Small groups of settlers would have adapted to life in the different natural environments that were taking shape across what we now call Brazil. Some settled in the Brazilian savannah (or cerrado), some in the Atlantic Forest, some in the Amazon rainforest. The differences between these natural environments helped create new languages and ways of life, and make the groups of people evolve differently from each other. When did all this happen? It happened in the period immediately following the Pleistocene Era. Archaeologists call this the Archaic Era. This was between two thousand five hundred and ten thousand years ago. During the period, human groups developed which were culturally very different from each other. An increase in the number of archaeological sites traced to this period demonstrates how the human population grew from millennium to millennium.
We can only find out about peoples who had no knowledge of writing through the material remains that they left behind. An archaeological site is what remains of things made and used by people living in a particular place. This might mean clay pots, pieces of axes or other stone tools, or signs of areas used for growing crops.
It was an era when a great abundance of natural resources developed. And these are natural resources human beings have made use of ever since.
Studies suggest that a part of what is now the Amazon rainforest exists because of thousands of years of management of natural resources by indigenous peoples. The same can be said for other regions of Brazil. Managing a natural resource (such as a species of plant) means looking after it so that it does not run out. It can always, therefore, be used.
People started to cultivate and look after plants that they considered important. As agriculture developed, these people began living in fixed villages, and areas where there were plenty of animals to hunt.Were animals domesticated?They were in and around the Andes mountain range. But there are no signs of this in what we now call Brazil.
The best known archaeological sites along the coast are known as sambaquis. In Tupi languages sambaqui means a ‘pile of shells’. The sambaquis that remain mostly date back to between 1 and 4 thousand years ago. They are mounds made of the shellfish eaten by people long ago.
These mounds have also been found to contain human remains, carved stone tools and objects made out of bone, teeth and shell. Sambaquis have been found right the way from the north east cost of Brazil, where they are rare, to the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the south.They vary in size. Some are small piles 10 metres long, 2 metres tall. Some are small mountains, stretching for 500 metres, and rising 60 metres into the air.
They acted as territorial landmarks. The indigenous groups who made them are known now as sambaqui societies. Do these sambaquis still exist?Yes. But only if they have not been destroyed by rising sea levels. The oldest sambaquis are now under water. Those that remain were originally built away from the coast.
No. They came into contact with other, quite different, indigenous groups. The indigenous people that the European explorers met, and wrote descriptions of, spoke Tupi languages. They lived in large villages, some of which had 2 thousand inhabitants. And their main means of survival was agriculture.
They disappeared! Nobody knows why. But one of the main reasons seems to have been the arrival of other indigenous peoples. Many indigenous groups that spoke Tupi languages arrived in the coastal regions around 2 thousand years ago.
They mainly lived by growing crops. They used a system of slash-and-burn agriculture. The popular term for this in Brazil is roça. It refers to cultivated clearings or gardens. The Tupi peoples used the crops they grew to trade with the Europeans. They exchanged them for axes, knives, cloth, mirrors and other things they wanted.
First an area of forest is cut down. The felled vegetation is allowed to dry out. Then it is burnt. This clears the area, and covers it with ash. After that, the clearing is tidied up. Branches and unburned remains of tree trunks are removed.
And, when it rains, a variety of different species are planted in the clearing. These might include maize, beans, manioc, potatoes and yams. This way of planting guarantees that the soil remains fertile. It also reduces the chance of pests. The clearing just has to be weeded and tended. Until today, slash-and-burn agriculture is used throughout Brazil. It leaves a minimal environmental impact. Large areas are not deforested. And forest can naturally re-grow when the clearing is abandoned after some years.
Place names are good indications of the way that these Tupi speaking peoples spread. There are places with Tupi names right across Brazil. The name Araraquara is a good example of this. It is the name of a city in the south east of Brazil, in the state of São Paulo. It is also the name of a river found right to the north of the country in the state of Amazonas!The most important archaeological remains left by these Tupi people are pieces of clay pots and bowls found where they built villages.
No. Indigenous groups quite different to the Tupi peoples lived in the region now called The Central Brazilian Plain. This is a dry area formed of high ridges and flat-topped mountains. It is an environment known as ‘Brazilian savannah’ or cerrado. Societies developed in this region with customs very different to those of the Tupi. They were people who spoke languages from the Macro-Jê linguistic branch.. To find out what a linguistic branch is, go to Indigenous languages.
The history of human occupation in the Amazon region goes back at least 11 thousand years. At that time, people did not know about agriculture. All the signs are that the first groups to live in the forest had lifestyles based around hunting, fishing and gathering. They also grew some planted some things, such as pupunha palm trees, papayas, chilli peppers and manioc.
Remains of ceramic pots 8 thousand years old have been found along the River Amazon and some of its tributaries. (Tributaries are smaller rivers which flow into a larger river.) These remains demonstrate that the skills for making ceramics originated in the area. And they suggest that people settled alongside the rivers of the Amazon region and adapted their lifestyles to the environment. It was a region which would have offered a wealth of possibilities in terms of fishing, gathering and growing different foods. The riverside populations would have cultivated crops such as pumpkins, manioc and maize.
Around a thousand years ago, sophisticated societies developed along the River Amazon. Examples were the Marajoara and Tapajônica peoples. Their elaborate decorations and ceramics are examples of the importance of beauty to indigenous cultures from the Amazon. Some of the characteristics of the peoples of the Andes mountains grew directly from these cultures in the Amazon. As such, the Amazon can be seen as the birthplace of various indigenous peoples. They started there and went on to occupy large parts of what is now Brazil.
Brasil 50 mil anos: Uma viagem ao passado pré-colonial (Guia temático para professores)
Programa de educação patrimonial do levantamento arqueológico do gasoduto coari-manaus (Guia temático)
Os índios antes de Cabral: arqueologia e história indígena no Brasil, do livro A temática indígena na escola: novos subsídios para professores de 1° e 2° graus (1995).