Assume the following situation:

  1. A pre-modern culture A exists on continent/island X with no previous contact with culture B (the invaders).

  2. Culture B discovers and invades X and the lands of A intend on conquering them. (This may be a centrally organized effort or one carried out by a series of adventurers.)

  3. Infectious diseases are endemic in culture B (the invaders); members of culture A have not evolved/acquired immunity against those while members of culture B are less susceptible though not 100% immune. Members of culture B (the invaders) thus thus act as carriers that infect and decimate any population of culture A members encountered.

  4. The resulting epidemics will decimate but not completely wipe out populations of culture A. Given sufficient time, immunity will be acquired but the population size will be severely decimated.

Note on point 1: Culture A may be a stone age, bronze age, iron age, classic/imperial age, or middle age type civilization (the earlier the more interesting), but not industrial or modern. I.e., no steam engines, certainly no spaceships or computers, no railways, no electricity, no microscopes, etc. (Note that industrial or modern technology available to culture A would make the entire setting implausible.) The setting requires culture B (the invaders) to at least possess an advanced mode of transportation (say, ocean-going ships) that was before contact unknown to culture A.

I would prefer culture B (the invaders) to be advanced compared to culture A. Should it turn out that the invasion is not survivable for culture A in such a case, an otherwise (besides transportation) similar technology level is acceptable.

Clarifying edit: By survival of the culture, I mean maintaining a culturally distinct social/political/economic entity in the tradition of the pre-invasion society, though not necessarily the same government. Countries like India, China, Marocco, etc. are distinct entities in this sense, while surviving populations that are heavily integrated into the cultural entities in the tradition of the invaders (say, Native American reservations, or formerly nomadic tribes in Siberia) do not.


I assume that survival of A as an (independent) culture depends on:

  • The relative level of technology of culture B (the invaders) compared to culture A.

  • Whether the authorities of A are aware of the cause of the epidemics (presence of members of B combined with the lack of immunity in A).

  • The ability of culture A to prevent or deal with a general breakdown of political, social, and economic order that could be caused by severe decimation of the population as a result of epidemics.


  • Is it conceivable for culture A to survive this onslaught as an independent culture?

  • Can the authorities of A implement measures that make survival (of the independent culture) more likely? Which measures would be expedient?

  • To what extent does the technology level and/or the difference in technology levels matter?

  • Are there possibly even historical examples?

Some evidence:

  • We have several examples of invasions of this kind (Europeans in Hispaniola, Mexico, Peru, Australia, etc.). This is analyzed in, for instance, Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and in Yuval Harari's "Sapiens". In every case, the invaded culture perished as an independent culture, though small remnants of the population usually survived as subjects to the invaders (though in some cases the native population was completely exterminated as in Tasmania). In every such case, the native population had a technology level that was vastly inferior to the invaders. Probably they were also unaware of the role of the invaders in spreading epidemics.

  • We have many examples of cultures resisting invasions, even with technologically superior invaders (Ethiopia defending against the Italians, China limiting European influence and driving out Europeans from Taiwan in the 1600s, the destruction of three Roman legions by Germanic tribes in Teutoburg forest, etc.). To my knowledge, in none of these cases epidemics play a role.

  • There is interestingly one example of conquerors lacking immunity (i.e. the other way around): The Manchu Qing dynasty in the 1600s. They were more susceptible to smallpox than their Han Chinese subjects they had just conquered; they selected an emperor - Kangxi - on the basis that he had already survived a smallpox infection.

Illustrative example:

Consider the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico. Would it have been possible that the Aztecs defend successfully against this invasion (permanently, not just once)? All evidence (see above) suggests that this is implausible.

Would it have been possible if they had been aware of the danger, causes, and mechanisms of epidemics? All evidence suggests that they (and all other examples) were not aware of it. Some evidence suggests that cultures that were aware of similar issues (the Manchu Qing dynasty) implemented successful policy measures - at least in a very limited scope.

If not: Would they have been able to defend themselves with iron age technology? Or if the Spanish only had the technology level of, say, the classical Roman empire? Evidence seems to suggest that epidemics are the single most important factor. So it may even then not have been plausible.

