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History, Discovery

Pedro Alvares Cabral, Portuguese explorer Vasco, Treaty of Tordesillas, Native American groups, True Cross

Most of the hundreds of indigenous peoples who inhabited eastern South America prior to the arrival of the Europeans were members of the Tupi-Guarani cultures. These Native American groups spoke variations of the Tupian language and inhabited an area along the eastern coast of South America south of the Amazon River and inland to the foothills of the Andes. They generally lived by hunting and gathering. Those who did farm used simple slash-and-burn techniques to clear the land. Their main crop was manioc, also known as cassava. After a few years the soil would be exhausted and the farming groups would move on. These people had no metal tools, no written language, no beasts of burden, and no knowledge of the wheel. They worshiped spirits and relied on religious figures known as shamans for healing, divination of future events, and connection to the world of spirits. Accurate numbers for the size of the indigenous population are difficult to determine, but best estimates place the native population of eastern South America in 1500 at somewhere between 1 and 6 million.

The Portuguese claim to Brazil stemmed in part from the Treaty of Tordesillas, which Portugal and Spain had signed in 1494 with the pope’s blessing. Both nations had undertaken voyages in search of a sea route to the spice-rich regions of the Indian Ocean and claimed land based on these voyages. In 1492 Italian Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage and claimed land in the West Indies for Spain. Spain sought international recognition of its right to the newly discovered western lands, and the Treaty of Tordesillas was the result. The treaty drew an imaginary line far out into the western Atlantic. With a few exceptions, the Portuguese laid claim to conquered territories to the east of the line, along the African coast; Spain laid claim to territories to the west of the line. Much of Brazil lies to the east of the Tordesillas line and thus fell under Portugal’s jurisdiction.

The Portuguese, however, did not arrive in Brazil until 1500. They landed on the coast of South America by mistake while seeking a route to the Indian Ocean. In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had made the first successful voyage around the southern tip of Africa to India and back. The Portuguese quickly outfitted a second expedition, led by Pedro Alvares Cabral, a young nobleman. Cabral’s fleet strayed too far west in the South Atlantic as it moved around Africa. They spotted land on April 22, 1500. Unaware that he had stumbled on a huge continent, Cabral named his discovery Terra da Vera Cruz (Portuguese for “Island of the True Cross”).



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