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The Indigenous Population

The Amazon rainforest is a commanding natural feature in South America and one of the world’s richest biological reservoirs, teeming with plant and animal life. Much of it is situated in Brazil but parts are also in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, Ecuador and French Guiana. Many of the trees found in large numbers represent species critical for the livelihood and economy of Amazonian peoples.

The only current residents of the forest are small, nomadic tribes. At the time of European conquest, there were an estimated 8 million to 10 million people in the Amazon, speaking at least 400 different languages. Some writers, such as Fred Pearce, claim "Before the arrival of Europeans, the region’s population may have reached 50 million."

Ancient indigenous peoples had a far more profound impact on the composition of the vast Amazon rainforest than previously known, according to a 2017 study showing how tree species domesticated by humans long ago still dominate big swathes of the wilderness. Forests closer to the pre-Columbian settlements were much more likely to boast tree species domesticated by ancient peoples.

Researchers said 02 February 2017 that many tree species populating the Amazon region appear to be abundant because they were cultivated by people who populated the area before Europeans arrived more than five centuries ago. These include the Brazil nut, cacao, acai palm, rubber, caimito, cashew and tucuma palm. “So the Amazon is not nearly as untouched as it may seem,” said study researcher Hans ter Steege, a forest community ecologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands and Free University of Amsterdam.

The traditional perception was that Amazoniansocieties, in this case as evinced by Arawakan peoples, were necessarily based on small and autonomous villages with simple technologies and egalitarian social structures. This was the old framework of the ‘TropicalForest’ culture type articulated in by Julian Steward over 60 years ago but still tending to be accepted as a standard model for Amazonia due to the professional influence of an older generation of archaeologists.

The Xinguano cultures seen today are encapsulated within the Brazilian state and national society, but such poly-ethnic though politically and economically inter-connected populations were those that would have formed macro-polities in the past. This regional pattern was largely derived from Arawak traditions that were also adopted by many non-Arawak populations.

Among these traditions are large settlements, economies based on manioc cultivationand fishing, circular villages with plazas, ranked social systems, and hereditary chiefs. So it is important to note that Arawak is the largest and most widely distributed language family in Amazonia.

Although these Arawak macro-polities were not necessarily militarily expansive, placing more emphasis on political accommodation, and economic influence through the organization of agriculture and trade. Palisades and earthworks were nonetheless part of a defensive strategy against more overtly-predatory cultural traditions such as those practiced by the Caribor Tupi-Guarani societies, who were at the political and social peripheries of the Arawakan macro-polities.

This also helps explain the way in which one of the noted features of the collapse of these macro-polities soon after colonial invasions was the sudden rise of Carib and Tupi traders and war-lords to regional significance. They could occupy a power vacuum left by the collapse of the macro-polities and their military and trading orientations were perfectly suited to an emergent historical roleduring the colonial era.

In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral's fleet, which was en route to India, landed at Porto Seguro in what is now the state of Bahia. The territory that comprises modern Brazil had a native population in the millions, divided among hundreds of tribes and language groups. Their ancestors had lived in this land for as long as 30,000 years. There is no way to be certain of the exact size of the population or its distribution. Many areas that were inhabited in 1500 were later stripped bare by epidemics or slave hunters.

But scholars have attempted to make estimates based on contemporary reports and the supposed carrying capacity of the land. For Brazil's Amazon Basin alone, demographer William M. Denevan has suggested 3,625,000 people, with another 4,800,000 in other regions. Other estimates place 5 million inhabitants in Amazônia alone. More conservatively, British historian John Hemming estimated 2,431,000 people for Brazil as a whole. These figures are based on known tribes, although many unknown ones probably died out in the devastating epidemics of the colonial era.

Certainly, the indigenous population exceeded that of Portugal itself. The early European chroniclers wrote of multitudes along the coast and of dense populations in the Amazon Basin. Far from being awed by the newcomers, the indigenous inhabitants displayed curiosity and hospitality, a willingness to exchange goods, and a distinct ability at aggressive defense. However, they could not prevent the devastation caused by the diseases carried by the Europeans and Africans. Tens of thousands succumbed to smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, and influenza. Whole peoples were likely annihilated without having had direct contact with Europeans as disease was carried along the indigenous trade routes.

