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The Indigenous peoples in Brazil ( ) comprise a large number of distinct ethnic groups who inhabited the country prior to the arrival of Europeans around 1500. Unlike Christopher Columbus, who thought he had reached the East Indies, the Portuguesemarker, most notably Vasco da Gama, had already reached Indiamarker via the Indian Ocean route when they reached Brazilmarker.

Nevertheless the word índios ("Indians"), was by then established to designate the peoples of the New World and stuck being used today in the Portuguese language to designate these peoples, while the people of India, Asia are called indianos in order to distinguish the two peoples.

At the time of European discovery, the indigenous peoples were traditionally mostly semi-nomadic tribes who subsisted on hunting, fishing, gathering, and migrant agriculture. Many of the estimated 2,000 nations and tribes which existed in 1500 died out as a consequence of the European settlement, and many were assimilated into the Brazilian population.

The indigenous population was largely killed off by the Europeans, declining from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated at below 4 million to some 300,000 (1997), grouped into some 200 tribes. A somewhat dated linguistic survey found 188 living indigenous languages with 155,000 total speakers.

On 18 January 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazilmarker, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition Brazil has now overtaken the island of New Guineamarker as the country having the largest number of uncontacted peoples.

Brazilian indigenous people made substantial and pervasive contributions to the country's material and cultural development—such as the domestication of cassava, which is still a major staple food in rural areas of the country.

In the last IBGE census (2006), 519,000 Brazilians classified themselves as indigenous, even though millions of Brazilians have Amerindian ancestry.


The origins of these indigenous peoples are still a matter of dispute among archaeologists. The traditional view, which traces them to Siberianmarker migration to America at the end of the last ice age, has been increasingly challenged by South American archaeologists.

The Siberian Ice Age hypothesis

Anthropological & genetic evidence indicates that most Native American peoples descended from migrant peoples from North Asia (Siberiamarker) who entered America across the Bering Straitmarker or along the western coast of North America in at least three separate waves. In Brazil, particularly, most native tribes who were living in the land by 1500 are thought to be descended from the first Siberian wave of migrants, who are believed to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the last Ice Age, sometime between 13,000 and 17,000 years before the present.

A migrant wave would have taken some time after initial entry to reach present-day Brazil, probably entering the Amazon River basin from the Northwest. (The second and third migratory waves from Siberia, which are thought to have generated the Athabaskan and Eskimo peoples, apparently did not reach farther than the southern United Statesmarker and Canadamarker, respectively.)

A Chaman man.

The South American Aborigines hypothesis

The traditional view above has recently been challenged by findings of human remains in South America, which are claimed to be too old to fit this scenario—perhaps even 20,000 years old. Some recent finds (notably the Luzia skeleton in Lagoa Santamarker, Minas Geraismarker, Brazil analyzed by University of São Paulo, Professor Walter Neves) are claimed to be morphologically distinct from the Asian genotype and are more similar to African and Australian Aborigines. These Americans would have been later displaced or absorbed by the Siberian immigrants. The distinctive natives of Tierra del Fuegomarker, the southernmost tip of the American continent, may have been the last remains of those Aboriginal populations.

These early immigrants would have either crossed the ocean on boat, or traveled North along the Asian coast and entered America through the Bering Strait area, well before the Siberian waves. This theory is still resisted by many scientists chiefly because of the apparent difficulty of the trip. Some proposed theories involve a southward migration from or through Australia and Tasmaniamarker, hopping Subantarctic islands and then proceeding along the coast of Antarcticamarker and/or southern ice sheets to the tip of South America sometime during the last glacial maximum.

Archaeological remains

Terena people.
Virtually all the surviving archaeological evidence about the pre-history of Brazil dates from the period after the Asian migratory waves. Brazilian natives, unlike those in Mesoamerica and the western Andes, did not keep written records or erect stone monuments, and the humid climate and acidic soil have destroyed almost all traces of their material culture, including wood and bones. Therefore, what is known about the region's history before 1500 has been inferred and reconstructed from small-scale archaeological evidence, such as pottery and stone arrowheads.

The most conspicuous remains of pre-discovery societies are very large mounds of discarded shellfish (sambaquis) found in some coastal sites which were continuously inhabited for over 5,000 years; and the substantial "black earth" (terra preta) deposits in several places along the Amazon, which are believed to be ancient garbage dumps (middens). Recent excavations of such deposits in the middle and upper course of the Amazon have uncovered remains of some very large settlements, containing tens of thousands of homes, indicating a complex social and economical structure.

