Indigenous people of Brazil

From Academic Kids

This article is part of
the Brazilian History
Indigenous peoples
Colonial Brazil
Empire of Brazil

The indigenous peoples of Brazil (povos indgenas in Portuguese) comprise a large number of distict ethnic groups who inhabited the country's present territory prior its discovery by Europeans around 1500. Like Christopher Columbus, who thought he had reached the East Indies, the first Portuguese explorers called them ndios (Indians), a name that is still used today in Brazil.

The Brazilian indigenous peoples were mostly semi-nomadic tribes who subsisted on hunting, fishing, gathering, and migrant agriculture. Many of the groups which existed in 1500 died out as a consequence of the European settlement, and many were assimilated into the Brazilian population. The indigenous population has declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated 5–6 million to just 100,000 in 1950. Only a few tribes still survive in their original culture in remote areas of the Amazon Rainforest. However, changes in government policies over the past 50 years have managed to afford some protection to the remaining native Brazilians, and the population has risen again to some 300,000 (1997), grouped into some 200 tribes.

Missing image
Karaj Indians

Brazilian Indians 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.



The origins of the first Brazilians 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.

The Siberian Ice Age hypothesis

Anthropological and genetic evidence indicates that most Native American peoples descended from the "first wave" of migrant peoples from north Asia (Siberia) who entered America across the Bering Strait 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 wave of migrants, who are believed to have crossed the "land bridge" across the Bering Strait at the end of the last Ice Age around 9000 BC.

A migrant wave around 9000 BC would have reached Brazil around 6000 BC, 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.)

The 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 Santa) are claimed to be morphologically distinct from the Asian genotype and are more similar to African and Australian Aborigines. These American Aborigines 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 that 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.

Archaeological remains

Virtually all the surviving archaeological evidence about the pre-history of Brazil dates from the period after the Asian migratory waves. Brazilian Indians, 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 Brazilian history before 1500 is what is inferred 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 (sambaqus) 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. 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.

Economy and culture

The first Brazilians appear to have subsisted from hunting, fishing, and gathering. They used bone and chipped stone tools and weapons, similar to those found throughout the Americas at comparable dates. Eventually those were replaced by polished stone tools.


Pottery was introduced at a very early date; indeed the earliest ceramic finds in the Americas are from the Amazon region, which may indicate a local invention and cultural diffusion from South to North, opposite to the generally expected trend. Brazilain potters used sophisticated materials (such as microscopic silica spikes obtained from certain freshwater sponges) to make fine utilitarian and ceremonial vessels, with intricate carved, molded, and painted decoration. However they did not know the potter's wheel or the vitreous glazes.

The evolution of pottery styles in various locations indicates a complex pattern of internal migrations and replacement. In particular, is seems that the Tupi-Guarani Indians — which by 1500 were a major ethnic family East of the Andes — originated as a small tribe in the Amazon region, and migrated to their historic range — from Central Brazil to Paraguay — sometime in the first millennium AD.


At some point, Brazilian Indians developed or learned the technique of agriculture. Some crops (like maize) were imported from the more advanced civilizations West of the Andes, while cassava, which became the main staple for many populations, appears to have been developed locally.

Brazilian Indians had no domesticated animals that could be used for transportation or plowing, so agriculture was carried out entirely by hand power. That involved cutting down the jungle to create a clearing, burning the dead wood in place to free its mineral nutrients, planting the crops and harvesting. Usually two or three crops were planted together. Fields would be abandoned and rebuilt frequently.

Brazilian Indians manufactured an alcoholic beverage, cauim, from fermented maize or cassava — a custom which they probably imported from beyond the Andes, together with agriculture.

The Indians by the time of discovery

Major ethnic groups

See also


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