Indigenous peoples in Brazil

Indigenous peoples in Brazil
Indigenous peoples in Brazil
Povos Indígenas no Brasil
Brazilian indians 000.JPG
Compilation of pictures of Native Brazilians from the tribes Assurini, Tapirajé, Kaiapó, Kapirapé, Rikbaktsa and Bororo-Boe.
Total population
0.4% of Brazil's population[1]
Regions with significant populations
Predominantly in the North and Central-West

Traditional languages, Portuguese


61.1% Roman Catholic, 19.5% Protestant, 11% non-religious, 5% other beliefs[2]

Related ethnic groups

Other Indigenous peoples in the Americas

The Indigenous peoples in Brazil (Portuguese: povos indígenas no Brasil) comprise a large number of distinct ethnic groups who inhabited the country prior to the European invasion around 1500. Unlike Christopher Columbus, who thought he had reached the East Indies, the Portuguese, most notably Vasco da Gama, had already reached India via the Indian Ocean route when they reached Brazil.

Nevertheless the word índios ("Indians") was by then established to designate the people 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 people.

At the time of European discovery, some of 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 the 16th century 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 Spanish, declining from a pre-Columbian high of millions to some 300,000 (1997), grouped into some 200 tribes. However, the number could be much higher if the urban Indigenous populations are counted in all the Brazilian cities today. A somewhat dated linguistic survey[3] 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 Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition Brazil has now overpassed New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted peoples.

Brazilian Indigenous people have made substantial and pervasive contributions to the world's medicine with knowledge used today by pharmaceutical corporations, material and cultural development—such as the domestication of cassava and other natural foods.

In the last IBGE census (2006), 519,000 Brazilians classified themselves as indigenous, even though millions of Brazilians have Amerindian ancestry.[4]



Xingu, a Brazilian Indian reservation.

Questions about the original settlement the Americas has produced a number of hypotheses and models. The origins of these indigenous peoples are still a matter of dispute among archaeologists. The traditional view, which traces them to Siberian migration to America at the end of the last ice age, has been increasingly challenged by South American archaeologists. Theories to explain evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact with the Americas by Asian, African, or Oceanic peoples is generally the topic of significant debate. Demonstrations such as Kon-Tiki and the Kantuta Expeditions demonstrated the ability to travel westward with the Humboldt Current from South America to Polynesia.

The Siberian Ice Age hypothesis

Anthropological and genetic evidence indicates that most Native American peoples descended from migrant peoples from North Asia (Siberia) who entered America across the Bering Strait 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, 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 States and Canada, respectively).[citation needed]

An analysis of Amerindian Y-chromosome DNA indicates specific clustering of much of the South American population. The micro-satellite diversity and distributions of the Y lineage specific to South America indicates that certain Amerindian populations have been isolated since the initial colonization of the region.[5]

The Australian 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 Santa, Minas Gerais, Brazil analyzed by University of São Paulo, Professor Walter Neves) are claimed to be morphologically distinct from the Asian phenotype and are more similar to Australian Aborigines. These Americans would have been later displaced or absorbed by the Siberian immigrants. The distinctive natives of Tierra del Fuego, 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 rafts or boats, 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 Tasmania, hopping Subantarctic islands and then proceeding along the coast of Antarctica and/or southern ice sheets to the tip of South America at the time of the last glacial maximum.

Archaeological remains

Terena people.

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 these 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.[6]

The natives after the European colonization

Distribution of Tupi and Tapuia peoples on the coast of Brazil, on the eve of colonialism in the 16th Century

On the eve of the Portuguese arrival in 1500, Brazil's coastal areas had two major mega-groups - the Tupi (speakers of Tupi–Guarani languages), who inhabited practically the entire Brazilian coast, and the Tapuia (a catch-all term for non-Tupis, usually Jê language peoples), who resided in the interior. The Portuguese arrived in the final days of a long struggle between the Tupis and Tapuias, which had resulted in the defeat and expulsion of the Tapuias from the coastal areas.

Although the Tupi were broken down into sub-tribes, they were culturally and linguistically homogeneous. The fact that the Portuguese encountered practically the same people and language all along the Brazilian coast made interaction rather easy.

The names by which the different Tupi tribes were called and recorded by Portuguese and French authors of the 16th C. are poorly understood. Most do not seem to be proper names, but descriptions of relationship, usually familial - e.g. tupi means "first father", tupinambá means "relatives of the ancestors", tupiniquim means "side-neighbors", tamoio means "grandfather", temiminó means "grandson", "tabajara" means "in-laws" and so on.[7] Some etymologists believe these names reflect the ordering of the migration waves of Tupi peoples to the coast, e.g. first Tupi wave to reach the coast being the "grandfathers" (Tamoio), soon joined by the "relatives of the ancients" (Tupinamba), by which it could mean relatives of the Tamoio, or a Tamoio term to refer to relatives of the old Tupi back in the Amazon basin. The "grandsons" (Temiminó) might be a a splinter. The "side-neighbors" (Tupiniquim) meant perhaps recent arrivals, still trying to jostle their way in.