However, in Paraibamarker State, in Brazilian northeast, is located the Ingá stone (Pedra do Ingá), sculptured with several glyphs that remains undeciphered. It is the only example of such kind of indigenous stone work in Brazil.

The natives after the European colonization

First contacts

When the Portuguese discoverers first arrived in Brazil in April 1500, they found, to their astonishment, a widely inhabited coastline, teeming with hundreds of thousands of indigenous people living in a "paradise" of natural riches. Pêro Vaz de Caminha, the official scribe of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the commander of the discovery fleet which landed in the present state of Bahia, wrote a letter to the King of Portugal describing in glowing terms the beauty of the land.

At the time of European discovery, the territory of current day Brazil had as many as 2,000 nations and tribes. The indigenous peoples were traditionally mostly semi-nomadic tribes who subsisted on hunting, fishing, gathering, and migrant agriculture. For hundreds of years, the indigenous people of Brazil lived a semi-nomadic life, managing the forests to meet their needs. When the Portuguese arrived in 1500, the Indians were living mainly on the coast and along the banks of major rivers. Initially, the Europeans saw the natives as noble savages, and miscegenation of the population began right away. Tribal warfare, cannibalism, and the pursuit of Amazonian brazilwood for its treasured red dye convinced the Portuguese that they should "civilize" the Indians (originally, Colonists called Brazil Terra de Santa Cruz, until later it acquired its name (see List of meanings of countries' names) from brazilwood). But the Portuguese, like the Spanish in their North America territories, had unknowingly brought diseases with them against which many Indians were helpless due to lack of immunity. Measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza killed tens of thousands. The diseases spread quickly along the indigenous trade routes, and whole tribes were likely annihilated without ever coming in direct contact with Europeans.

Slavery and the Bandeiras

The mutual feeling of wonderment and good relationship was to end in the succeeding years.The Portuguese colonists, all males, started to have children with female Indians, creating a new generation of mixed-race people who spoke Indian languages (a Tupi language called Nheengatu). The children of these Portuguese men and Indian women formed the majority of the population. Groups of fierce conquistadores' sons organized expeditions called "bandeiras" (flags) into the backlands to claim the land to the Portuguese crown and to look for gold and precious stones.

Intending to profit from sugar trade, the Portuguese decided to plant sugar cane in Brazil, and use indigenous slaves as the workforce, as the Spanishmarker colonies were successfully doing. But the indigenous people were hard to capture and, soon infected by diseases brought by the Europeans against which they had no natural immunity, began dying in great numbers. This, coupled with the prospects of increased profits from the African slave trade (at the time almost monopolized by Portugal and supplying the labour needs of both Spanish and Portuguese settlers in the New World), encouraged Portuguese settlers and traders to start importing slaves from Africa. Although in 1570 King Sebastian I ordered that the Brazilian Indians should not be used for slavery and ordered the release of those held in captivity it was only in 1755 that the slavery of Indians was finally abolished.

The Jesuits: Protectors of the Indians

The Jesuit priests, who had come with the first Governor General to provide for religious assistance to the colonists, but mainly to convert the "pagan" peoples to Catholicism, took the side of the Indians and extracted a Papal bull stating that they were human and should be protected.

Jesuit priests such as fathers José de Anchieta and Manuel da Nóbrega studied and recorded their language and founded mixed settlements, such as São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga, where colonists and Indians lived side by side, speaking the same Língua Geral (common language) and freely interbred. They began also to establish more remote villages peopled only by "civilized" Indians, called Missions, or reductions (see the article on the Guarani people for more details).

By the middle of the 16th century, Catholic Jesuit priests, at the behest of Portugal's monarchy, had established missions throughout the country's colonies. They became protectors of the Indians and worked to both Europeanize them and convert them to Catholicism. The Jesuits provided a period of relative stability for the Indians.

In the mid-1770s, when the power of the Catholic Church began to wane in Europe, the Indians' fragile co-existence with the colonists was again threatened. Because of a complex diplomatic web between Portugalmarker, Spainmarker and the Vaticanmarker, the Jesuits were expelled from Brazil and the missions confiscated and sold.

By 1800, the population of Brazil had reached approximately 3.25 million, of which only 250,000 were indigenous. And for the next four decades, the Indians were largely left alone.


A number of wars between several tribes, such as the Tamoio Confederation, and the Portuguese ensued, sometimes with the Indians siding with enemies of Portugal, such as the Frenchmarker, in the famous episode of France Antarctique in Rio de Janeiromarker, sometimes allying themselves to Portugal in their fight against other tribes. At approximately the same period, a German soldier, Hans Staden, was captured by the Tupinambá and released after a while. He described it in a famous book.

