Mortality From Contact-Related Epidemics Among Indigenous Populations in Greater Amazonia
European expansion and contact with indigenous populations led to catastrophic depopulation primarily through the introduction of novel infectious diseases to which native peoples had limited exposure and immunity. In the Amazon Basin such contacts continue to occur with more than 50 isolated indigenous societies likely to make further contacts with the outside world in the near future. Ethnohistorical accounts are useful for quantifying trends in the severity and frequency of epidemics through time and may provide insight into the likely demographic consequences of future contacts. Here we compile information for 117 epidemics that affected 59 different indigenous societies in Greater Amazonia and caused over 11,000 deaths between 1875 and 2008, mostly (75%) from measles, influenza, and malaria. Results show that mortality rates from epidemics decline exponentially through time and, independently, with time since peaceful contact. The frequency of documented epidemics also decreases with time since contact. While previous work on virgin soil epidemics generally emphasizes the calamity of contacts, we focus instead on improvements through time. The prospects for better survivorship during future contacts are good provided modern health care procedures are implemented immediately.