tapajos river

Rio Olympics

The opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics is being held today at the Maracanã Stadium, and promises to be a spectacular occasion. To mark the opening of the first Olympic Games in Brazil, here’s an introduction into the regions and history of this fascinating and diverse nation.

The Atlantic coast

The Brazilian coastline stretches for almost 8,000 kilometres, lining the Atlantic Ocean with expanses of white dunes and beaches in the far north and Atlantic forest along the south-eastern coast. Gateways for the arrival of European settlers, colonial ports such as Rio de Janeiro and the original capital city of Salvador were built in the 16th century and allowed for the exportation of oil, beef, rubber, and many other desirable sub-tropical commodities, while also receiving African slaves, brought over to work on the plantations.

This is a model of a ‘jangada’, a traditional Brazilian fishing boat which is still in use along some sections of the coast today. Indigenous peoples did not use the sail before the arrival of Europeans but instead made elaborate canoes from large hollowed out trees and boats from timbers lashed together.

Colonial cities

Upon its discovery by Pedro Álvares Cabral in AD 1500, Brazil was claimed for Portugal. Large-scale colonisation of the country began in the 1530s with towns and cities appearing along the coastline. The earliest settlers were more interested in agriculture than imperial expansion, so little effort was made to progress into Brazil’s interior until after 1600. São Paulo, established by Jesuit priests in 1554, was the only non-coastal settlement at this time. From the 1600s, São Paulo began to expand as the infamous bandeirantes set out on expeditions from the settlement, first to capture slaves, then to find gold, which was discovered in Minas Gerais in the 1690s, bringing new settlers to the area.

The belief in the importance of spreading the Christian faith was a central part of the perceived justification for European colonisation. A sympathetic understanding of indigenous culture and language led to success for the missionaries in Brazil, who at times fought against other colonists to prevent the enslavement of the native people.

Besides the Portuguese, other nations were also involved in the colonisation of Brazil. The French made unsuccessful attempts to establish coastal colonies and the Dutch controlled a large area in the north-east of the country between 1581 and 1654. These clogs, similar to Dutch clogs but collected in Brazil, show how European influence and fashion permeated the colonial cities.

The diverse interior

The interior states of Goiás, Tocantins, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso and the Federal District of Brasilia are covered by an extraordinary range of ecosystems. Like the neighbouring Amazon region, the Cerrado savannah is another area whose extraordinary biodiversity is threatened by widespread deforestation. Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, lies at the area’s heart. Built in the late 1950s, the concept of a new capital had been discussed since the country became independent in 1822. Moving the capital city from Rio de Janeiro, on the coast, to the centre of the country symbolised the shift from colonial settlement to independent state.

This whistle was created for ceremonies by the Krahô indigenous group who have lived for centuries in the interior regions of Brazil. The whistle is made from the claw of a giant armadillo, a species which inhabits the Cerrado savannah area of Brazil.

The Amazon rainforest

The Amazon rainforest has long been considered a natural and untouched relic of biodiversity but recent research shows that much of this forest landscape has been shaped by past societies. Indigenous peoples have managed the land for millennia using the slash-and-burn technique to clear areas of forest and plant rotating food crops. About 60% of the 5.5 million square kilometres of Amazon rainforest falls within the borders of Brazil.

This headdress, made of feathers mounted onto a fibre cap, comes from the Munduruku people who live in the Amazon basin near the Tapajos river. Indigenous groups today still make featherwork items like this headdress, known as a ‘coiffe’, continuing traditions that have existed for centuries.

Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of the Amazon environment is evident from their ability to manipulate the forest’s natural materials. The enormous range of basketry techniques that exist within the region are used to make mats, clothing, hammocks, and containers like this one from Tocantins.

Rio de Janeiro from the air. © iStock.com/marchelo74.

Jangada model. Upper Amazon, Brazil, possibly 20th century.

Rosary beads. Bahia, Brazil, 19th century.

Pair of clogs. Bahia, Brazil, 19th century.

Headdress, or ‘coiffe’. Munduruku people, Brazil, 19th century.

Palm-leaf basket. Krahô people, Brazil, 20th century.

O rio que fazia uma volta
atrás da nossa casa 
era a imagem de um vidro mole…

Passou um homem e disse:
Essa volta que o rio faz…
se chama enseada…

Não era mais a imagem de uma cobra de vidro
que fazia uma volta atrás da casa.
Era uma enseada.
Acho que o nome empobreceu a imagem.

Manuel de Barros