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People and Society, Population

Contributory factors, high birth rate, populous state, natural increase, enslaved Africans

It is difficult to estimate the size of the Native American population at the time the Europeans arrived. There are no written records, and because of the scattered distribution of the tribes there is little substantive evidence remaining about their history. Recent calculations suggest that between 1 and 6 million Native Americans lived in Brazil prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. However, as a consequence of war, enslavement, and the introduction of European diseases, the indigenous population decreased rapidly. Estimates for 1819 suggest that the Native American population had fallen by two-thirds. In the 1990s Native Americans made up less than 1 percent of the population, living in isolated groups in remote regions of the rain forest.

Portuguese settlement was slow and small-scale. When they arrived in 1500, they established settlements along the coast and exported agricultural products to Europe. By 1600 there were no more than 30,000 European settlers in the country. The population increased during the 18th century as a result of natural increase and immigration to Brazil’s gold fields, which were discovered in the late 17th century. Population also increased when the Portuguese brought slaves from Africa to Brazil to provide labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines. More than 2 million slaves arrived during the colonial period. By 1800 Brazil’s total population was estimated at around 3.25 million, of which about 1 million were Europeans, 2 million were free or enslaved Africans or of mixed race, and about 250,000 were Native Americans.

During the early part of the 19th century over 1 million more slaves were imported. After the slave trade was abolished in 1850, the country’s population continued to grow by natural increase and immigration. Immigrants from Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Spain started coming to Brazil after 1850. Brazil’s first census, in 1872, recorded a population of 9,930,478; by 1900 the population was just over 17 million. Immigration continued to be substantial until the 1930s, with many Japanese arriving after 1908. Since then, population growth has been primarily due to natural increase. In 1950 Brazil had 51,944,000 inhabitants, and by 1980 the population had more than doubled, rising to 119,002,700. The most recent census, in 1991, recorded a population of 146,825,475. A 2002 estimate placed the population at 176,029,560. Contributory factors to these high growth rates were immigration, a high birth rate (45 percent of the population is below 20 years of age), and a death rate that has declined steadily since 1870.

In Brazil, there are considerable regional variations in population density. The most densely peopled states are Rio de Janeiro, the Federal District, and Sao Paulo. The least populous state is the interior region of Amazonas. About 80 percent of the population lives within 350 km (220 mi) of the coast. Until the mid-1960s there were more rural dwellers than people living in towns; since then the urban population has increased as industrialization lures workers to the larger cities. The total number of rural dwellers has decreased since 1970. Some 81 percent of the population is now classed as urban, and a significant proportion lives in big cities. Forty-six percent of the urban population—one-third of all Brazilians—now live in cities with more than 1 million inhabitants.

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