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Social and Environmental History of Pre-Colonial Brazil


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Young Yoon
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2008



Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Environment
II.1 Amazon Basin
II.2 Atlantic Seaboard
II.3 Large Highlands
III. Society
III.1 Tupi Tribe
III.2 Guarani Tribe
III.3 Agriculture
III.3.1 Wide Variety of Crops
III.3.2 Preservation
III.4 Hunting and Fishing
IV. Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography



I. Introduction
            Brazil was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1519, and since then the written history of Brazil begins. The social and environmental conditions of pre-colonial Brazil are veiled due to dense jungles and lack of highly centralized civilizations. However, a few primary sources make possible a rough sketch of how the society and environment of Brazil before the Europeans arrived was like. This paper will discuss the society and environment of Brazil from the arrival of the first Brazilians to the year 1500 AD.

II. Environment
            Brazil environment is divided in mainly three geographical regions. The long, narrow Atlantic seaboard has coastal ranges between the Rio Grande do Sul and Bahia, but is flatter north of Bahia. The large highlands - called the Planalto Brasileiro, or central plateau - extend over most of Brazil's interior south of the Amazon Basin. There are also two great depressions: the Parana-Paragui basin in the south, which is characterized by open forest, low woods and scrubland, and the huge, densely forested Amazon basin in the north. (1)
            The environment in pre-colonial Brazil served not only as an agricultural and residential base but also as a cultural boundary. The Andes and the mountain ranges of northern South America created a rather sharp cultural boundary between the settled agrarian civilizations of the west coast (which gave rise to urbanized city-states and the immense Inca Empire) and the semi-nomadic tribes of the east (2). The Tupi Guarani were established along the Atlantic coast, from the mouth of the Amazon River to south of present Sao Paulo (3). The Amazon Basin was occupied by Tupi, Arawak, and Carib tribes, while in central Brazil lived the Ge tribes.

II.1 Amazon Basin
            The Amazon Basin is a great drainage basin controlled by the Amazon River. Most parts of the basin are lowlands and are heavily forested, but many rivers start on the eastern side of the Andes and other high regions. The Tupi and many other tribes survived by cultivating the forests and living by the river bank, where transportation and irrigation was more convenient.
            By 1250 CE, the late-prehistoric tribes settled along the periphery of the forest , which altered the forest cover in various ways. Biologists believe that a population density of 0.2 persons/square km is the maximum that can be sustained in the rain forest through hunting. Hence, agriculture is needed to host a larger population. (4)

II.2 Atlantic Seaboard
            The Atlantic Seaboard, the 7300 km strip of sea coast, was once nearly covered with the Atlantic Forest and pine (araucaria) forests. However, due to deforestation during colonial times and urban settlement, only 8% of the forest remains. Before it was cleared, the Atlantic forest in the Atlantic Seaboard was a rainforest full of various flora and fauna, some of which are now extinct like the tapir (a main game of prehistoric hunters.)

II.3 Large Highlands
            The large highlands in Brazil, also called Planalto Brasileiro (Portuguese), covers the eastern, southern, and central parts of Brazil. This region was also covered largely by the Atlantic forest and cerrado vegetation, which includes grassy fields and canopy forests. Mostly formed by ancient basaltic flow, the land is fertile and suitable for farming, which has led to its nickname "purple land." The highlands were home to various birds, mammals, insects, and also to the agricultural tribes, before colonial deforestation and urban pollution.

III. Society
            The pre-colonial Brazilian society consisted of many tribes. Because the Brazilian Indians (5) developed a highly advanced, centralized civilization like the Incas or Mayas, they left little for archaeologists to discover; chiefly pottery, trash mounds and some skeletons. (6) By the time the Portuguese arrived in 1500, there were about 2 million to 6 million people, and nearly 1000 tribes. The tribal lifestyles ranged from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers, and their religious ceremonies involved cannibalism (they ate their captives after tribal warfare.) There were mainly two tribes along the coast when the Portuguese arrived ? the Tupi tribe and the Guarani tribe. The Tupi and the Guarani were similar in language and culture, but were also very hostile toward each other. These two tribes called all other tribes along the coast which were neither Tupi nor Guarani "Tapuia".

