Native American Civilizations: South America--Amazonian Tribes


Figure 1.-- The Yawalapiti are another Brazilian Amazonian Basin tribe. They inhabit the Upper Xingu region. Because of this remote location, they were never found in colonial times. The first historical contact with Europeans occurred in 1887. Karl von den Steinen first encountered them in his Amazonian expedition. The photograph here shows a group of boys playing with their bows and arrows. Like most Amazonian people, the boys only wear waist belts. The adobe hut in the background may reflect Portuguese technology rather than their native technology.

Native Americans in the Amazonian Basin are a very complicated topic which in recent years have become a matter of intence scholarly debate. Anthropologists for years thought seeing the promitive people of the Amazon that there no avanced cultures developed there. One ongoing mystery is that Spanish sources report a very substantial population in the Amazon basin during the 16th century. Francisco de Orellana set out on a quest for gold and soon found himself just trying to survive. He was the first European to travel the entire length of the Amazon and he reported a huge population of highly productive farmers. Historians at first dismissed the Spanish account as fanciful. Modern anthropolgists have begun to reassess this judgement. Some believe there indeed once was a very large population in the Amazon basin practing sophisticated agriculture. The question becomes, why de we now see only primitive hunter-gathers in the Amazon. Some historins believe that the drepedations of Spannish and Portuguese slave hunters drove Amazinian farmers deep into the frst and forced them to adopt hunter-gatherer cultures. Other historians note advances such as pottery first made in the Amazonian Basin as well as cultural exchanges with Pacific coast people that seem to suggest the existetance of advanced civilizations in themazon when civilization aling the Pcific coast and andes wa still in a formative state.

Scholarly Debate

Native Americans in the Amazonian Basin are a very complicated topic which in recent years have become a matter of intence, sometimes acrimonious scholarly debate. It has been common to think of the Amazonian Native Americans as primitive people lost in time and providing a window to the stone age. Anthropolgists visting these people provided portraits suggesting this view hat the Amazonin basin in contrast to much of ghe Americas was was a cultural black hole. And respected anthropolgists proposed a theory explaining why this has occurred--the inherent ecological limitations of the tropical rain forest. They concluded that the enviromnt was too hostile and the soil too poor to have sustaunmed a large advanced civilization. Rather only small hunter gathger populations were believe possible in he Amazon. This was the widely accepted view of the Amazon for many years. And his was confirmed by the primitive people found living here and the apparently vuirgin jungle. There is now considerable scholarly reassessment of this view. Continuing archeological finds as well as new methods have provided a great deal of evidence suggesting that the pre-Colombian population was much larger and more sophisticated than earlier believed. Some anthropologists believe that the population may have been as large as 20 million people. That is larger than the modern population and double the population of the Inca Empire, the most populace of the pre-Colombin Amer-Indian civiizations, but perhaps comparavble the popukation of North America as a whole. These numbers my not sound large in terms of modern denomgraphics, but the overall human population was only a fraction of modern populations. And a new gneration of anthropoligists report finding a huge humanm 'foot print' throughout the Amazon. They are not referring to the impressive stone pyramids and other structures that impress the eaelier generatins of archeologists. What they report finding is evidence of sophisticated agriculture and impressive efforts to reshape, even conquer the jungle. [Forero]

Cultural Level

The major issue today is the pre-Conquest population and culural level of the Amazonian peoples. The earliest reports from European explorers suggest a very dence population practing settled agriculture. This was how Gaspar de Carvajal described the Amazon (1540s). His account has been dismissed becaused he included fanciful accounts such as women warriors and other accounts as the Portuguese began settling Brazil found only small populations of hunter gathers. Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana completed the first known navigation of the entire length of the Amazon River (1542). He also found large settled communities, but his reports have also been dismissed. Subsequent accounts of small, dispersed populations of hunter gathrs and the lack of monumental archictecture dominated the European assessment of Amazonian people. Researchers today are not as dimissive and some archeologists have found evidence suggesting highly produtive settled agriculture. Some now believe that the primitive tribes in the Amazon today are the descendents of people forced to abandon setteled agriculture by European diseases and Portuguese slave raiders. [Mann, p. 325.] Some believe there indeed once was a very large population in the Amazon basin practing sophisticated agriculture. There may have been an impressive adaptation to Amazonian conditions. The question becomes, why do we now see only primitive hunter-gathers in the Amazon. Some historins believe that the drepedations of Spannish and Portuguese slave hunters drove Amazonian farmers deep into the forest and forced them to adopt hunter-gatherer economies. Other historians note advances such as pottery first made in the Amazonian Basin as well as cultural exchanges with Pacific coast people that seem to suggest the existetance of advanced civilizations in the Amazon when civilization along the Pacific coast and Andes wa still in a formative state.

Movement South

For years Anthrpologiss suggested that Propt-Indins in Beringia moved south into North America through a ice-free corridor in the the glacial ice cover. In more recent years anhropologists have begun to believe that movemenbt south by boats of some kind was more likely and offered an earlier route south. Now the question of the peopleing of South America comes into question. One possibility is migration on foot through the Darien where Central America leads into South America. Now marine transport alomg the Pacific coast of South America is also theoretically possible. The problem with this is the Pavific coasr from Eduador south to central Chile is an hostile envirment--extrenmely arid. This is especially the case of Peru where the major South Americn civilizatins arose. As far as we know, Anhopolgists have note yet addressed the question of how the Andes was peopled. If uit was done overland, it would have taken some time. Native Americans crossing the Darien had two options, noving south don the rugged Andean Cordillera or moving east into whst is now Venezuela or moving southeast into the Amazon. We know that movemebnt in the Amazon was much more rapid than overland in Mountaneous terraine. The Native American people in the Guianas, for example, arrived from the south through rivers and not from the west over the Venezezuelan mountain spine. The extensive Amazionian river system were essentially highways through which the Amazonian basin could be rapidly populated. And there is evidence of contact between Amaxonian and Andean peoole in Peru in which the Amazonian oeople were the more established and advanced civililization.

Cultural Groups

The major cultural groups of the Amazon are the Arawak and Tupi speaking people. Guaraní-speaking people were located to the south in the Paraguay-Paraní basin. Rather than timeless, the Amazon has been the scene of major cultural chnge. About 2,000 years ago, Arawak-speaking people began to migrate north and east into the Amazon and drive Tupí-speaking people to the north and east. The Native Americans today in the Amazon live in small tribal groups. Asessing the various tribal groups once centered on linguistics. Today we have the added tool of DNA studies. It is unclear at this time to what extent these groups are descendents of the priginal pre-Conquest people or new groups after the original Amzonian people were decimanted by European diseases and Portuguese slave raiders.

Sources

Forero, Juan. "In Amazon, traces of an advanced civilization," Washington Post (Septemnber 6, 2010).

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Ameruicas before Columbus (Vintage Books: New York, 2006), 541p.






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Created: 5:52 AM 11/24/2006
Last updated: 5:04 AM 1/21/2019