Indigenous peoples

Some 50,000 years ago the very first peoples crossed the temporary land bridge spanning Asia and America at the Bering Straits, and began a long migration southwards. They were hunters and foragers, following in the path of huge herds of now extinct animals, such as mammoth, giant ground sloth and antecedents of the camel and horse. The first signs that these people had reached South America date from around 10,000 BC, if not earlier.

It was assumed that the first humans in Brazil came down to the lowlands from the Andean chain, following the east-facing river valleys. Some very early human remains have been found in central and northeastern Brazil. In Pedra Furada, in northeast Brazil, a rock-shelter named Toca do Boqueirão yielded evidence of human presence from as early as 47,000 years ago. The cave, in a region well-known for its prehistoric rock paintings, had previously been explored and was known to have been occupied by hunters about 8000 years ago. However, a team of Brazilians, co-ordinated by Paulista archaeologist Niède Guidón, probed more deeply into the ground and claims to have found evidence of much earlier human presence. Guidón's claims sparked hot debate among other experts, many of whom argued that what she described as ash from fireplaces was in fact the remains of naturally caused forest fires. This claim has led to some accusations of racism by Brazilians who argue that if Guidón were American she would have been taken more seriously. This appears not to be the case, for similar controversy was sparked by the findings of a scion of one of the most famous American families, Anna Roosevelt. She claimed that findings in a cave in Monte Alegre, opposite Santarém on the Rio Solimões, suggested that the Amazon had been peopled since at least 11,000 BC and that it had supported large civilizations, also pre-dating previous estimates.

These, and other controversial claims have caused a bitter rift in the world of archaeology and led some experts to raise the theory of original human migration from across the Pacific Ocean and others to accuse the newcomers of undertaking amateurish, unprofessional research.

Amazon lifestyles

Roosevelt's research, together with that being undertaken by ethno-biologists like Wade Davis, anthropologists like Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff and Mesoamerica archaeologists and epigraphers like Linda Schele, began to change radically once widely-accepted ideas of the pre-Columbian Americans. Little is known of these people largely because of the colonial ideas that were handed down to Western archaeologists by the Spanish and Portuguese, who burned and plundered many of the artefacts and books of the first Americans. The Amazonian peoples were decimated by the Portuguese slave trade long before their knowledge could be shared; and as most of their treasures were made from perishable materials like feather, bark and reed, the products of their labour and their knowledge rotted into the forest floor. What we know is scant and trivial.

Their nomadic lifestyle was carefully planned, and they followed planting and harvesting seasons in accordance with the periodic rising and falling river levels. At first, as hunters and gatherers, they built simple, temporary houses out of tree trunks and palm leaves, and slept in hammocks made from plant fibres. Where clothing was used it was simple; a large, ankle-length tunic called a
kushma
was the main garment worn. Although this may sound impractical wear for people living in a warm, humid climate, the
kushma
provided much-needed protection against biting insects. Compensating for their plain clothing, the people painted their bodies and wore colourful jewellery, such as feather head-dresses; the designs for which were often rich and elaborate and drawn from an extensive mythology. Little has remained of the perishable adornments, but cylindrical and flat ceramic stamps have been found throughout Amazônia, which may have been used to apply ink designs onto the face and other parts of the body, still common today among Brazilian ethnic groups.

Migration to the coast

Around 7000-4000 BC a climatic change increased the temperature throughout the south of Brazil, drawing people down from the inland
planalto
region to the coasts, and leading to an upsurge in population here. These coastal inhabitants lived on shellfish collected from the water's edge, as evidenced by
sambaquis
(huge shell mounds), discovered on the coast. In rare cases they also fed on whales that had probably been beached, but they did not go far out to sea to fish. Some of the
sambaquis
found measure up to 25 m high; many of them also served as dwellings, with floors and fireplaces, and as burial sites, with graves often underneath the houses. The dead were buried with personal adornments and some domestic artefacts.

Settlement and political structure

By about 100-200 BC, people throughout Brazil were settled in structured, fixed communities by the coasts and rivers, living increasingly by farming instead of nomadic hunting and gathering. The subsequent population growth spread communities further along river courses and into seasonally flooded savannah lands.

Until Anna Roosevelt's research it had been thought that unlike the great empires of the Andes, the lowland peoples did not form political groupings much larger than a few villages. However it is now suggested that much of Brazil was settled by chiefdoms, some of which were substantial and the seat of sophisticated civilizations. The most notable of these was probably Marajó which Roosevelt has called 'one of the outstanding indigenous achievements of the New World.' The Marajó people occupied thousands of square kilometres in the lower portion of the Amazon basin in a civilization which perhaps numbered around 100 000 people and which endured for some 1000 years.

They had an advanced tropical rainforest agriculture in which fruit-bearing and utilitarian trees were planted within the forest (as opposed to in cleared areas); in much the same way as the Lacandon Maya today. The Marajó people were either influential on Brazilian indigenous people as a whole or they were part of a widespread practice, for by about 2000 BC peoples throughout the lower Amazon were planting at least 138 species of crop plant; including manioc which remains a staple in Brazilian diet to this day.

Linguistic groups

The most widespread linguistic grouping in Brazil at the time of the European conquest was the Tupi-Guarani. These people originated from the Atlantic coast around AD 500-700. By the 1500s the Tupi-Guarani, who often moved from place to place could be found from north of the Amazon south to Rio de la Plata, and west into Paraguay and Bolivia; they were probably the first Americans the Portuguese encountered

Another large, organized group of people were the Tupinambá. They lived on the coast, from the mouth of the Amazon south to São Paulo state. The Tupinambá lived by cultivating crops, such as manioc, sweet potato, yams, as well as cotton, gourds and tobacco. They lived in villages of four to eight large, rectangular, thatched houses, each containing up to 30 families. They usually built their villages on an elevation to catch the breeze, and moved to new sites every five years or so.

Cannibalism was also an important custom for the Tupinambá, as it had been for many other peoples throughout South America for thousands of years. The practice was a highly ritualized military practise, using prisoners of war. The victims were kept as slaves, often for long periods, being well fed and looked after; in some cases even marrying the owner's daughter or sister, who had their children. But all such slaves were eventually eaten, after an elaborate ceremony with much singing and dancing. An appointed executioner would kill them with a club and they were then cooked and different parts of the body divided up among various participants in the ritual. There have been many theories as to why people practised cannibalism; since they tended to eat victims of war it was thought that it gave them power over the spirits of their dead enemies. It is most commonly argued that human flesh supplemented the diet for large populations who had scarce resources. But this was not the case for the Tupinambá, who had ample food supplies. When the Tupinambá themselves were asked why they ate human meat they simply said they liked the taste of it.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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