|The Chitonahua people spent decades fleeing from intruders until they were forcefully contacted by Peruvian loggers in the late 1990s, losing about half their population to new diseases. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (1997).|
Indigenous peoples of lowland South America have contributed to global health with important biomedical compounds derived from plant medicines such as quinine, curare, ipecac and pilocarpine, as well as shamanic preparations like ayahuasca, sananga, and kambô that have attracted the attention of psychonauts and pharmaceutical researchers alike. And yet, tragically, the indigenous people of South America were also highly susceptible to introduced Old World diseases like smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and influenza that, in conjunction with violence and territorial invasion, killed some 90-95% of the original population.
|The Mashco-Piro people were probably village-dwelling farmers until they were massacred by rubber tappers at the turn of the 20th century. They became fully nomadic hunter-gatherers and have only entered into tentative contact with indigenous neighbors and Peruvian Health Ministry agents in the past few years. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2015).|
Especially during the so-called “Rubber Boom” at the turn of the twentieth century, rubber tappers seeking to profit from the high price of natural latex on international markets penetrated the deepest reaches of the Amazon, co-opting or enslaving indigenous people and spreading deadly diseases. To survive, some indigenous populations fled to remote regions and cut off all contact with outsiders, even their indigenous neighbors. In some cases, indigenous communities have been forced to abandon settled village life and agriculture altogether, adopting a fully nomadic lifestyle in the forest. Previous, at times misleading, descriptions of such groups as “uncontacted,” “Stone Age” or “hunter-gatherer” peoples implied that they were passive victims of some accident of geography or history — human societies left behind in the backwaters of human evolution. Today, scholars and indigenous protection agents have come to understand their isolation not as a natural condition, but rather, a conscious choice of survival and self-determination.
|Isolated indigenous peoples of the Amazon are increasingly threatened by the expansion of road networks, mining and oil concessions, illegal loggers and drug traffickers. Map graphic by J. You / Science Magazine using data from Antenor Vaz and RAISG.|
The spike in burning, destruction, and invasion of the Amazon rainforest over the past few years, especially in Brazil, threatens all indigenous people, and isolated peoples in particular. The global outbreak of this highly contagious, virulent new disease poses a special danger to such immunologically vulnerable peoples. So, as people around the world hunker down in self-quarantine and follow the latest worrisome news, we are all getting a small taste of the kind of mortal panic that has motivated different indigenous peoples to isolate themselves from outsiders, in some cases, through the present. We all hope, as they have, that such radical measures will save us from this deadly epidemic. Perhaps we will come through this experience with a heightened appreciation of our shared fragility.
First published March 24, 2020, by Chacruna.net