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The redemption of the botocudos

Studies in a village of Minas Gerais and the pampa (prairies) of Rio Grande do Sul reveal descendents of disappeared Indians, like Aymbores and Charruas

WALTER GARBER/ESPÍRITO SANTO's public archiveBotocudo family: a victim of genocide authorized by the kingWALTER GARBER/ESPÍRITO SANTO's public archive

National genetics, by prospecting for testimonies in the blood of today’s Brazilians, is contributing towards tracking the populational consequences of an ancient injustice, hallowed in a regal letter from Dom João VI, of May 13, 1808, which did not leave any doubts about the intentions of the Crown as to the fate of the Indians pejoratively nicknamed botocudos, who were in reality Aymore braves from the northeast of Minas:

“[…] Being aware of the grave complaints that have come to my royal presence from the Captaincy of  Minas Gerais, about the invasions that the Botocudos Indians, cannibals, are practicing daily, in several and very distant parts of the same Captaincy […] I am served by these and other just reasons that now make me suspend the effects of humanity that I had ordered to be practiced with them, to order you, in first place: That from the moment you receive this Regal Letter of mine, you should consider as having begun against these cannibal Indians an offensive war that you will continue for ever in all the years in the dry seasons and that shall have no end.”

It is no surprise, in the light of such readiness for genocide, that, today, the Aymores from Minas are held to have been exterminated. Their closest surviving relatives – besides the inhabitants of the locality at Queixadinha,  in the poor northeast of  Minas Gerais, whose parentage with those decimated is now coming to light in the study by geneticists from the Federal University of  Minas Gerais (UFMG) – are the Krenaks, a contingent of some 500 Indians who do not even want to hear of the extinction of  the botocudos. “Once I mentioned in an interview that the Botocudos were extinct, and the Krenaks got very irritated”, tells Sergio Danilo Pena, who led the research. “Their identification as descendents of the Botocudos, which they actually are, is politicaly very important for them, particularly as to land, and I learnt to respect that.”

Even Aymores,  or  Guerens, were denominations given by the whites in the colonial period, Pena teaches. When they still inhabited the valleys of the Jequitinhonha, Mucuri and Doce rivers, an area divided today between the states of  Bahia, Minas and Espírito Santo, these Indians used to refer to themselves by the names of  their tribes: engereckmoung, cracmun, nak-nanuk, pejaurum and djioporoca. Besides their supposed ferocity, they had in common esteem the wooden disks – the botoques, a word that originally designated the stopples of the tuns of wine – in the lower lip and the ear lobes.

The redemption of the botocudos to which Pena is dedicating himself  is derived from one of his best known works, the finding that the present day population of  Brazil, at least as far as maternal lineages is concerned, is one of the most mixed in the world: a 39% European contribution, 33%, Indian, and 28%,  African. Published in 2000 in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the work was based on an analysis of the DNA of the mitochondria (mtDNA), a cellular organelle that is transmitted only from the mother to the sons and daughters (whose patterns and mutations thus make it possible to reconstitute the so-called matrilineages).

The study of 2000 was followed by another, published in 2003 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Pena showed the total lack of any link between the attribution of race on the basis of physical characteristics, on the other hand, and genetic markers of African ancestrality, on the other (in this case, they used stretches of autosomal nuclear DNA, which are not involved in determining gender). Put another way, a person identified as black does not necessarily have genes typical of African ancestors, nor does the presence of these markers guarantee social classification as a member of the black race. The study brought a lot to talk about, since it was made public shortly after the then candidate for the presidency Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva claimed in a TV debate that science had instruments for distinguishing blacks from whites.

One of the groups of samples used in this work came from Queixadinha, a district of Caraí, a town with 20,000 inhabitants, located in the same region as the Botocudos. It is a forgotten village, with a few hundred dwellers and difficult access by dirt roads. Pena saw in this isolation an opportunity for putting into practice the search for genetic tracks of the Botocudos amongst the present day inhabitants of the same area that they used to occupy.

If vestiges of  Botocudo DNA existed in the current population, they would surely be in the mtDNA – and not in the Y chromosomes, which pass from generation to generation only amongst men (and for that reason are useful for reconstituting patrilineages). After all, the time-honored pattern for genocide and ethnic cleansing implies exterminating the men and absorbing the women. In the Brazilian male lineages, the contribution comes almost exclusively from the European colonizer (98% of the total): research into the Y chromosome of today’s Brazilians is going to reveal, above all, markers inherited from the Portuguese lords, while it is possible to find in the mtDNA the genetic heritage of the Indian and black women that the colonizers used to take for their enjoyment.

Samples were analyzed from 274 persons without any maternal parentage for three generations, divided into three groups: 74 from Queixadinha, 100 from other towns of the Jequitinhonha, Mucuri and Doce valleys, and 100 from towns of the Zona da Mata of  Minas Gerais, the southernmost region, where there is no record of Aymores, just of the puri and crowned ethnic groups, they too disappeared.  Taking part in this work were Flávia Parra, also from UFMG, who is today doing postdoctoral studies at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, in the United States, and Hans-Jürgen Bandelt, a German mathematician from the University of Hamburg, who began to deal with statistical questions of DNA analysis as a hobby, and turned into an assiduous collaborator of Pena and of other geneticists.