III.1 Tupi Tribe
            The Tupi were native to the Paraguay basin before invading the Brazilian coast. Because they were cannibals, the Tupi needed to capture prisoners for ritual purposes; this served as their motive to move north, extending their territories and spreading out into Brazil. Arriving in several waves, they first inhabited the Amazon rainforest, and then spread into the Atlantic coast. (7)
            At least 76 distinct tribes in pre-colonial Brazil spoke the Tupi language and had similar languages (8). Each of these tribes consisted of several villages, with about six to eight large houses (communal long houses) per village. The houses were mostly made of wood, and could hold up to thirty families each. Tupi tribes were semi-nomadic, living largely along the coast and along the banks of major rivers. They moved their entire village once about every five years. The Tupi shamans, who also served as something like the villages¡¯ councilmen, were also the tribe¡¯s medicine men. They controlled the rituals and sacrifices, and were believed to be able to talk to demons and ghosts in trance. Tupi people subsided on various ways, including fishing, hunting, migrant agriculture, and gathering.
            The Tupi were very aggressive, and sought to expand their territories as frequently as possible. Intertribal wars between Tupi tribes were very common. In war there was no hierarchy; no man was designated as a "leader" or "commander", although the warriors did listen to the advice of the older Tupi.

III.2 Guarani Tribe
            The Guarani were distinguished from the Tupi by their use of Guarani language. Actually, the name "Guarani" was applied to the people by the Jesuit missionaries, who called those who accepted conversion "Guarani" (the civilized) while those who refused to convert were called "Cayua" (the ones from the forest). The Guarani prior to European contact did not have a written language and their history was based entirely on oral tradition. Moreover, the Guarani people were a nomadic, decentralized society -- they thus lacked reliable (written) history.
            Like the Tupi, the Guarani tribes lived in communal houses, which contained from ten to fifteen families. They formed communities according to dialect, and it is estimated that they numbered at some 400,000 people when they were first encountered by Europeans (9). Contrary to the nomadic Tupi, the Guarani were sedentary and agricultural. Their products were mainly manioc, maize, wild game, and honey.
            The Guarani also practiced cannibalism, probably more with the purpose of a funerary ritual, but later on buried the dead in large jars. Their religion was influenced by animistic pantheism, as the folklore and myths widely spread in Paraguay clearly illustrate.

III.3 Agriculture
            Pre-colonial Brazil agriculture included excellent preserving technology as well as an advanced method of manipulating the environment. Although the people lacked iron tools or domesticated animals, they adapted well to the jungle environment. Creating orchards by planting t rees in the fertile river basins (terra preta do indio ? black soil containing charcoal) or using slash-and-burn methods, the people developed a significant agricultural economy.

III.3.1 Wide Variety of Crops
            Unlike the single crop monoculture common in Europe, the indigenous people in Brazil cultivated a wide variety of crops. In the Minas Gerais region, for example, more than one variety of maize was planted on a same period of time. The earliest pre-colonial maize and manioc cultivation was conducted in approximately 1000 BC, and the most recent was in approximately 1431 BC. During this time period of nearly five hundred years, the variety of maize changed over and over again, from orange and brown eared maize to purple eared maize. Moreover, the indigenous people based their agriculture on the trees, which meant that their crops included not only maize and manioc but also fruits, nuts, and palms.

III.3.2 Preservation
            The indigenous people preserved their crops including maize cobs and seeds, maniocs, peanuts, cotton seeds, and many other vegetables and fruits in underground storages, or "silos", which were made up of interlaced palm fiber baskets. The baskets were covered, placed inside a hole in the ground, and added soil and fire ash over the silos to prevent insect attacks. The sedentary tribes also produced pottery for the purpose of cooking. Based on such preservation and cooking methods, the Tupi tribe could flourish economically, although there is no clear evidence of trade or market of any kind. It is more probable that the tribes provided for themselves, and the tribesmen shared the crops among themselves.
            The people could also calculate their agricultural activity using a primitive observatory, built of tall granite blocks in an open field. In December, the sun rays would pass through a hole in one of the blocks, therefore serving as a primary calendar.

