Brazilian Tribes in Colonial Times

The Tupi called all non-Tupi Tapuia, meaning “people of a strange tongue”, “enemies” or “westerners” (Heath, 2001). As a cultural differentiator it isn’t very useful as it includes at least 76 distinct tribes and six language groups.

Tupi-speaking nations

The Tupi were aggressive and warlike cannibals that invaded the Brazilian coast before the Portuguese arrived. Like most native Brazilians the Tupi were naked, nomadic, hunter-gatherers. They originated to the south, probably in the Paraguay basin. As they moved north they fragmented into a score of tribes. Despite sharing the same language and customs, the tribes were often at war with each other.

The Tupi-speaking nations include the

  • Tupinambá (Amoipira, Ararape, Caeté, Tamoio, Temimino) *
  • Tupinikin (Goianá, Tobajara) – also called Margaya
  • Tobayara
  • Potiguar
  • Tupina.

* (Heath (2001) lists the Caeté and Temimino as separate from the Tupinambá, but Hemming (1995a) includes them as sub-tribes).

The primary motive for Tupi aggression was not to capture territory but to capture prisoners for ritual slaughter and eating. This in turn led to bloody cycles of vendettas.

The Tupi were bronze skinned and shorter than the Gé-speaking people they replaced.

The Tupi wore robes, headdresses, bracelets and other ornaments made of brightly coloured feathers (red, both bright and smokey blue, green, scarlet, black, yellow, greys, green, brown, and white). Both sexes wore necklaces of white shells, ear or neck pendants of crescent-shaped fish-bones, and painted their bodies with black genipapo or scarlet urucum figures (birds, waves of the sea, etc) or blocks (for example, black and red quarterings).

Tupi men had their body hair, eyebrows and pubic hair removed, and shaved the crowns of their heads, leaving a circle of hair like that of a tonsured monk. The men wore polished plugs of green jadeite through their pierced lower lips and cheeks. The warriors had a tattooed stripe for every enemy they had killed.

The Tupi fought in a solid mass with bows, shields and two handed wooden swords and clubs. The weapons, like their bodies, were decorated with brightly coloured feathers.

Cultural characteristics of the Tupi were to live in communal long houses, sleep in hammocks, smoke or chew tobacco, and perform cannibalistic rites.

They called people who didn’t speak Tupi “Tapuia” – “people of strange tongue”.


The first of the Tupi to arrive on the Brazilian coast. In the first half of the 16th century they occupied the future captaincies of Ilhéus and Prto Seguro, although the Goianá tribe was further south in São Vincente.

Tribes include:

  • Goianá. Located in the captaincy of São Vincente.
  • Tobajara.


Another group to arrive in the first wave of Tupi on the Brazilian coast. They were driven inland from Bahia de Todos os Santos by the Tupinambá of the second wave.


The Tupinambá were the second wave of Tupi to arrive on the Brazilian coast. They drove out earlier Tupi (e.g. the Tupinikin and Tupina) and Tapuia (meaning non-Tupi, although in this case Gé-speaking tribes). In the first half of the 16 century the Tupinambá controlled the coast from Bahia de Todos os Santos north to the São Francisco river (the entire south bank and in some places both banks).

Tupinambá tribes included:

  • Amoipira. Named after their chief. They were based 640 km up river from the mouth of the São Francisco.
  • Caeté. Inhabitants of the future captaincy of Pernambuco. In the first half of the 16th century they controlled from the São Francisco river north to the (northern-eastern) Paraíba river. On at least one occasion they allied with Potiguar against the Portuguese, however they were usually at war with their northern neighbours. They used periperi reed boats to attack the Tupinambá on the São Francisco river and along the coast. They made their name when they killed and ate the first Brazilian Bishop.
  • Tamoio
  • Temimino


The largest, most powerful and warlike of the Tupi tribes at the time of the Portuguese discovery. Their name meant ‘Shrimp-eaters’. They were not as fragmented as other nations, and could not be provoked into internal warring. They controlled the coast from the (northern-eastern) Paraíba river north around the north-eastern tip of Brazil to the Acarou ??? river.

Guarani / Carijó

Guarani to the Spanish, the Portuguese called them the Carijó. The Guarani were not strictly speaking Tupi, in fact they were enemies of the Tupi, however, they had a very similar language and obviously had a common origin. The Guarani lands were probably the origin of the Tupi migration. The most spiritual of the Brazilian Indians believed in a single god and were susceptible to messianic leaders. They farmed the near the Paraguay and Paraná rivers (to the west and south São Paulo, and unlike other Indians wore cloths (loincloths, smocks, and mantles).

