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. HarperCollins. p. 34. ISBN 9780062060891.
  14. ^ Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "2. – European discovery of New Zealand – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Retrieved 2019-01-15.
  15. ^ Derrincourt, Robin. "Camp Cove". Dictionary of Sydney. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  16. ^ King, Michael (2017). Moriori: A People Rediscovered. Penguin UK. pp. 39–42. ISBN 9780143771289.
  17. ^ Griffin, James, "Leahy, Michael James (Mick) (1901–1979)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 2019-01-15