The Indians spoke languages that scholars have classified into four families: the Gê speakers, originally spread along the coast and into the central plateau and scrub lands; the Tupí speakers, who displaced the Gê on the coast and hence were the first met by the Portuguese; the Carib speakers in the north and in Amazônia, who were related distantly to the people who gave their name to the Caribbean; the Arawak (or Aruak) speakers in Amazônia, whose linguistic relatives ranged up through Central America to Florida; and, according to sociologist Donald Sawyer, the Nambicuara in northwestern Mato Grosso. These were not tribes but language families that comprised many language groups. Numerous tribes also spoke languages unrelated to any of the above. Warfare and migrations carried peoples from these linguistic families to various parts of Brazil. The Europeans took advantage of the cultural differences among the Indian peoples to pit one against the other and to form alliances that provided auxiliary troops in their colonial wars.

Portugal viewed the Indians as slave labor from the outset. When Portugal began its imperial ventures, it had a population of about 1 million. Indeed, in the mid-sixteenth century Portugal's population was so sparse that much of its territory was uncultivated and abandoned. African and native Brazilian slaves were common on the streets of Lisbon. Portugal's colonial economy in Brazil was based on slavery. Initially, the Portuguese bartered with the natives to bring brazilwood and other forest items to the coast. However, when the natives had accumulated all the tools and pots that they needed, they showed a lack of interest in continuing the arrangement. Consequently, the Portuguese turned to violent persuasion. The enslavement of the natives shaped much of the history that followed.

Just as Indian unrest had aided the Spanish conquerors of Mexico and Peru, so too did the Portuguese profit from arriving at a time of turmoil. The Tupí speakers had been shifting steadily from the south in a massive migration to coastal areas, displacing the resident Gê speakers, many of whom moved into the interior. This population shift had triggered continuous warfare against non-Tupí peoples and against Tupí subsets. It involved set battles that arrayed hundreds and, in some reports, thousands of warriors in fierce hand-to-hand combat.

Some of the fighting went beyond struggles over control of land or resources to vendettas in which captives were sought and in some cases reportedly cannibalized. The Portuguese used these vendettas to keep the Indians from uniting against them and subsequently to obtain slaves. The conquest of Brazil was not a simple toppling of an organized empire as in Peru, but a drawn out, complicated process that spread over huge distances, different peoples, and centuries. Thus, it is not surprising that the Brazilian elites developed myths about racial harmony, peaceful change, and compromise that often have colored the interpretations of historians, thereby distorting understanding of Brazil's past.

Portugal was different from the rest of Europe, and Brazil would be different from the rest of the Americas. Portugal was both an agrarian and a maritime monarchy that used its control over land grants to discipline the nobility and its issuance of trading licenses to attract local and foreign investment in its overseas ventures. As merchant-king, the monarch supervised an economic system that imported timber, sugar, and wine from Madeira and the Azores, gold from the Guinea coast, spices from India, and dyewood and forest products, then sugar, gold, gems, and hides from Brazil. These products were then re-exported to Europe.

The Portuguese established themselves on the Brazilian coast in their drive to control Europe's trade with India and East Asia. They secured "title" to what became eastern Brazil in their attempted division of the world with Spain in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. During the next centuries, the Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and Dutch changed the South American continent's trade patterns, which previously had been focused internally.

Seeking profits, the Portuguese marshaled Indian labor to provide exportable products. The commercial objective that initially had prompted overseas operations became the first principle of Portuguese colonization. Brazil was not to be a place where Europe's religious dissidents sought freedom of conscience. Rather, to paraphrase historian Caio Prado Júnior, the colonization of tropical Brazil would be "one vast commercial enterprise." Colonial Brazil's reason for being was to supply dyewood, sugar, tobacco, eventually gold and diamonds, cotton, coffee, and later rubber for the European and then world markets. The externally oriented colonial economy consisted of enclaves that faced seaward and that considered only their own commercial interests.