Gé-speaking nations

The Gé-speaking people are predominantly of the Laguid physiological type. Laguid people have rather long and domed skulls, low stature but well-developed chests and shoulders, broad faces and small noses, and a marked difference in height between the sexes. The Waitacá and Aimoré were described as tall and strong, and lighter in colour than the bronze skinned Tupi. The Gé-speaking people occupied open plateau and scrublands of central and eastern Brazil and tended to avoid forested areas. They probably inhabited the Atlantic coast before being evicted by the Tupi. G-speaking peoples tended to sleep on the ground rather than in hammocks.

Gé-speaking peoples included the:

  • Waitacá
  • Aimoré
  • Coroado
  • Puri
  • Cariri (Tacaniju)


The Waitacá were based at the swampy mouth of the (southern) Paraíba river (between the São Tomé and Espírito Santo captaincies) and near the Lagos Feia (‘Ugly Lagoon’) on the Campos dos Guaitacazes (‘Plain of the Waitac’), and possibly a much wider area. They pre-dated the Tupi and were probably Gé-speaking; they certainly had cultural similarities with the Gé-speaking tribes. Waitacá is a modern phonetic spelling of the tribe’s name, however, the colonists called them Goya-taka, Waitacazes, Ouetacazes, etc. The Waitacá were tall and strong, and lighter in colour than the bronze skinned Tupi. All of them had their hair hanging low at the back, and some also shaved it at the front. They were plains Indians, and were adept on land or in the water. They were great hunters: both men and women were fine archers, they could also run down game on land, and in the water they hunted sharks merely with a sharpened stick which they thrust between the creature’s jaws. They used shark teeth for arrow heads. Unusually for a Gé-speaking tribe they were voracious cannibals, and the prestige of a family was measured by the size of the pile of bones outside their house. Although continually at war, they survived the Tupi invasions, and survived the Portuguese invasion for 100 years. They were brave, resourceful and well trained. Aside from the Portuguese the Waitacá were at war with: the Tupinikin and Temimino to the north; the Tamoio Tupinambá of Cabo frio and Gunabara to the south; the Puri of the upper (southern) Paraíba , and the Ocauan and Caraia to the west; and the Panana to the north-west.


The Aimoré were Gé-speaking tribes that were forced into the inland forests by the Tupi invasion of the coast. The Portuguese used the Tupi word “Aimoré” (‘evil person’, ‘thief’, or ‘killer’) to describe these people, but the Aimoré called themselves by their tribal names, like Gueren-Gueren and Cariri.

The Aimoré were tall, strong and handsome people with pale skin (lighter in colour than the bronze skinned Tupi). Hemming (1995a) says the men let their black hair grow long but Heath (2001) says they wore it in a skull-cap style. Both sexes wore round white stones in their ear lobes, and stone discs in their lower lips. Aimoré bows were made from black palmwood, often trimmed with rings and tufts of feathers, or with yellow or black strips. The arrows were made of reeds with wooden or bamboo heads. Some carried wooden clubs like their Tupi enemies.

The Aimoré were true nomads, continually on the move. The slept on the ground on large leaves, in crude huts 100-200 paces apart. They were cannibals who ate human flesh for nourishment, not for ritual revenge.

The Aimoré fought in a manner in keeping with their forest home. Small groups attacked from ambush, and if pursued, scattered to fall on their opponents from the rear. These small groups would even make raids on well defended settlements; for example 5 or 6 of them successfully raided a Sugar Mill with 100 inhabitants.

Coroado (‘Crowned Indians’)

Including the Ocauan, Caraia, Ouanem, Guarus, Guarulhos, Sacarus and Papana. They are called ‘Crowned Indians’ because of the tufts of hair on the top of their heads.


The Puri were closely linked to the Coroado. However, some adopted Tupi customs (hamocks and tobacco).


Tribes include:

  • Tacariju.

Carib-speaking nations

Inhabitants of the Amazon basin related to the original inhabitants of the Caribbean.

Probably of the Amazonid physiological type – the predominant type in Brazil. They occupy the forested areas: the Amazon, Paraguay and the Paraná basins. Rounded skull, robust body with long powerful arms but short and weak legs, and skin of different tones with a yellowish base.

Aruak-speaking nations

Also inhabitants of the Amazon basin and part of a language group that spreads through central American as far as Florida.

Don’t know


Neighbors of the Potiguar in Pernambuco. In 1568 they were struck by famine and were convinced by António de Gouveia (a Portuguese sorcerer) to be bound and sold as slaves.

Other language speaking nations

There are at least a dozen language families outside the main four. Some western tribes speak Xirianá, Makú, Tukano and Pano. Some south-weatern tribes speak Txapakura, Nambikwara, Guató and Guaikuru.




Hemming, J. (1995a). Amazon Frontier: The defeat of the Brazilian Indians. Papermac.

Excellent book on the Portuguese conquest up to 1750. Lots of detail.

3 thoughts on “Brazilian Tribes in Colonial Times”

    • Sorry Dean, I don’t know that. Given there were many tribes and many languages I suspect there was more than one.


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