Coastal Sequence (north to south):[8]

  1. Tupinambá (Tupi, from the Amazon delta to Maranhão)
  2. Tremembé (Tapuia (non-Tupi), coastal tribe, ranged from São Luis Island (south Maranhão) to the mouth of the Acaraú River in north Ceará; French interlopers cultivated an alliance with them)
  3. Potiguara (Tupi, literally "shrimp-eaters"; they had a reputation as great canoeists and aggressively expansionist, inhabited a great coastal stretch from Acaraú river to Itamaracá, covering the modern states of souther Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba.)
  4. Tabajara (tiny Tupi tribe between Itamaracá island and Paraiba River; frequent victims of the Potiguara)
  5. Caeté (Tupi group in Pernambuco, ranged from Paraiba River to the São Francisco River; after killing and eating a Portuguese bishop, they were subjected to Portuguese extermination raids and the remnant pushed into the Pará interior)
  6. Tupinambá again (Tupi par excellence, ranged from the São Francisco River to the Bay of All Saints, population estimated as high as 100,000; hosted Portuguese castaway Caramuru)
  7. Tupiniquim (Tupi, covered Bahian discovery coast, from Camumu to Rio São Mateus; these were the first people encountered by the Portuguese in 1500)
  8. Aimoré (non-Tupi (Jê) tribe; concentrated on a sliver of coast in modern Espirito Santo)
  9. Goitacá (Tapuia (non-Tupi) tribe; once dominated the coast from São Mateus River (in Espírito Santo state) down to the Paraíba do Sul river (in Rio de Janeiro state); hunter-gatherers and fishermen, they were a shy people that avoided all contact with foreigners; estimated at 12,000; they had a fearsome reputation and were eventually annihilated by European colonists)
  10. Temiminó (small Tupi tribe, centered on Governador island in Guanabara bay; frequently at war with the Tamoio around them)
  11. Tamoio (old branch of the Tupinambá, ranged from the western edge of Guanabara bay to Ilha Grande)
  12. Tupinamba again (Tupi, indistinct from the Tamoio. Inhabited the Paulist coast, from Ilha Grande to Santos; main enemies of the Tupiniquim to their west Numbered around 6 to 10,000).
  13. Tupiniquim again (Tupi, on the Paulist coast from Santos/Bertioga down to Cananeia; aggressively expansionist, they were recent arrivals imposing themselves on the coast at the expense of their neighbors; first formal allies of the Portuguese colonists of the 1530s)
  14. Carijó (Guarani tribe, from Cananeia down to Lago dos Patos; victims of the Tupiniquim and early European slavers; hosted mysterious degredado known as the Bachelor of Cananeia)
  15. Charrúa (non-Tupi (Jê) tribe in modern Uruguay coast, with an aggressive reputation against intruders; killed Juan Dias de Solis)

With the exception of the Goitacases, the coastal tribes were primarily agriculturalists. The subtropical Guarani cultivated maize, tropical Tupi cultivated manioc (cassava), highland Jês cultivated peanut, as the staple of their diet. Supplementary crops included beans, sweet potatoes, cará (yam), jerimum (pumpkin) and cumari (capsicum pepper).

First contacts

Depiction of cannibalism in the Brazilian Tupinambá tribe, as described by Hans Staden.

When the Portuguese explorers first arrived in Brazil in April 1500, they found, to their astonishment, a wide coastline rich in resources, 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 arrival, 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. Portugues claims of 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 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 pathfinders organized expeditions called "bandeiras" (flags) into the backlands to claim it for the Portuguese crown and to look for gold and precious stones.[9]

Brazilian Indians during a ritual, Debret.

Intending to profit from sugar trade, the Portuguese decided to plant sugar cane in Brazil, and use indigenous slaves as the workforce, as the Spanish 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

Map of indigenous reserves in Brazil.

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 Portugal, Spain and the Vatican, 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 Warrior depicted by Jean-Baptiste Debret in the early 19th Century.

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 French, in the famous episode of France Antarctique in Rio de Janeiro, 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.[10]

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

Marshal 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 20th 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 Park, 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 Rondônia is named after him.

SPI failure and FUNAI

Tapirapé woman painting the body.

