The numerous ethnic groups originating from Brazil never reached a significant numerical consistency and, today as in the past, appear to be distributed with very low density, mainly on the whole of the lands officially reserved for them (about 10% of the surface). They presented a relatively simple socio-cultural structure, unrelated to the forms of development of the Andean and circumcaribian cultures. The European penetration, which has progressed in very different ways and times, has produced such a cultural, economic and demographic impact that today it is almost impossible to draw a picture that simultaneously considers the distribution, consistency and cultural peculiarities, enormously varied over time, of the Brazilian populations in their original conditions. Any reconstruction of Brazil’s ethnological past is conjectural, due to the progressive disappearance and acculturation of almost all the indigenous populations. Low technological development and relative cultural simplicity are shared elements, but somatic, linguistic and cultural differences are sensitive.
According to 800zipcodes, the distribution of the population follows that of the linguistic families, according to the penetration along the main waterways (fluvial and coastal) of people coming mainly from the north: Caribs, mostly N of the Amazon, but also S up to on the high Xingu; Aruacos, in the western regions, in the high Amazons and along the Purus and the Juruá, but also in those to the N; but above all Tupi, along the entire course of the Amazon River, its right tributaries, between the Madeira and the Xingu, and along the east coast; on the other hand, where the penetration from N stops, isolated linguistic families appear, belonging to the most archaic ethnic stratum, such as that of the Nambikwara of the upper Tapajós, of the Bororo del Mato Grosso and the vast group of Gé languages of the eastern and southern Brazil In the groups that have been defined as ‘tropical forests’, the ease of river travel has favored intertribal contacts and a remarkable cultural homogeneity. Generally settled on the banks of rivers, in semi-permanent villages made up of houses of poles and twigs, they cultivated, with the practice of Debio, cassava (sweet and bitter), sweet potato, corn, beans, taro, peanuts, pumpkins and melons. The rapid decay of cleared land (fragile and not very nutritious) forced crop rotation and relative mobility of villages. The food was supplemented by the products of harvesting, hunting (with bow, spear, blowgun and traps) and above all fishing (with arrows, harpoons and poisons; nets rarely used). Almost everywhere the monoxila canoe is present,
The social organization, structured on groups of descent (lineages and clans, mainly patrilineal), was generally egalitarian, given that the numerical scarcity and the scarcity of food surplus did not favor the stratification into classes. Political organization was often divided at the level of individual villages where leadership was exercised on the basis of authority, and not of organized power, by individuals who were recognized for seniority, parental position or mystical ability. Not infrequently the shamans, therapists and intermediaries between the world were placed at the head of the communitythe profane and the supernatural. There is a clear division between the sexes, both in economic and ceremonial activities, frequent initiation rites and the division in the villages between houses for women and children and ‘houses for men’.
In the eastern regions, on the arid plateau, in certain interfluvial areas of the Amazon basin there lived groups which, having only partially assimilated the elements of the tropical forest culture, preserved a conspicuous legacy of the archaic substratum of hunters and gatherers. In the past they have been defined, as a whole, ‘marginal’, but rather than by a peripheral geographical distribution or by shared cultural traits, they are united by negative affinities: absence or scarce relevance of agriculture, ceramics, weaving and boats, poverty of culture material, simplicity of the social structure. Main economic activities were gathering and hunting, to a lesser extent fishing, while cultivation had a limited and purely integrative function. Structured in small multi-family bands, these companies tended to periodically divide and move around the territory. War activity reduced, mostly aimed at defense. In contrast to the socio-economic order, the ideological-conceptual sphere is rich. Not all peoples who do not belong to the tropical forest culture can fall into this category of ‘marginal’: the Bororo and most of the Gé peoples of the eastern plateau are in an intermediate position, possessing a complex dualist social organization.
The current consistency of the Amerindian groups of Brazil is negligible: ethnic groups that occupy thousands of square kilometers rarely exceed a few hundred individuals today. The biological, and above all cultural, hybridization has had radical effects, resulting from the colonization of increasingly internal areas, while simple contact has led to the spread of diseases that in the past have decimated and sometimes annihilated indigenous populations. Some groups have shown signs of a demographic recovery, albeit in completely different structural conditions, being able to benefit from forms of social and health protection made available by state and federal authorities, now sensitized to the condition of indigenous populations, albeit in a situation of competition with individual and organized interests.