Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Germ Warfare in Brazil

Credit: Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival
Uncontacted tribe in Brazil ends its isolation | Science/AAAS | News

News that a previously isolated Amazonian tribe has made voluntary contact with a group of Brazilian government scientists from (FUNAI) marks a departure from the Brazilian Department of Indian Affairs' 'no contact' policy but was deemed necessary in this case because there was a serious threat to the welfare of the tribe from other tribes in the ares, following reports of raids on crops and theft of tools.

The reason for the 'no contact' policy is because of the very real threat to isolated people from the viruses we often take for granted such as influenza, measles and mumps. Between 1983 and 1985 some 60% of the newly-contacted Nahua population died of influenza, whooping cough and other diseases caught from loggers.

This illustrates well how successful memeplexes called cultures, like successful genetic organisms, are those which form alliances, in this case the European memeplex has formed an alliance with its viruses which act like an invisible advanced guard which wages biological warfare on a rival group, so weakening them and opening the way to a takeover of the people, their land and resources. There is, of course, rarely any consciousness involved although there was at least one instance of deliberate biological warfare when blankets were deliberately contaminated with smallpox and distributed to Native Americans.

For the most part, as Jared Diamond pointed out in Guns, Germs and Steel, cultural success was more a matter of luck and incidental biology than it was about racial or innate cultural superiority. The reason Christianity spread throughout so much of the world was not because it was culturally superior to other cultures or because Europeans were racially superior to other peoples, but because Christians took their viruses with them, as well as their guns.

In the pursuit of their conversions, the Jesuits sought to undermine the authority of the village shamans (the traditional religious leaders) and to gain the confidence of leaders who could influence others. The Black Robes used a variety of weapons to attain the desired end. Trained in rhetoric, they won admirers by their eloquence. Seemingly immune to smallpox, they explained epidemics among the Native Americans as God’s punishment for sin, their arguments aided by the ineffectiveness of the shaman’s traditional remedies for illness against that deadly disease.

But why did Europeans have so many novel viruses to take with them and introduce to previously isolated people? Because we had the great good fortune to live in or close to a part of the world such as the Middle East where so many animals are domesticable. We had acquired a whole range of domestic animals like pigs, goats, horses, cattle, sheep, hens, ducks, geese, dogs and cats, and we lived alongside several comensual species like rats, mice and pigeons, often in very close proximity.

We probably acquired their viruses as well, or viruses very closely related to theirs like smallpox, which almost certainly evolved from cowpox when it crossed the species barrier and infect man. Very few people outside Europe and Asia had so many domestic animals simply because there were few which could be domesticated.

Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has a lot of big game but almost none of it is easy to domesticate and European domestic animals have no immunity to the parasite carried by the tsetse fly. As Jared Diamond asked, how different would history have been if a nascent Roman Empire had faced a cavalry of Bantu mounted on rhinoceruses? We would now be relating how slave ships from Africa had raided Western Europe and carried off white people who would now be forming an underclass in many economically advanced West African states, or maybe a United States of Africa superpower, while Europe remained economically dependent, under-developed and depleted of resources carried of to build the great civilisations of Africa?

So, these previously isolated Amazonian people now face possibly one of the most dangerous phases in their history because they have now come up against a culture which has formed alliances with fatal invisible agents. There are estimated to be about seventy other isolated groups of Amazonians living in the Amazon Forest.

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1 comment :

  1. Diamond's book is especially valuable on this point. I had always wondered, if the Europeans had so many diseases to which the Indians lacked resistance, why didn't the Indians also have endemic diseases to which Europeans lacked resistance, which would have traveled back with the ships and wiped out most of the population of Eurasia? The book finally answered that question. Ancient Eurasians who domesticated animals were, unknowingly, changing not only those animals' evolution, but their own.

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