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Brazil's Ancient History

Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth largest country in the world, with a sweep of history to match. Human habitation in Brazil began at least 8,000 years ago, possibly much earlier. The first Europeans arrived in Brazil in 1500 AD, just 8 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. From that time to this, Brazil has emerged as one of the leading nations of the 21st century.


It was once thought that the ancestors of the Brazilian indigenous tribes crossed the Bering land bridge during the last Ice Age, between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago. From there, they gradually migrated south, until they reached Brazil between 8,000 and 11,000 years ago.

However, some artifacts at the Pedra Furada archaeological site are at least 17,000 years old, and possibly up to 32,000 years old. Thus, the earliest tribes in Brazil may have descended instead from people who walked over a previous Bering land bridge during a previous ice age, roughly 21,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Another emerging theory is that some Brazilian tribes may have originated from the other direction. This kind of contact may have occurred through Polynesian sea journeys, which covered thousands of miles. Another route for migration might have been by way of the Antarctic glacier during the last Ice Age.

In addition to circumstantial evidence that this kind of migration is possible, DNA testing has confirmed that the extinct Botocudo Indians who used to live in the Espiritu Santo region, just north of Rio de Janeiro, had Polynesian DNA. The Botocudo were best known for their habit of inserting large wooden plugs into their ear lobes and lower lips.

Pre-Columbian history

Archaeological interest in the Amazon rainforest and other wilderness areas of Brazil is growing fast, and new discoveries are being made all the time. Although the predominantly humid climate of Brazil has destroyed wood and even bones, stone arrowheads and pottery shards still tell their tale. The rock, the soil, and the Brazilian sky have even unveiled a few surprises.

Some of the most promising sites can be found at Pedra Furada in Serra da Capivara National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is located roughly 400 miles inland from Recife. Archaeological tours to this region often use Petrolina as a base.

The rock paintings in these caves are a minimum of 6,000 years old, and could be up to 17,000 years old. Yet human habitation in Brazil may be even older than that. Some charcoal samples from the area are at least 56,000 years old. However, it is still uncertain whether these are from deliberate hearths or natural fire events.

These hidden civilizations thought surprisingly big. Deforestation of the Amazon forest in Acre, Brazil, has revealed massive earthworks which form highly geometric geoglyphs up to a mile long, which can only be seen properly from the air. These geoglyphs are between 1,000 and 2,000 years old in their current form, or possibly even older if they were remade regularly. The discovery of these geoglyphs has been forcing scientists to rethink everything they thought they knew about the Amazon rainforest.

In the early 16th century, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana became the first European to sail down the length of the Amazon River. He reported that the banks of the river were densely populated agrarian towns and cities, going upstream for hundreds of miles. The pre-Columbian city on the island of Marajo was home to 100,000 people. Altogether, as many as 5 million people may have lived along the Amazon River, far more than its total population today. The secret behind their success was terra preta, the miracle soil of the Amazon rainforest which had been built up by their ancestors over centuries.

Today, the Amazon River basin is the most thinly populated region in Brazil. Although nearly every person in Brazil has some indigenous ancestry, many tribes were completely wiped out by the results of Spanish and Portuguese contact: some through disease, others through a deliberate policy of extermination. After 5,000 years of continuous habitation, all that remains of these ancient cities are a few fragmented artifacts, several patches of dark earth, and the silent rock carvings and geoglyphs.

However, in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest, there are still at least 67 known tribes which have never had outside contact. Much of the Amazonian rainforest is still unexplored, so there may still be some tribes which have never encountered the outside world at all.

History of European contact and colonization

Brazil is the gateway to central South America. Pedro Alvares Cabral officially claimed the land for the Portuguese Empire when he landed at Porto Seguro, in what is now Bahia, on April 22, 1500. Some scholars think that the Portuguese already knew about the horn of Brazil when Portugal and Spain divided the world in half between them in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Thereafter, Brazil would remain predominantly Portuguese, even during the half-decade when Portugal was under Spanish rule.

The earliest wealth of Brazil was the wood and dye of the brazilwood tree. It was called the brazilwood tree because it was similar to a different tree in the Far East which was also known as brazilwood. Thus, this tree gave Brazil its name, and not the other way around.

Trade in this dye was so valuable that the coast of Brazil was soon plagued by smugglers and pirates. Partly to counter this smuggling, the first permanent Portuguese settlement in Brazil was established at Sao Vicente in 1532, near modern-day Santos, Sao Paulo. A second settlement followed at Olinda in 1537, near modern-day Recife.

The oldest city in Brazil is Salvador da Bahia, which was founded on March 29, 1549. Salvador would continue to be the capital of Brazil until 1763, when the capital was transferred to Rio de Janeiro. It has been out of the mainstream of Brazilian industrialization ever since, which has allowed its old downtown area, the Pelourinho, to survive and, after restoration during the 1990s, to thrive.

However, there were also attempts by other nations to establish secret colonies to harvest brazilwood. The most famous of these is the 1555 attempt by Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon to establish France Antarctique, the earliest of the colonies on Guanabara Bay. That colony was evicted by the Portuguese in 1567, with the help of a nearby fort which the Portuguese had built 2 years earlier. In its place, a Portuguese settlement grew up around the fort. Its location would turn out to be extremely important.

As the settlements grew, the brazilwood riches were supplemented by sugarcane plantations. The high world demand for sugar, combined with a perfect climate for sugar cultivation, ensured a high profit. Cotton and then coffee were later added as cash crops.

Alongside the sugar trade came the slave trade which provided the people to work on the plantations. Between 1532 and 1888, when Brazil finally banned slavery, an estimated 4 million slaves were brought to Brazil from Africa. Many indigenous people were also captured and enslaved during the first century of colonization.

Sugar was the backbone of the Brazilian economy until the 1690s, when the discovery of gold and diamonds near modern-day Bela Horizonte converted Minas Gerais from barely populated to mining towns almost overnight. These were the first large inland settlements in Brazil.

For much of the next century, most of the new gold and diamonds in the world were being found in Brazil. However, all that wealth was useless unless there was a way to ship them to their markets. Suddenly, the small town which had grown around the fort on Guanabara Bay gained a new identity as the primary port to the mining regions. That was the real beginning of the growth which has made Rio de Janeiro one of the major cities of the world. Just 7 decades after the first gold strike, Rio de Janeiro became the new capital of Brazil. Even today, after the political offices have been moved inland, Rio is still the spiritual and cultural capital of Brazil.

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