Unexpected results – The analysis took as its basis the sequence of specific stretches of the some 16,000 nucleotides that make up the mtDNA, as well as characteristic mutations acquired by Amerindian populations after the main entry of human beings into the New World, coming from Asia, at some moment (or at more than one) between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago.  An analysis of the number and kind of differences found makes it possible to agglomerate the samples into groups called haplotypes. Amongst Indians of the Americas, the most common haplotypes are called A, B, C and D.

Pena, Flávia and Bandelt found some intriguing things in Queixadinha. In the first place, the predominance of the C haplotype, when the most common ones in the mtDNA of Amerindian origin of  Minas Gerais are the A and B haplotypes. Besides this, two lineages found in the village, one in three individuals and the other in five, had never been described in present day populations of Indians from the Americas. The high frequency suggests that these matrilineages are characteristics of the botocudos who used to inhabit the region.

The interest in the history of the botocudos has an additional component. Historical reports and remains preserved in the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro indicate that this ethnic group had a cranial morphology more similar to that of the skeletons known as the Lagoa Santa men, a group from the site in Minas Gerais that includes the remains of Luzia, the most ancient of a human being in the Americas. This morphology, of a negroid type, clashes with the one that predominates amongst Amerindians with an unequivocally Asian origin, one of the enigmas to be resolved about the peopling of the Americas. “With luck, this strategy could lead us to some genetic inferences about the Lagoa Santa Man, but this is still highly speculative”, Pena admits.

“Our primordial objective was to test a strategy for using modern populations as a repository of mitochondrial sequences of groups that have been conquered and are extinct”, explains the geneticist from UFMG. “The first stage is the use of modern populations with an appropriate geographical location for identifying candidate mitochondrial sequences. The second stage, which we are doing, is an attempt to validate the results of the first.”

In other words, the geneticists still intend to get a direct confirmation that the matrilineages identified in Queixadinha are in fact fossils of Botocudo genes buried in the cells of  living descendents. To achieve this, they are preparing the DNA analysis of two dozen Botocudo teeth, lent by the National Museum.

On the pampa of Rio Grande do Sul –  “This is a very interesting historical focus. It is the same as we are doing here in the south with the Charruas”, explains Francisco Mauro Salzano, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), a pioneer in the genetic study of indigenous populations. Salzano is referring to the work of his collaborator Maria Cátira Bortolini, who is coordinating a similar mapping of mtDNA, in the pampa of Rio Grande do Sul, with the collaboration of Andrea Marrero.

The region was chosen by Salzano and Maria Cátira for being the origin of the “gaucho” ethnic-cultural element (ponchos and bolas), which owe a lot to such extinct indigenous peoples as the Minuanos and Charruas.  Speaking dialects that were comprehensible to each other, these peoples are banded in what Maria Cátira calls the great Charrua ethnic group. She believes that this assimilation was more than cultural, for having found its distinct genetic mark amongst the citizens of Rio Grande do Sul who nowadays inhabit the pampa. Once again, in the form of C haplotypes of the mtDNA – very rare amongst the other indigenous peoples of the South of  Brazil, like the Guaranis, but abundant amongst Indians from Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego,  in the far south of the continent.

Like Pena, Maria Cátira is also in search of a direct proof that the C haplotypes are genetic testimonies of ancient Charruas. To do so, she has the help of a priest and archeologist, Pedro Ignacio Schmitz, from the Anchieta Research Institute of the University of Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos), in São Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul, of a  Uruguayan geneticist, Monica Sans, from the National University of Montevideo, and of a Charrua chief who died a hundred and fifty years ago of inanition and depression, Vaimacá Perú.

From Schmitz, Maria Cátira got parts of the jawbone and of the skull from a burial site archeologically characterized as Charrua. Her greatest expectation lies in the collaboration with Monica, though. Her Uruguayan colleague obtained bone samples from Peru after they were repatriated from France to Uruguay in 1998, but before legislation was approved in by the southern neighbor prohibiting the study of the remains of Vaimacá Perú. “It’s an extraordinary story”, says she, about the life of Perú, reconstituted in a book by French anthropologist Paul Rivet, Les derniers charruas (The last Charruas).

Chief  Vaimacá Perú found himself imprisoned in Montevideo, in 1832, after his people had taken part in several regional skirmishes, sometimes on the Brazilian side, sometimes on the Uruguayan side. A French citizen known only as Monsieur de Curel asked for authorization to take some Charrua specimens for public exhibition in France, and was given as a present Perú, the warrior Tacuabé and his wife Guyunusa and the shaman Senaqué. Taken to Paris in 1833, they did not last long. The couple had a daughter, Michaela, but it is not known what became of her, nor of the father. The other three died in less than one year in captivity, and their remains were kept in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, until 1998, when representations by the Uruguayan government lead to their repatriation.

According to Maria Cátira, Monica had already done a DNA analysis and confirmed, on a preliminary basis, the same C haplotypes that are similar to those from the pampa in Brazil. Ideally, the Brazilian says, it would be possible to replicate the results, in an independent laboratory outside Uruguai. However, due to the laws prohibiting studies with the remains of Perú, this part of the work may be jeopardized. The geneticist from Rio Grande do Sul regrets this kind of restriction on research. “The greatest homage that could be paid to Vaimacá Perú”, says Maria Cátira, “is to redeem the memory and the history of his people.”