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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]

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.

Notable examplesEdit

Numerous important instances of first contact have occurred without detailed contemporary recording 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 100s AD, however, well established trade routes from prehistoric times meant that many of these cultures would have been aware of the other before meeting.

Year Date indigenous Name Exploring group Location Country Description of first contact
1492 12 October Taíno, Galibi and Ciboney etc. Christopher Columbus Spanish Empire Unknown Bahamas and Cuba Friendly permission to leave 39 men behind given.
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.[7]
1642 19 December Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri Abel Tasman Dutch Tasman District New Zealand Four Dutch killed, one Māori wounded, no other communication.[8]
1788 21 January Cadigal and Bidjigal etc. First Fleet Great Britain Sydney Australia Friendly, reserved, one aborigine likely beaten.[9]
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.[10]
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.[11]

See alsoEdit



  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. ^
  7. ^ Thompson, Christina (2019-03-12). Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. HarperCollins. p. 34. ISBN 9780062060891.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Derrincourt, Robin. "Camp Cove". Dictionary of Sydney. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  10. ^ King, Michael (2017-09-01). Moriori: A People Rediscovered. Penguin UK. pp. 39–42. ISBN 9780143771289.
  11. ^ Griffin, James, "Leahy, Michael James (Mick) (1901–1979)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 2019-01-15