After Rondon's pioneering work, the SPI was turned over to bureaucrats and military officers and its work declined after 1957. The new officials did not share Rondon's deep commitment to the Indians. SPI sought to address tribal issues by transforming the tribes into mainstream Brazilian society. 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.[citation needed]

During the social and political upheaval in the 1960s, reports of mistreatment of Indians increasingly reached Brazil's urban centers and began to affect Brazilian thinking. In 1967, following the publication of the Figueiredo report, commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior, the military government launched an investigation into SPI. It soon came to light that the SPI was corrupt and failing to protect Indians, their lands, and, culture. The 5,000 page report catalogued atrocities including slavery, sexual abuse, torture, and mass murder.[11] It has been charged that agency officials, in collaboration with land speculators, were systematically slaughtering the Indians by intentionally circulating disease-laced clothes.[citation needed] Criminal prosecutions followed, and the SPI was disbanded. The same year the government established Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Indian Foundation), known as FUNAI which is responsible for protecting the interests, cultures, and rights of the Brazilian indigenous populations. Some tribes have become significantly integrated into Brazilian society. The unacculturated tribes which have been contacted by FUNAI, are supposed to be protected and accommodated within Brazilian society in varying degrees. By 1987 it was recognized that unessential contact with the tribes was causing illness and social disintegration. The uncontacted tribes are now supposed to be protected from intrusion and interference in their life style and territory.[11] However, the exploitation of rubber and other Amazonic natural resources has led to a new cycle of invasion, expulsion, massacres and death, which continues to this day.

The military government

Also in 1964, in a seismic political shift, the Brazilian military took control of the government and abolished all existing political parties, creating a two-party system. 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 beginning to transform Brazil into one of 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 square miles of forest were cleared without regard for reservation status. 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.

Contemporary situation

The 1988 Brazilian Constitution recognises indigenous peoples' right to pursue their traditional ways of life and to the permanent and exclusive possession of their "traditional lands", which are demarcated as Indigenous Territories.[12] In practice, however, Brazil's indigenous people are still face a number of external threats and challenges to their continued existence and cultural heritage.[13] The process of demarcation is slow—often involving protracted legal battles—and FUNAI do not have sufficient resources to enforce the legal protection on indigenous land.[14][15][16][17][13] Since the 1980s there has been a boom in the exploitation of the Amazon Rainforest for mining, logging and cattle ranching, posing a severe threat to the region's indigenous population. Settlers illegally encroaching on indigenous land continue to destroy the environment necessary for indigenous peoples' traditional ways of life, provoke violent confrontations and spread disease.[13] Peoples such as the Akuntsu and Kanoê have been brought to the brink of extinction within the last three decades.[18][19]

Major ethnic groups

For complete list see List of Indigenous peoples in Brazil

Two indigenous men.
Indigenous girl of Terena tribe.
A Brazilian Indian family.

See also


  1. ^ [1] Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística
  2. ^ (Portuguese) Study Panorama of religions. Fundação Getúlio Vargas, 2003.
  3. ^ Rodrigues 1985
  4. ^ Brazil :: Ethnic groups - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  5. ^ "Summary of knowledge on the subclades of Haplogroup Q". Genebase Systems. 2009. Retrieved 2010-12-17. 
  6. ^ Deposits in several places along the Amazon
  7. ^ M. Pereira Gomes, The Indians and Brazil, p.32
  8. ^ Boundary details are partly derived from Tribos Indígenas Brasileiras
  9. ^ São Paulo
  10. ^ Notícias socioambientais :: Socioambiental
  11. ^ a b "FUNAI - National Indian Foundation (Brazil)". Retrieved 2011-02-23. 
  12. ^ Federal Constitution of Brazil. Chapter VII Article 231.
  13. ^ a b c "2008 Human Rights Report: Brazil". United States Department of State: Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 25 February 2009. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  14. ^ "Indigenous Lands > Introduction > About Lands". Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Instituo Socioambiental (ISA). Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  15. ^ Borges, Beto; Combrisson, Gilles. "Indigenous Rights in Brazil: Stagnation to Political Impasse". South and Meso American Indian Rights Center. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  16. ^ Schwartzman, Stephan; Valéria Araújo, Ana; Pankararú, Paulo (1996). "Brazil: The Legal Battle Over Indigenous Land Rights". NACLA Report on the Americas 29 (5). Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  17. ^ "Brazilian Indians 'win land case'". BBC News. 11 December 2008. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  18. ^ Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). "Introduction > Akuntsu" (in English). Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Retrieved 8 March 2011. 
  19. ^ Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). "Introduction > Kanoê" (in English). Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Retrieved 8 March 2011. 

External links