Ancient Brazil

The vast Amazon basin is home to a tropical rain forest larger then any on Earth, and even today the last vestiges of untouched Amerindian tribes still inhabit it’s vast interior.

Apiaká indians, in Arinos river by Hercules Florence (1827)
The Ancient Cultures of the Amazon

Anthropomorphic Funeral Urn; Santarém, Terracotta Lower Amazonia, 11th Century

The lands of the Amazon region are covered by the Amazon river and its more than one thousand tributaries. Amazonia reaches six million kilometers and constitutes the biggest tropical jungle in the world. Its area represents approximately half of South America and a third of the tropical forests of the world, concentrating the biggest biological diversity of the planet. All of the fauna of the South American humid tropical jungle is present in the Amazon jungles. Innumerable species of still unclassified plants exist there, thousands of species of birds, innumerable amphibians and millions of insects. It is in this forested realm that some of the last untouched tribes on earth may still reside. Although deforestation continues to erode this mighty forest, areas that have been cleared are only now revealing the presence of what may have been giant farming communities that thrived here a millennium ago.

Amazonia, Precolumbian Brazil

Two Kayapo Indians, showing the beautiful feathers won by them in ceremonial settings

Three of the main tributaries of the Amazon are more than 1,000 km long, and eight of them have a volume of water equivalent to the eight longest rivers of the world, including the Congo, the Yangtse Kiang, the Ganges and the Mississippi. This characteristic facilitated the development and introduction of human settlements in the interior of the lands and currently constitutes the vitality of the so-called “lung of the world”. Amazonia is perhaps one of the regions which has lost more Indo-American population. This population developed and assimilated the evolution of the environment, taking advantage of small jungle areas for non- permanent crops, that once abandoned reconstituted the original forest.

As with most indigenous American communities, the perception of complementary worlds is evident: there exists the visible world, and another underworld, and in heaven. The daily life on the earth is mixed with the one from the great beyond and the living coexisted with the Gods and their ancestors. The jungles offered them the necessary natural resources for their ceremonies and rituals, giving them very diverse materials for their objects: such as precious stones, bird feathers, sea shells, pigments for painting their bodies and medicinal plants or tobacco, associated with power and other symbolic values.

The artistic production, as well as their ceremonial constructions, was produced with perishable materials such as fruit fibres, the fruit peels, wood or mud. The use of these kinds of materials made their conservation and archaeological registration impossible. The Amazon basin occupies an immense territory of 6,120,000 km, the equivalent of a third of southern America. A major part of the basin belongs to Brazil, and to a lesser extent, to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, French Guyana, Surinam and Guyana.

The river network is calculated to be around 80,000km, of which 14,000 can be navigated by large boats and some 40,000 by small motor boats. The warm climate (with temperatures between 25 and 37 degrees centigrade) favours the evolution of a thick and dense tropical forest. Covered by this cloak of jungle, the basin seen from the air seems impenetrable.

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The Discovery of the Amazon by Europeans

An early 19th Century Engraving Showing how the Amazonians Appeared to the first Explorers

An early 19th Century Engraving Showing how the Amazonians Appeared to the first Explorers

In 1500 Vicente Yañez Pinzón was surprised to find fresh water so far from the Brazilian coast, which meant that there existed a river.. Forty years later, Francisco Pizarro appointed his brother Gonzalo as Governor of Quito, trusting in him the project of exploring the lands to the east of this city, on the other side of the Andes mountain range. Pizarro reached an agreement with his cousin Francisco de Orellana founder of Guayaquil, to jointly run the company. After three months of preparation, on the 18th February 1841, Pizarro set out on the journey with an enormous expedition. After one month, he had lost all his horses, and there were only twenty-one men left.

Orellana prepared a new expedition some months later, as related by P.Gaspar de Carvajal: going down the river they began to run into difficulties, so they constructed a new brig, and without knowing so, they reached the confluence of the Napo with the Amazon, on the 11th February 1542. They got a good reception and abundant food. They crossed the most populated region of the Amazon until that time, Machiparo. Once they had passed the mouth of the Caquetá, they reached a river the color of ink, which they called Black River. On June 24th 1542, a memorable encounter took place with the “Amazons” which would lead to future dreams and illusions. In mid July the expedition reached the Island of Marajó, and finally they reached the Atlantic on 26th August 1542.