Spanish adventurer Gaspar de Carvajal wrote of "cities that gleamed white" and "very fruitful land," on his wanderings along the Eucadorian Napo River in 1541. “There was one town that stretched for 15 miles without any space from house to house, which was a marvellous thing to behold,” wrote Gaspar de Carvajal, chronicler of explorer and conquistador Francisco de Orellana in 1542. “The land is as fertile and as normal in appearance as our Spain.”

Spanish conquistadores ventured into the rainforest seeking fortune, followed over the centuries by others convinced they would find a lost civilisation to rival the Aztecs and Incas. Some seekers called it El Dorado, others the City of Z. But the jungle swallowed them and nothing was found.

But today there is little evidence of such a civilization. Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo of the University of Florida, is one of a growing number of anthropologists who believe an ancient, advanced society once occupied Amazonia.

Evidence for a past civilization is subtle — easily be mistaken for nature. For example, proponents of the ancient Amazon society theory note the wide distribution of "terra preta" [“dark earths”] sites; areas of land with fertile soil. Initially, researchers thought terra preta formed from volcanic ash deposits or old swampland. But as terra preta was studied more in-depth by scholars from multiple disciplines, it was found to be the result of permanent human occupation of a site, an accumulation of organic matter, low-temperature burning charcoal and ash from fires.

Recent deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest has revealed evidence of a lost civilization that lived in the area 4,000 years ago and conducted the first human alteration of the forest. Over 450 large geometrical earthworks were discovered in the western part of the Brazilian Amazon just in Acre state alone. Around 2,000 years ago an unknown indigenous people cleared the forest to create the earthworks [geoglyphs]. These were first discovered in the 1980s and cover 13,000 square km (500 square miles). All human activity in the area ended around 650 years ago. The structures were created by a network of trenches about 35ft (some 10 metres) wide and several feet deep, lined by banks up to 3ft high.

In the Xingu region interconnected villages known as "garden cities", with houses, moats and palisades, date between 800 and 1600. The hinterlands of the Amazon once teemed with complex societies, which were largely wiped out by diseases brought to South America by European colonists in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In his 1843 essay, "How the History of Brazil Should Be Written," Karl Friederich Philipp von Martius urged the study of the three basic racial groups--indigenous peoples, Europeans, and Africans--to obtain a clear understanding of the country's history. Yet when he discussed the interactions between the Indians and the Portuguese, he wrote that the former were only a few primitive tribes and that the "colonies developed and expanded almost without caring about these Indians." Although he could not have been more wrong, historians have echoed his attitude repeatedly. The natives, rather than being few, were in the millions, and the Portuguese determination to exploit their labor shaped frontier expansion and set Brazil's modern boundaries.

British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in 1925. Fawcett's journeyed into the Amazon at the dawn of the 20th century and discovers evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilization that may have once inhabited the region. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment who regard indigenous populations as "savages," the determined Fawcett - supported by his devoted wife, son and aide de camp returned time and again to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case.

Fawcett, the last of the great Victorian adventurers, was financed by the Royal Geographical Society in London, the world’s foremost repository of research gathered by explorers. Fawcett, then age 57, had proclaimed for decades his belief in the City of Z, as he had nicknamed it. His writings, speeches, and exploits had captured the imagination of millions, and reports of his last expedition were front page news. He never returned. His destination was the lost city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold,” an ancient kingdom of great sophistication, architecture, and culture that, for some reason, had vanished. Over the years countless perished trying to find evidence of his party and the place he called “The Lost City of Z.”

The Lost City of Z is the film adaptation of David Grann’s novel of the same name. The Lost City Of Z will premiere at Berlinale at the Zoo Palast on 14 February 2017. Produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, the Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street film will open in select theaters on April 21, 2017, and then expand.

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Page last modified: 14-05-2017 18:34:09 ZULU