Brazil – Indigenous peoples before the arrival of the Portuguese

Indigenous peoples of Brazil
Indigenous peoples of Brazil

Indigenous peoples of Brazil

It’s easy to forget that there were several million people already inhabiting the land we know today as Brazil before the arrival of Portuguese explorers in the early 1500s. In fact, humans had already been populating the area for several thousand years before the first Europeans arrived. It is estimated that when the first Portuguese explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral, set foot in the New World, the population of what is now Brazil was about 2.4 million souls; by the time of Brazil’s independence from the Portuguese Crown, there were less than 200,000 indigenous people remaining. 1 The reasons for this decline were many including the inability of the native population to tolerate many European diseases as well as slavery, which the free-roaming indigenous peoples were not cut out for. Many native women were also taken (many if not most forcibly) as wives by the Portuguese and the other European settlers that followed, which hence assimilated them and their children into the mainstream society of the day.  This effectively ended their identity as indigenous peoples.

The natives of Brazil were not as complex as other indigenous American peoples. For example, they did not live in large city complexes with the type of rigid hierarchal framework similar to that of the Incas, Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs. Instead, they generally lived in simple hunter-gatherer societies along the coasts and in the forests and jungles that made up what is now Brazil.  With the exception of a few who had permanently settled near rivers and conducted basic farming, most indigenous peoples lived on a subsistence level and were highly mobile, traveling to different locations in order to find better supplies of food. They are also not known to have had any form of written language.

Extremely little is known about the indigenous peoples’ reaction to the bearded, funny-looking Portuguese who show up on their shores, partly because they hand no written language and did not leave any records. However, the Portuguese reaction to their new human discovery has been well-documented. Initially, they tended to view the natives as living in a garden of Eden, carefree and in tune with nature and their natural instincts. After being surrounded only by men and on dinky a ship for several months, the Portuguese sailors and explorers must have felt as if they’d walked into paradise due to the exotic and scantily clad indigenous women walking around. The women in turn seemed to take an interest with them in their clanky armor and funny hats. This mutual admiration however did not last long. It soon became apparent that the Portuguese saw themselves as superior to their new acquaintances and sought to subjugate them in order to accomplish their own imperial ambitions. This was an absolute disaster for the natives and many of them became enslaved, were murdered or died of disease, which decimated their numbers and all but destroyed their way of life. It is estimated that in the years 1562 and 1563 alone as many as one-third to one-half of Brazil’s indigenous population had fallen to disease. 2

Tupinambá dance
Tupinambá dance

In theory, the Portuguese Crown was opposed to the enslavement of Indians, though not apparently to forcibly converting them to Catholicism. They entrusted Jesuit missionaries with the later and also with the responsibility of protecting them from plantation owners who wanted to abuse them. The missionaries did succeed in converting, educating and in many instances, Europeanizing numerous indigenous tribes.  Unfortunately, they were not able to adequately protect them.  Starting in the 1620s, groups of raiders known as bandeirantes all but destroyed the Jesuit missions and massacred countless native peoples. 3

Generally speaking, there were three main indigenous groups found in Brazil when the Europeans arrived, namely the Mundurucú, the Tupinambá, and the Yanomami.

The Mundurucú

Mundurucú man

One of the chief groups of indigenous peoples, the Mundurucú had an interesting social structure and belief system. Theirs was a male-dominated, warlike society whose men were known for their skills with bows and arrows. The most skillful of these men resided in special houses which were forbidden to women. In fact, it seems as if Mundurucú men were unequivocally convinced that women were evil and not to be trusted. One of their central myths told of how once upon a time, their women had been very powerful and dominated over all of the males in the tribe. The men then came together and tricked the women by releasing a special device into the air that created a loud and scary roaring sound. This sound created so much fear amongst the women that they eventually submitted and became subservient to the men of the tribe. A feminist nightmare indeed!

The Mundurucú were generally ruled by a headman who was appointed by the tribe for his abilities as both an orator and a warrior. Because his oratory powers involved communicating the messages of the gods and spirit world to his people, he served a dual role as both a political and religious leader. Though the headman had considerable power, he ruled with the advice of several other authority figures such as shamans and those with important knowledge such as hunting, planting and warfare.