III.4 Hunting and Fishing
            The rock paintings of handprints and human, animal and geometric figures show that the ancient Amazonians hunted the animals using primitive tools made of wood or bone. Stone was precious in the Amazon rainforests, and the hunters mostly used sharp spears, poisonous darts, or wooden arrows with stone arrowheads to hunt small animals in the rainforest. The people also fished and collected shellfish, as the shellfish mounds discovered in some coastal sites clearly illustrate.

IV Conclusion
            After the Portuguese arrived, the once diverse tribes residing in the Amazon basin and the Atlantic coast were scattered and dispersed, and their remnants destroyed. The lack of written history, and the small number of remaining architectures or other relics make it hard to estimate the society and environment of pre-colonial Brazil. However, it is certain that although the native Brazilians did not have a centralized civilization, they had a fairly advanced culture and adapted various agricultural and hunting/fishing methods in order to survive in their jungle environment. Their lifestyle had largely adapted to environmental conditions; the Portuguese, after their arrival, started adapting the environment to their lifestyle.


Notes

(1)      Article : Brazil, from Wikipedia
(2)      Brazil - Past and Present
(3)      Encyclopedia of World History, p 277
(4)      Relief and Landscape
(5)      The Portuguese called the native Brazilians "Indians" when they first encountered the Brazilians. (Wikipedia, Article Brazil)
(6)      Lonely Planet Brazil
(7)      Picture: from Google Map
(8)      Article : Guarani, from Wikipedia
(9)      The exact number of pre-colonial Brazil population just before the Portuguese arrived various from source to source. Most of the sources seem to agree that there were about 2000 nations and tribes when the Europeans first encountered the natives
(10)      Picture: from Wikimedia
(11)      Picture: from Corrientes Chamame
(12)      Picture: from Cute Animals


Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited at the end of June 2008.
1.      Brazil Information, from World Info Zone, http://www.worldinfozone.com/country.php?country=Brazil
2.      Lonely Planet Brazil, from Brazil Info, http://www.brazilnow.info/index.php
3.      Article: Indigenous People in Brazil, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_indigenous_people
4.      Colonial Brazil: Portuguese, Tupi, etc ? Pre-discovery, from Steven's Balagan, http://www.balagan.org.uk/war/iberia/1492/brazil/index.htm
5.      Article : Guarani, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guaran%C3%AD
6.      Scientia Agricola - Archaeological material for the study of crop evolution, by Fabio de Oliveira Freitas, July 27 2001, http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S0103-90162003000200027&script=sci_arttext#back10
7.      Tupi, by Julie Buettner, 2003, http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/southamerica/tupi.html
8.      Brazil ? past & present, by Adriaan P., from ESL Teachers Board, http://www.eslteachersboard.com/cgi-bin/latin-america/index.pl?read=1068
9.      Amazon Stonehenge suggests advanced ancient rainforest culture, by Rhett Butler, May 14 2006, from Mongabay.com, http://news.mongabay.com/2006/0514-amazon.html
10.      St. Louis, Regis . Brazil. Lonely Planet. 2005
11.      Stearns, Peter N. The Encyclopedia of World History : Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Chronologically Arranged. Houghton Mifflin Books. 2001
12.      Relief and landscape, from Latin America Bureau, http://www.latinamericabureau.org/?lid=545
13.      Article: Brazil, from Widipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil
14.      Picture: amazon_map from Google Images, www.fas.org/.../docs/rst/Sect6/amazon_map01.jpg
15.      Map: Brazil from Google Maps, http://maps.google.com/
16.      Picture: India_tupi from Wikimedia Commons, upload.wikimedia.org/.../5/56/India_tupi.jpg
17.      Picture:guarani1 from Corrientes Chamame, www.corrienteschamame.com/fotos/guarani1.jpg
18.      Picture: Brazilian_tupi from Cute Animals, by David August 2004, mepage.mac.com/.../brazilian_tapir.jpg


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