Related (but different) questions:

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ By 'survive', do you mean along the lines of some Native American groups today, i.e. reservations or integration but still retaining parts of their culture, or do you mean more than basic survival, i.e. 'these policies would mean the Incan Empire still controlled the Andes if they did them'? $\endgroup$
    – Giter
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 19:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Giter Closer to your second option: A culturally distinct social/political/economic entity in the tradition of the old Native American culture, though not necessarily the same state. Present-day Native Americans differ as far as I know culturally only marginally from their European-heritage neighbors. I would consider China, Thailand, Japan, etc. (and to a lesser extent, but still former colonies with strong distinct identity like India or Marocco) to have survived. I am not sure about former colonies with non-Caucasian population but without strong non-European identity (such as Tanzania). $\endgroup$
    – Solar Bear
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ /4.The resulting epidemics will decimate but not completely wipe out populations of culture B (the invaders). / Is this a typo? Culture A is the one that gets wiped out, Amerind style, right? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk: Yes, this was a typo, I meant culture A $\endgroup$
    – Solar Bear
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 12:02

5 Answers 5


Unfortunately for Culture A, a large part of their survival is out of their hands, but they do have some ways to improve their odds. Just going through your hypotheses:

Relative Technology: The biggest factor in the native culture's (lack of) ability to fight back against invaders. This History StackExchange question shows just how badly the Aztecs were compared to the Spanish. The Aztecs had wooden clubs and chunks of obsidian, whereas the Spanish had metal; a lucky hit through Spanish armor could wound the Spanish soldier, a sword swing on any part of the body would maim or kill the Aztec soldier. This was fairly typical throughout much of the Americas, and even in Europe the side with outdated technology and tactics often lost.

If the native culture understood how under-powered they were, they may be able to win enough battles to prevent early settlement near them. For example, the Aztecs scored an early victory against the Spanish by overwhelming them in the cramped streets of Tenochtitlan. The native culture would have to use their vastly superior numbers and knowledge of the local terrain to have any hope of repelling attacks by a technologically superior invader.

If they win enough battles and they can scavenge enough weaponry and/or take enough knowledgeable and semi-willing prisoners, then they can start developing something that comes close to matching the invaders' level. They wouldn't have nearly the industrial scale to maintain it, but they may be able to do enough damage to survive. It helps if Culture A happens to be inhabiting land that the invaders don't really want and thus not worth the effort. If they are on valuable land, well...

Epidemics: By far the largest cause of death among native cultures were the diseases brought by invaders. Culture A really has only two hopes here: that they are immune to some native disease that will harm the invaders, or that they were already knowledgeable on early forms of vaccination.

They have no control over if the invaders get wiped out by disease, so if they have/develop and understanding of disease and inoculation they may be able to get through the epidemics relatively unscathed. The first published instance of Smallpox inoculation was in mid-1500's China, before much of the world-wide colonization efforts. The inoculation is as simple as blowing Smallpox infected tissue up your nose to give a minor Smallpox infection, so no technology is required. Although this still gives a ~1% mortality rate, it is much, much better than Smallpox's normal 20-30% mortality rate.

So, if Culture A happens to already have a history of inoculating against diseases and/or happens to have a lucky experiment in the early days of infection, they should be spared the worst of the epidemics and population loss. Even lacking this, policies such as strict quarantine of infected individuals combined with essentially an immunity-based breeding program using the survivors to quickly immunize the population will definitely help them survive the epidemics better than in real life.

Societal Breakdown: No real way to survive this, unfortunately. If the native culture is beaten, sick, and depleted enough for their politics, economy, and overall society to collapse, then I doubt they would be able to recover enough to defend against whatever caused this breakdown. If Culture A reaches this point, then they're no different than any of your examples of lost cultures.

In summary, a culture may be able to survive if they're lucky. If they understand that they're only military advantage is numbers, they may be able to beat the invaders early on. If they can quickly adapt to use invaders' technology and aren't on valuable land, then they may be able to show the invaders they aren't worth conquering. If the happen to have good knowledge of inoculation, quarantine, and immunization, then they may be able to avoid devastating epidemics.

There's definitely a lot of luck necessary to the culture's survival. Closer technology levels and less-deadly diseases will certainly help the natives beat back the invaders, though the chances still aren't good. The Maghreb region is a good example of repeated attempts of conquest leading only to integration of the invader's culture into the native cultures rather than outright destruction, and there are plenty examples of different native cultures still existing there with little change. However, if it was likely that a native culture could survive a superior invader, then there would be many more real-life examples of that happening.