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Precolumbian Cultures of Brazil

A Kayapo wearing the distinctive facial painting of his tribe

A Kayapo wearing the distinctive facial painting of his tribe

The end of the pre-history of Brazil corresponds to the year 1500BC. The remains of a human presence in the Amazon region has caused surprise and has led to various hypotheses over the centuries. However, the interest of the Brazilian and foreign specialists with regard to these remains is very recent. Bones and stone objects have been found, decorated and undecorated pots were unburied, parietal paintings were found with representations of animals and various signs, both in the open air as well as in caves and caverns. Despite the fact that the remains of ceramics are predominant, these are not distinguished by their aesthetic qualities, with the exception of some pieces discovered along the Amazon that are rarely complete or have deteriorated decorations.

It seems that the population of the Amazon was not very dense, either on the plateau or along the Atlantic coast. There were family groups whose subsistence depended on hunting, the collection of roots, seeds and berries from the forests, on occasion accompanied by fish and molluscs from the river, and they were located preferably in areas rich in food resources. They lived in simple settlements deprived of a well-defined political structure.

The most remote remains date back 48,000 years, and were discovered in the south west of Piaui. Similarly, between the plateau and the sea, from the Río Grande in the south as far as Espirito Santo a particular economy was discovered, characterized by piles of waste known from the Colonial period under the name of sambaquis (piles of shells).

The utensils of finely-worked stone, such as pointed projectiles that were used for hunting, are the most significant remains of an apparently rudimentary technology. These utensils were discovered in the north of the Mato Grosso and from the Rondônia, and in the south of the State of Pará. The funeral urns of the Amazon were characterized by the fact that the head of the person was mobile and constituted the lid of a recipient.

The archaeological data collected until today reveal, however, that much earlier than the arrival of the Europeans, groups of different cultures moved around Amazonia after arriving there by different means.

On reaching Brazil, the Portuguese found a population both little dense and developed, which didn’t represent a threat to their colonial propositions. The native population became the labour for the Europeans who came to settle in the New World.

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The Island of Marajó

A map showing the location of Marajó Island, and the Civilization that has been recently discovered there

The inhabitants of this island originally settled close to the river, where the lands were more fertile for growing potatoes. The first occupations date back to 1100 BC prolonging the marajoara period until 1350 AD, the moment in which other dominant cultures appeared in the area.

Their dwellings were made of mud and wood, the floors were covered with white clay, and the roofs were made of straw. They were large in size given that various families lived in each one. They were organized in chiefdoms, with a complex political and religious development. With regard to their ritual objects, the tubular pipes have reached us, with which they consumed tobacco, and paints (stamps of clay of different shapes and sizes with decorative motives) that they used to paint their bodies.

Their ceramic was distinguished for its rich ornamentation. The decorations ere either engraved, modeled or painted. In terms of production, it is worth highlighting the enormous pots with human figures that served as funeral urns, some of them with a lid in the form of a human head. The size of the piece varied, as in some cases the dead body was forced inside, and in others there were only the bodies painted red. Two styles were distinguished: one with a background of red, the other with a background of white. The first one with the red background was simply shaped but with complex designs, with natural forms such as alligators and human figures surrounded by spiral drawings and stepped in double lines. The second one with the white background, were mostly destined to the religious cult such as funeral urns, including delicate lined drawings that by means of the incision let you see the red clay of the object.

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Santarém Culture

An Anamorphic Vase of the Santarém Culture

The Santarém culture was developed in the Amazon basin. Its inhabitants were organised in small family nucleuses and were settled on the flood banks of the river or in the rocky shelters. In terms of food, it is worth highlighting their consumption of fish, tortoises and shells. With regard to their religious life the cult to the ancestors should be mentioned, as well as the custom of incinerating their dead and consuming the ashes.

The ceramic of Santarém is one of the oldest in America (Pre-Colombian Amazonia dates back to about 5500 BC). The ceramic productions of this area are defined as tapajoense or tapajoara (Portuguese). Initially, the shapes of the recipients were simply and rarely decorated. Given that they were not baked they were very fragile. Subsequently, worth highlighting were the elongated cups from which protruded appendices in the form of animals and mythical beings. The Amazon clay is in general red due to the high amount of iron oxide. The decreasing or anti-plastics are substances that are mixed with the clay to give it more elasticity and to avoid it breaking during baking. They usually used stones, the remains of broken ceramic, minerals in dust, crushed bones of animals, coal, ash and even excrement.

