The borders of Brazil contain a much greater number of indigenous tribes than any other South American state, and some of them are still today almost untouched by the White civilization; these two characters are enough to explain the importance that starting from the century. XVI up to the present day have preserved the studies of Brazilian ethnography. From those remote times the problem of a classification of ethnic groups arose in the first place, a problem that today has a long history and includes many attempts. The so-called races, or nations, or, more modernly, indigenous groups were from time to time defined on the basis of corporal, ethnographic, social and linguistic characters. Of course, none of these characters, used exclusively, can constitute a criterion of discrimination, for the complicated phenomena of domination and internal migration of the groups and the consequent acculturation, to which we owe the presence of tribes that have a mixed ethnographic heritage, or that belong to one group for ethnography and to another for language, or which, having already been separated from the central nucleus for a long time, acquired aspects of profound variation, or, finally, they appear at a very large distance of space from the original fire, and enclosed in a completely foreign area, like drops of oil. Discouraged by these practical difficulties, the authors also resorted to purely geographical classification, which, to tell the truth, surpasses the problems just mentioned, but without resolving them.
Whatever the theoretical importance to be attributed to economic means and material sustenance in the existence of a society, we will have recourse to this criterion to isolate from now on a first great mass of ethnic groups, on whose unity, moreover, they are d ‘ both linguists and ethnographers agree. It is about thirty tribes grouped on the Brazilian plateau, which constitute a large, almost homogeneous mass, called the Gēs group or the Puri-Coroados, and whose distinctive economic character is the absence of a true agriculture. All the other aborigines of Brazil will enter a vast division, that of the agricultural peoples, which we will later divide into a number of special groups.
The Gēs live by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild fruits, and if any tribe shows agricultural traces, these are scarce, rudimentary, and probably acquired very late. To their nomadic life is connected the precarious dwelling, the type of which is the hemispherical cupular hut or the simple screen. The weapons represent the bow with arrows and the throwing pole, but the most salient negative character, which alone is enough to distinguish this culture from that of the farmers, is that the Gēs do not know navigation at all, while the other it is a true “dinghy culture”. To describe with a certain system the heritage of these hunter-fishermen of the eastern massif, we will choose a characteristic tribe of the Gēs or Puri-Coroados group: the Crenak, excellently illustrated by the Manizer. For the home, the Crenaks build various types of screens, one with a simple horizontal pole resting on two poles planted in the ground, and supporting palm leaves or branches and tree barks, and the other formed by a real intertwining of large leaves on a rectangular frame. During the march, you walk in single file along impassable paths; the women carry their children and the scant domestic equipment suspended from the back by means of bands and net bags; once they reach the new station, they thin out the ground and raise the screens, aligned in a rudimentary but constant order, with the old ones gathered at one end. Each tribe is assigned its own area for hunting, fishing and gathering, considered as an inviolable property. The harvest is entrusted to women, and consists of the wild fruits of theLecythis, some nettles, pods, wild pineapples, tubercles, tips of lianas and shoots of bromeliads. Add, for a few tribes, a temporary crop of mandioca, bananas and sweet potatoes, which produce food for at most two months of the year. The task of providing meat is reserved for men: small animals, such as birds and lizards, as well as monkeys, wild boars and deer, the former taken by hand or with throwing sticks, the latter with a bow. Meat smoking is practiced; for cooking they use pots and other bamboo containers. Wild honey is collected and mixed with water as a ceremonial drink. They know no exciting drinks, nor tobacco; but the leaves of different herbs smoke in the pipe. The bow is of palm wood, as tall as a man or more, the rope of twisted palm fibers; arrows of various shapes, according to the destination, the most common is that of bamboo cut in the shape of a knife. Babies carry their penis raised and tied to the foreskin. The men wear short hair, the women and children wear hair of various shapes; collars and bracelets are not unknown; the characteristic big lip and ear buttons (botocos in Portuguese) which originated the name Botocudos, although somewhat in disuse, are still preserved. The Crenaks, men and women, go naked; in exchange, the use of body painting with the reddish vegetable juice of urucú is general, as a protection against the cold and insects. Polygyny is rare, but allowed, and more often the capricious change of wives is practiced; however, there is a marriage ban for various family members. Marriage takes place with the consent of relatives or an influential person, to whom the suitor gives gifts. The social group is a small horde, with a leader whose authority is very limited, and it comes from his personal gifts. The women give birth easily in a recess of the wood; breastfeeding continues long after babies have learned to walk and talk. The sick do not inspire compassion, yet attempts are made to cure them with medicinal herbs and enchantments. The funeral practices are simple and are reduced to the abandonment of the corpse in one’s hut, with a small funeral kit. The evil influence of the dead is feared. The explanation of natural phenomena, as well as various social customs, are linked to a supernatural being, the old Maret, a giant whose wrath is feared and to whom propitiatory offers are apparently made. Crenak’s songs are simple lullabies repeated to satiety. This ethnographic sketch of a special tribe gives a sufficient idea of the degree of civilization of the whole Gēs group, a denomination under which the parasitic peoples of the plateau must be included. The ethnographic unity of these coincides entirely with the linguistic unity, since the whole group speaks languages classified under a single title, of the Gēs-Tapuya languages, with the five subgroups north-western, southern, eastern, Botocudo and Goytacȧ.