  • $\begingroup$ So what I take from your and Twelfth's answer: Unlikely but possible under all scenarios. How: 1. inoculations, 2. quarantine, 3. overwhelm any invaders with superior numbers and guerrilla and scorched earth tactics before they can infect anyone, 4. put people with proven immunity against some infections in positions of command, 5. convince invaders that you don't have anything of value. (I am very sceptical about 5. Everyone has something of value. And if not they might come and kill you and see for themselves just to make sure.) $\endgroup$
    – Solar Bear
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ @SolarBear: Yeah, I suppose 5 relies less on 'we promise we have nothing here' and more on 'the surviving explorers said there was nothing there'. $\endgroup$
    – Giter
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ If the natives have large, domesticated animals, it is possible they have epidemics of their own ("llama flu"). If diseases go both ways the playing field might be more level, especially if would-be invaders keep getting sick whenever they try to land on the continent of Culture A. If Spanish conquistadors or English colonists with their limited manpower kept losing people due to mutual illness their invasion probably would not have worked. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 22:34

Well researched question.

The immediate answer I have may prevent the epidemic, so i need to preface with a potential scenario. In one manner or another, this native population needs to understand the risk these invaders pose (earlier the better) so they may begin resisting. Not resisting early is a major downfall here. On the same note, you need some degree of trade to successfully spread the epidemic (exposure to a person with small pox isn't a definite spread of the small pox virus, trading with this person for lets say a blanket and then using the exposed blanket is a much more likely infection). This means immediate resistance might halt the spread of an epidemic and somewhat negate the question.

That being said, the scenario that happened on Earth with a slight tweak should still work...colonists to North America came upwards of over 100 years after the initial contact happened (and the initial spread of disease) and the native populations were already decimated by the time European colonists actually arrived. Lets say we have a scenario where the initial contact happened and the epidemic broke out, however the natives learned this was due to contact with Europeans and by the time the colonists arrived, the natives were already prepared to resist.

When colonists arrived in the New World, they were not well prepared or suited to life on the new continent. Foods were different and climate was significantly harsher than what they were used to. The journey was long and as such, supplies from the new world (food) could not be relied upon for long. As such, the new colonists were dependent on trade with native tribes for provisions for their early colony. The longest running tradition from these early colonization times is Thanksgiving, celebrating the natives sharing of their harvest with the new colonists.

It should also be known that in these early colonist days, the native populations still had the military might to directly confront and destroy most of these settlements with ease, if the will was there and they were unified with their actions. But lets say for the purpose of the question that the colonists were capable of bringing enough firepower over with them that they would win a conventional engagement. Whats left when faced with an overwhelming conventional force? Guerrilla warfare of course.

The best method of defense for the native population is to make life on these new colonists as difficult as possible and to prevent (or at least limit) their ability to gather resources from their new homeland. These tactics are destructive and would not be turned to unless the native population knew of the grave threat to their own existence...ultimately it's a version of scorched earth tactics as they are going to purposefully destroy the resources a new colony needs.

  • burn the forests around them and prevent their easy access to building materials and fuel
  • They will need farms for food...burn / destroy their crops at night and slaughter their livestock (extra points if they can show wolves how to get at the easy prey).
  • Reduce their ability to resupply from the sea (sneak in under the cover of darkness and use arrows to set their port ablaze. sneak in under the cover of darkness at low tide and cut the supports for the piers...creativity here goes a long ways).
  • Burn hay supplies so they cannot keep horses.
  • When winter strikes, sneak in under the cover of snow and burn barns so their livestock won't survive the winter.
  • Locate the source of their water supplies and 'pollute' them or divert the water flows.
  • Dam a nearby river and backup the water of a river until it spills its banks...break your dam and let wave a of water hit the new colony. repeat.
  • allow no economic activity. New colonies were capable of funding themselves by bringing new goods back to the old world to sell...don't trade with them and don't give them the economic reason to be there.

Ultimately, this native peoples (pretty much independent of tech level) need to make it extremely tough for the new colonists to survive and harshly impact the economic feasibility of these colonies.

