Although it has received less scholarly attention than firearms, microbes, domestic animals and plants, market economy, and statecraft, alphabetic reading and writing was crucial in the European conquest and colonization of the Americas from the late 15th century on. Unlike the agrarian empires the Spaniards encountered in the Andes and the Mexican highlands, the Portuguese frontier advanced upon tribal peoples who relied exclusively on oral language, such as the Tupi of Atlantic Brazil. These were semi-sedentary horticultural villagers whose entire socio-ecology (myths and knowledge, territoriality, subsistence strategies, etc.) was conditioned by the face-to-faceness and fugacity of spoken words. In turn, their Portuguese colonizers—for a while rivaled by the French, who enjoyed short periods of stable settlement through the early 17th century—were urban-based, oceangoing merchants, bureaucrats, soldiers, and religious missionaries whose organization strictly depended on the durability and transferability of written texts. Even if most of the Portuguese who came to Brazil in the 16th century were themselves illiterate, colonization as a social enterprise framed their actions according to prescribed roles set down in writing (both handwriting and printed script). Thus, the Portuguese colonization of Brazilian native lands and human populations can be interpreted from the point of view of the imposition of an alphabetically organized way of life. Two major dimensions of this “letterscaping” can be discerned as to its impact on Amerindian bodies (human and nonhuman) and modes of understanding. Although the 16th century was only the introductory act in that drama, its historical record shows the basic outlines of the alphabetic colonization that would play out through the early 19th century: native decimation and enslavement, territory usurpation by sesmaria grants, forest recovery in former native croplands (then resignified as “virgin forest”), loss of native ecological knowledge not recorded in writing, disempowerment of native cultural attunement to the wild soundscape, among other processes.
Diogo de Carvalho Cabral
Relations between the Dutch and the Indigenous peoples of North and South America can be divided into two periods. From 1621 to 1674, Dutch-Indigenous relations were shaped by the attempt of the West India Company to build a transatlantic empire. In Brazil, the Dutch established military alliances with multiple Indian groups. In Guiana (or Guyana), Suriname, the Caribbean, and New Netherland in North America, relations were also shaped by war and trade. From 1675 until 1815, the Dutch presence in the Americas was limited to Guiana (Essequibo, Berbice), Suriname, and a few small Caribbean islands. During this period, Dutch-Indigenous relations were largely shaped by the plantation-slavery system. Indigenous peoples were frequently employed by the Dutch as slave catchers. Christian missions played a limited role in the Dutch Atlantic, with the exception of the Calvinist mission in Dutch Brazil and the Moravian missions in 18th-century Suriname.
Denise Maria Cavalcante Gomes
Before the Portuguese arrived in Brazil at the beginning of the 16th century, the vast area that today constitutes the national territory was occupied by different indigenous groups, the native peoples of the land. The origins of human settlement in Brazil have been the subject of heated debates. Brazilian archaeology has long been dedicated to the issue, in conjunction with researchers from several countries, because the question holds implications for charting early human life across the Americas. Their findings have made it possible to better understand the long history of indigenous societies in what is today Brazil based on their material remains, because it is rarely possible to establish a correlation between one group or another based solely on ethno-historical sources. The archaeological research has also made meaningful progress on cultural history, addressing questions related to the way of life of hunter gathers and ceramist groups. The latter were numerous and diversified in the past, but the importance and wide distribution of the Tupi, the first indigenous group with whom Europeans came into contact, should be highlighted. Another issue of interest is the sociopolitical complexity and the material sophistication of late precolonial Amazon societies.