Turning now to the other higher forms of economy, that is to the agricultural peoples, we must at least mention an intermediate stage, represented by the Bororó and by other few examples; they are hunters of a superior type, devoid of agriculture, but with a material and spiritual civilization much superior to the Gēs group, and which instead tends towards that of decidedly agricultural peoples.
The entire remaining indigenous population of Brazil is made up of farmers. It is surprising that in an area so vast as to include the Orinoco and Amazon basins, that is half of the continent (with the exception of the eastern plateau which is the seat of the Gēs) a complex of uniform cultural elements is found which at first sight it induces to delineate an immense ethnographic unity, which in the various authors takes the name of “Amazonian culture” or “of the tropical forests”. This complex is defined by its components: sufficiently advanced agricultural works, dinghies dug in a single tree trunk, hammock, pottery, blowpipe, lip button, house with beam armor, saber-clubs, ornamental arm and leg binding. leg, feather ornaments and diadems, flute couvade, flogging ceremonies to initiate adolescents, blunt arrows for birds: a complex, finally, truly formidable, which has led some authors to consider it as a gigantic phenomenon of acculturation (Wissler). And certainly the uniformity of the environment and the material means of human movements in the Amazon (very active circulation of boats in an intricate and vast river network) must be kept, if not as the cause, at least as the diffusion medium of the different elements. But under this apparent uniformity, a more in-depth study discerns a certain number of distinct modalities, recognizable, in a more concrete way, through the linguistic criterion, to which we owe the terminology of this classification of the agricultural population: Arawak (Aruaco) and Caribe (mainly north of Amazons and to the east of the Rio Negro) and the Tupi-Guarani group (mainly to the south of the Amazons and to the east of Madeira) remaining a third group, of unclassified languages (isolated languages of the Schmidt) whose densest nucleus is found to the west of Orinoco-Rio Negro-Madeira line. There are more or less marked ethnographic differences that distinguish each of these schematic groups, but the most recent studies (Métraux) have considerably brought the Tupi-Guarani closer to the Caribs, in such a way that the value of some ancient classifications which separated too clearly the Amazonian “race” from the north to the south.
Referring to the western sector, or to the unclassified and dissimilar languages, it is evident that when nuclei of Tupi, Arawak and Caribi are found west of the Orinoco-Rio Negro-Madeira border, they present themselves as invaders, while the rest of the population of the aforementioned triangle while not maintaining linguistic unity, it has retained traces of a certain cultural uniformity. In addition to the common characteristics of all farmers, who are also hunters and fishermen, we find here the following heritage: in addition to mandioca and tobacco, coca is also cultivated, and to a lesser extent maize, cucurbits and sugar cane; the earth is plowed up with a pole, not with a hoe; bees are domesticated; mandioca compresses into mats; coca is chewed, tobacco is used as a ceremonial drink; poisoned arrows with curare; shovel-shaped clubs; fishing is carried out not only with poison, but also with traps, hooks, nets and trident spears, signal drums; odd drums, male and female, with phallic decorations; hammock woven with twisted palm fibers. The whole community lives in a single large and round house, with a secluded, labyrinthine access; they don’t use clothes; bark thong for men; human teeth collars; perforation of the nasal septum, rattles in the legs; very elaborate body painting; for important decisions of war and peace, parliamentarians during which a blackish drink of tobacco is circulated; exclusion of women from any ceremonial meeting or cannibalism party; prohibition of personal names and myths; intrusive shamanism. Two harvesting ceremonies, for the mandioca and the pineapple; bagpipe; castanets; drum; pumpkins rattles. Each monoecious group is exogamous, with patrilineal descent; monogamous family: each house has its own head, and adult males form the council; we worship the sun and the moon; burial in pits.