A head of a Mundurucú enemy that has been ritually preserved
A head of a Mundurucú enemy that has been ritually preserved

The Mundurucú believed that harmony in the universe could only be kept through a system of making human sacrifices of their rivals. Because of this, they often traveled great distances in order to capture prisoners to be sacrificed and collected their heads.

They took these heads of their enemies and impaled them on posts to display in their villages (think Game of Thrones or Mary Tudor’s England). However, these were not just simple heads on a spike to cause fear amongst the local population. There was a long and ritualized process carried out for preserving the head. The brains of the heads were taken out so that it could be dried, making the skin similar to parchment. The teeth were knocked out and the eyes sealed with beeswax. Sometimes, the feathers of different types of birds were added as a sort of headdress. The heads were then kept in their capturers houses like trophies for a period of three years. Men who took the heads and went through this ritualized process were revered throughout Mundurucú society. Mistreatment of women and chopping off heads for sport; I’m sure Joffrey (yes, another Game of Thrones reference) would have enjoyed Mundurucú life.

The Tupinambá

The Tupinambá were another Tupi-speaking group who occupied a long stretch of the Brazil’s coast. Like the Mundurucú, the Tupinambá also had their own male-dominated society and a complex worldview and mythology which told of a utopian land devoid of evil. The search for this land encouraged them to frequently be on the move, though they did settle down in small villages and set up farms in between migrations.

Tupinambá Households generally consisted of a head male who lived in a large house with wives, a staff of female slaves and also some boys, all of whom served him. He generally ate separately from everyone else in the house with his most important or highest-ranking wife serving him his food. Similar to the Mundurucú, the Tupinambá were skilled warriors who also engaged in ritual sacrifices and cannibalism. The later was especially important to them as they believed that eating the flesh of others, including relatives, was a way to gain wisdom and come into contact with their ancestors. Such barbaric acts only fueled the Portuguese drive to “civilize” the indigenous peoples, which became their prime cover for their brutality and also taking over their land and enslaving them.

Brazilian Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous Brazilians near the Amazon basin

Though brutal but modern standards, the pre-Portuguese Tupinambá did have some redeeming qualities and have had a significant influence on modern Brazilian society. Many Tupi words have found their way into the Portuguese vernacular that is spoken today. In addition, the Tupi and other aborigines were known for their scrupulous hygiene, taking several baths a day (unlike the dirty and disheveled Portuguese; if you’ve ever spent some time with modern-day Brazilians, you know that they often take several showers a day). Their love of music and dancing is also apparent in Brazil today, especially during festive times such as Carnaval. Their love of freedom has taken hold of the soul of many Brazilians. In many literary and artist circles, the Tupi have become a symbol of Brazilian nationalism and independence.

The Yanomami

The area of the Amazon Basin was (and still is) home to the Yanomami, Brazil’s largest living and unassimilated tribal group. The approximately 20,000 remaining members of this tribe today live and farm on a 30,000 square-mile plot of land in the Guiana Highlands, areas which surround part of the border between Brazil and Venezuela.

When the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the Yanomami tribes were living in communal farming villages. They still live a life similar to that of their ancestors back in the day, generally avoiding contact with outsiders. This self-imposed isolation is probably what saved them from the European onslaught. They tend to shun all things European. Unfortunately, their isolation has not made them immune to old world diseases, and they are still quite vulnerable to common and generally treatable viruses.

Brazilian indigenous peoples near the Amazon basin
Brazilian indigenous peoples near the Amazon basin

In 1991 and 1992, the governments of Brazil and Venezuela designated 45 million acres as “indigenous areas” that are protected by law. Unfortunately, the isolation of these areas and the absence of government within them also made them difficult to monitor, making them and their native inhabitants susceptible to abuse by farmers, loggers and other economic enthusiasts. The Yanomami are truly a fascinating people and can teach us a lot about how our ancestors used to live thousands of years ago.  Let’s hope that Brazil’s government and the world take more steps to protect these people and their heritage.

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