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The Tribes of the Xingu

This Kayapo woman is shown in the traditional body paint of her tribe, the ceremonial coloring that has been maintained throughout the centuries

There are two main concentrations of Indians in the Xingu, those of the upper river and another population center located about half way down the river. In the upper part are the Waurá (Aurá), Mehináku (Meináco) and Yawalapiti (Jaulapiti) tribes that speak Arawakan dialects, the Awetí (Auetí) and Kamayurá (Kamaiurá) speaking a Tupi language; and the Kalapálo, Kuikúru, Nauquá (Nahukuá), Matipuhy (Matipu), and Ikpeng (Txikão) who speak languages of the Carib linguistic branch. Below, in the area of the Von Maritius Waterfall are the Kayapó (Txukuhamai or Txucarramãe) and Suyá (Suiá or Beiço-de-Pau) who speak languages in Macro-Ge linguistic family. Slightly above near mouth of the Maritsauá-Mitau River, the Jurúna (Yuruna or Yudja) speak a Tupi language while the Trumaí tribes speak a language isolate, unrelated to any known language family. The Kayabí (Kaiabí), who are thought to have come more recently from the distant Tapajó region, speak a dialect of Tupi as their general language.

With exception to the Kayapó and Suyá who are nomads and hunter-gatherers, all the other Xingu natives are sedentary, primarily practicing agriculture and fishing. The crops that they cultivate are the same as before the arrival of Columbus. They include manioc, corn, yams and potatoes as the principal crops. In addition, perennial cotton is also cultivated. In particular, Kayabí agriculture is quite impressive. In addition to the above species, the Kayabí cultivate giant yams on a large scale as well as the mangarito (a type of tuber), red potatoes, and twelve different cultivated varieties of peanuts.

The Aweti with the traditional painted hair cut short to distinguish them from other tribes of the Xingu

The Aweti with the traditional painted hair cut short to distinguish them from other tribes of the Xingu

In general, the native of the Upper Xingu have a basic diet consisting of manioc and fish. For the most part, they do not eat any meat besides fish and even then only certain varieties of fish are consumed. Generally they only eat fish that have scales and reject those without. With respect to birds, there are only two or three species that are consumed, the curassow, jocobins and guan. Older men (principally the shamans) are said to eat a lot of pepper in order to enhance their powers. The principle food of the Xingu Indians is manioc which is most commonly consumed in the form of tapioca cakes (beiju). Manioc is harvested from the fields, grated and then refined. The unrefined manioc is poisonous and must be leached with water to remove the toxins. With respect to harvesting wild fruits, there is an incredible variety available in the rainforest, some poisonous and some edible. The Xingu Indians say that one can tell which is edible by observing monkeys and only eating fruits that they consume.

Xingu Indian villages are generally well adapted to their environment. Xinguano villages are typically spacious, built on solid foundations that is free from floods, and often strategically positioned out of the reach of mosquitoes. The dwellings (long houses) are also spacious, often measuring 25 meters long and 15 wide. The roof is generally made of straw rather than palm leaves. Each long house has two doors, each on opposite sides of the dwelling. Each hut is constructed around an extensive common area. All feasts and ceremonies are held in the common area. In addition, Xingu Indians usually bury their dead in the commons directly in front of their homes. The long houses are not inhabited by unit families, rather by groups of relatives. The hammocks, which are made by women, are woven of native cotton mixed with the fibers of palm tree sprouts. Hammocks are hung around the outer part of the house so as to leave the central area a free space. Each long house has one chief or head that is responsible for the economic activities of the group. The chief of the house is the one who leads the others in the fields, chooses the place, oversees the cleaning of the land and proceeds with the planting.

The Suya are another tribe in the Xingu river who are known for piercing their lips with large discs, a fact first recorded by the Portuguese and Spanish Explorers

In contrast, the general chief (cacique) of the village has little physical control over other inhabitants of the village. His primary role is to sponsor ceremonial rites. The cacique, with consul from the village shaman, talks to the whole village, inviting them for ceremonies, directing the preparations of the agricultural fields, arranging trade, maintains the tribal traditions of the village. Each morning the cacique speaks to the entire village from the doorway of his hut while holding a bow and arrows in his hands.

The power of the cacique is very limited as each member of the tribe acts for himself. No one determines what an individual should do. Each Xingu Indian is a free and independent man. It is the force of culture and tribal traditions that maintain the unity of the village and tribe. Xingu Indian men do not recognize the authority of any cacique to impose penalties and punishment. Xinguano men learn early in life as boys what their position within the community is and they begin to act like an adult at an early age. When a Xinguano attains the age of twelve, he is very knowledgeable about what his responsibilities are and about the traditions of his people.

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