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The DNA of the Pampas (grassy plains)

As well as the Spanish, Guarani and Charrua Indians are among the Gaucho's ancestors

At the entrance Porto Alegre, the capital city of Rio Grande do Sul State, an imposing lassoer in typical dress – pantaloons (instead of trousers) and a handkerchief around his neck – pays homage to the Gauchos. The symbol of the Gaucho capital city, the lassoer was sculptured based on the image of the composer João Carlos Paisa Cortes, one of the founders of the first Gaucho Traditions Center and responsible for the rescue and dissemination of the culture of the Pampas throughout the country.

In a type of academic continuance of the Gaucho identity restoration, the geneticists Andrea Marrero and Maria Cátira Bortolini, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), have now concluded the genetic profile of the typical inhabitant of the Pampas, the vast plains that extend from the south of Brazil to Uruguay and the north of Argentina. “This is a group whose ancestral background is difficult to determine because it’s a result of ancient miscegenation, from the start of colonization”, says Maria Cátira.

In collaboration with professor Francisco Solano, who for some 50 years has been studying the genetics of the indigenous population, geneticists Andrea and Maria Cátira examined the genetic material of 150 men from the towns of Alegrete and Bagé, in the interior of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, close to the frontier with Uruguay and Argentina, where it is believed that the Gaucho had sprung up. And they verified that, just like the rest of the Brazilian population, the Gaucho is the product of intensive miscegenation between Indians, Blacks and Europeans. However, with important peculiarities.

The analysis of the Y chromosome, transmitted by fathers to sons and an indicator of paternal ancestry, showed that 90% of Gauchos are descendents of Europeans. Nevertheless, different from that observed in other Brazilian regions, their genetic characteristics are more similar to those of the Spanish than to the Portuguese. More than one historical factor explains what genetics registers. During two and a half centuries, the area which today is Rio Grande do Sul belonged to the Spanish crown through the determination of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the New World between Spain and Portugal in 1494. An area of constant disputes between Portuguese and Spaniards, this region would only be integrated into Brazil in 1750, with the signing of the Madrid Treaty. Another characteristic of the inhabitants of this region was to move through the Pampas without being confined to the political demarcations of territory, traversing freely between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. “The frontier for the Gaucho are the very Pampas themselves”, explains Maria Cátira.

On the maternal side, the indigenous contribution for the genetic construction of the Gaucho was much higher than the country’s average – some 33%, according to studies from the team led by professor Sérgio Danilo Pena, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais – and close to that observed in to the Amazon, according to an article to be published in Human Heredity. More than half (52%) of the Gauchos have an indigenous ancestor, 37% are descended from Europeans and only 11% from Africans.

In the face of this situation, Andrea and Maria Cátira turned their attention to the Gauchos’ indigenous component. On comparing it with the genetic material of 5,000 groups within the native groups of the Americas, they verified that the indigenous portion could have two origins: the Guarani, the original group from the Amazon that migrated to the south of the country some 2,000 years ago; and the Charrua, the people who inhabited part of Rio Grande do Sul and Uruguay. The Charrua did not allow themselves to be subjugated by the colonizers and were exterminated by the Uruguayans during the 19th century. “In spite of their braveness, there are records in Uruguay of Charrua women integrated into the families of the cattle ranchers”, says the geneticist.

Although they had been exterminated, recently Uruguayan researchers recovered genetic material from the last great Charrua chief, Vaimaca Peru. “They have disappeared as an ethno-cultural group but they have left their marks on the Gauchos’ genes”, explains Maria Cátira. For her, neither the genes nor the cultural inheritance of the Charrua was extinguished. Probably it was from them that the Gaucho inherited their dexterity to deal with horses and bolas, used to hobble the cattle and animals in the field.