  • $\begingroup$ So what I take from your and Giter's answer: Unlikely but possible under all scenarios. How: 1. inoculations, 2. quarantine, 3. overwhelm any invaders with superior numbers and guerrilla and scorched earth tactics before they can infect anyone, 4. put people with proven immunity against some infections in positions of command, 5. convince invaders that you don't have anything of value. (I am very sceptical about 5. Everyone has something of value. And if not they might come and kill you and see for themselves just to make sure.) $\endgroup$
    – Solar Bear
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 12:29


There are places where natives are allowed to live unmolested and conduct their own affairs. The Sentinelese are one such group. As opposed to Amerinds who were thoroughly conquered before being relegated to their reservations, the Sentinelese were so hostile and their island so unpromising that they have been left alone.


The Sentinelese (also called the Sentineli or North Sentinel Islanders) are the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands of India. One of the Andamanese people, they resist contact with the outside world. They are among the last people to remain virtually untouched and uncontacted by modern civilisation. Their island is legally a part of, and administered by, the Indian Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In practice, however, the Sentinelese exercise complete sovereignty over their affairs and the involvement of the Indian authorities is restricted to occasional monitoring, ever more infrequent and brief visits, and generally discouraging any access or approaches to the island. The possibility of future contact, whether violent or non-violent (armed or unarmed) has been discussed by various organisations and nations.

In your world, your civilization of primitives is thoroughly conquered, almost. Holdouts of the conquered people in one isolated area are not conquered partly because of their ferocity but more because of a general lack of interest by the conquerors in that region. Their civilization and culture of the otherwised vanished / assimilated people persists in that refuge. The conquerors decide to leave them alone indefinitely (as the Indian government does the Sentinelese) and enforce that condition - maybe out of some sense of fairness, or cultural presentation, or artistic merit or what have you.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I agree, the Sentinelese are a nice example of a culture that 1. has survived, 2. has no immunity. (2 of the 6 Sentinelese that the British abducted to Great Andaman in 1880 died before they could be returned.) But this seems to be 1. out of their hands (consider the fate of the people of the Easter Island, a thoroughly isolated place devoid of anything of value) and 2. contingent on being a small island without little resources (otherwise, the temptation for adventurers to see if there is not something valuable after all becomes too great). $\endgroup$
    – Solar Bear
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Solar Bear: 1 - true 2 - also true. The only work around I can think of is to hide and stay hidden, Wakanda style. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 18, 2018 at 17:21

If they don't have resources worth taking, or if their valuable resources are cleaned out then they can survive culturally. Polynesians are an example.

New Zealand and Hawaii having resources worth keeping were colonised and basically taken over. Culture there is now mainly lip service.

Tonga is a kingdom on the other hand, and like many other Polynesian cultures has nothing worth taking any more and therefore is independent. Samoa, and numerous smaller ones as well and many Micronesian countries.

Politically though they tend to be pseudo-democracies, but for the peasants in the outlying regions life is much the same.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree, some isolated Polynesian cultures were lucky. But it appears, this is completely out of their hands: The most isolated place of all without anything of value whatsoever is arguably Easter Island. And since they had nothing else of any value, the invaders (this time Peruvians) simply enslaved the half population and abducted them to Peru. Epidemics introduced by those fortunate enough to return from Peru did the rest and the population collapsed from 3000 to 111 within 10 years. $\endgroup$
    – Solar Bear
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ @SolarBear a demographic of 3000 is not enough to be worth mentioning, although it would have mattered a lot to the individuals involved and independence with no resources is a double edged sword, lucky for some few elites, not for the majority $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 13:05

Almost every other aspect has been dealt with nicely in other answers, so I'll focus on another aspect of disease.

Sub-Saharan Africa was colonized relatively late due to disease, especially sleeping sickness. That disease along with malaria, and a similar disease to sleeping sickness that attacked animals struck the Europeans low, and kept them largely out of the area until they bred horses that could survive and found ways to treat the worst symptoms of the various diseases.

With similar illnesses on Continent X, it would give Culture A a chance to recover from the epidemics that invariably cut through the population.

However that isn't enough to save the culture as an independent state. So having Culture B, able to live relatively healthily on part of the coast where the disease is uncommon would be useful. With towns from Culture B set up close by, while the natives have most of the continent full of diseases they can survive, will give them a chance to gain the new technology, learn how to fight and deal with the newcomers, and rebuild their strength. By the time Culture B has worked up immunity or medicine to allow them to expand, Culture A will have done the same and will be able to fight back more effectively.


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