There are various documented accounts of smallpox being knowingly used as a biological weapon by New Brazilian villagers that wanted to get rid of nearby Indian tribes (not always aggressive ones). The most "classical", according to Anthropologist, Mércio Pereira Gomes, happened in Caxias, in south Maranhão, where local farmers, wanting more land to extend their cattle farms, gave clothing owned by ill villagers (that normally would be burned to prevent further infection) to the Timbira. The clothing infected the entire tribe, and they had neither immunity nor cure. Similar things happened in other villages throughout South America.

The rubber trade

The 1840s brought trade and wealth to the Amazon. The process for vulcanizing rubber was developed, and worldwide demand for the product skyrocketed. The best rubber trees in the world grew in the Amazon, and thousands of rubber tappers began to work the plantations. When the Indians proved to be a difficult labor force, peasants from surrounding areas were brought into the region. In a dynamic that continues to this day, the indigenous population was at constant odds with the peasants, who the Indians felt had invaded their lands in search of treasure.

The legacy of Cândido Rondon

In the 20th century, the Brazilian Government adopted a more humanitarian attitude and offered official protection to the indigenous people, including the establishment of the first indigenous reserves. Fortune brightened for the Indians around the turn of the century when Cândido Rondon, a man of both Portuguese and Bororo ancestry, and an explorer and progressive officer in the Brazilian army, began working to gain the Indians' trust and establish peace. Rondon, who had been assigned to help bring telegraph communications into the Amazon, was a curious and natural explorer. In 1910, he helped found the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios - SPI (Indian Protection Service, today the FUNAI, or Fundação Nacional do Índio, National Foundation for Indians). SPI was the first federal agency charged with protecting Indians and preserving their culture. In 1914, Rondon accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on Roosevelt's famous expedition to map the Amazon and discover new species. During these travels, Rondon was appalled to see how settlers and developers treated the indigenes, and he became their lifelong friend and protector. In 1952, as a final legacy, he established Xingu National Parkmarker, in the state of Mato Grosso, the first Indian reservation in Brazil.

Rondon, who died in 1956, is a national hero in Brazil. The Brazilian state of Rondôniamarker is named after him. The remaining unacculturated tribes have been contacted by FUNAI, and accommodated within Brazilian society in varying degrees. However, the exploration of rubber and other Amazonic natural resources led to a new cycle of invasion, expulsion, massacres and death, which continues to this day.

After Rondon's pioneering work, the SPI was turned over to bureaucrats and military officers. They did not share his deep commitment to the Indians. The lure of reservation riches enticed cattle ranchers and settlers to continue their assault on Indians lands – and the SPI eased the way. Between 1900 and 1967, an estimated 98 indigenous tribes were wiped out.

But reports of mistreatment of Indians finally reached Brazilmarker's urban centers, and in 1967, the military government launched an investigation. It soon came to light that the SPI was failing to protect Indians lands and that agency officials, in collaboration with land speculators, were systematically slaughtering the Indians by intentionally circulating disease-laced clothes. Criminal prosecutions followed, and the SPI was disbanded.
Also in 1967, in a seismic political shift, the Brazilian military took control of the government and abolished all political parties. For the next two decades, Brazil was ruled by a series of generals. The country's mantra was "Brazil, the Country of the Future," which the military government used as justification for a giant push into the Amazon to exploit its resources, thereby bringing Brazil to its rightful place among the leading economies of the world. Construction began on a transcontinental highway across the Amazon basin, aimed to encourage migration to the Amazon and to open up the region to more trade. With funding from World Bank, thousands of miles of forest were cleared with no regard for reservation lands. After the highway projects came giant hydroelectric projects, then swaths of forest were cleared for cattle ranches. As a result, reservation lands suffered massive deforestation and flooding. The public works projects attracted very few migrants, but those few – and largely poor - settlers brought new diseases that further devastated the Indians population.

The Brazilian gold rush

The next phase of destruction came in the 1980s with the discovery of large deposits of gold on reservation lands, particularly Yanomami land. The Yanomami, one of the largest and oldest known tribes in the South Americas, had lived virtually unchanged since the Stone Age. Then the promise of gold brought tens of thousands of speculators onto their land. The mercury used to extract the deposits polluted the rivers and killed the fish. The miners also introduced tuberculosis, malaria and flu. In 1977, the Yanomami population was estimated at 20,000; by the end of the 20th century, it was down to 9,000.

Major ethnic groups

For complete list see List of Indigenous peoples in Brazil
Two indigenous men.

See also


External links

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