From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

How many were they? How many will they be?

Marta Azevedo writes about the demographic recovery of the indigenous peoples:

Impacts of the contact

Estimates about the population of the peoples who lived in the area that is now called Brazil, vary much more according to the political interests of their authors than according to the methodology adopted. Following historian John Monteiro

...any estimate concerning the global population in year 1500 will have to take into account historical factors, such as differentiated effects of illnesses on distinct peoples and the space movements of indigenous groups both as a result of the contact, among other factors." Jonh Monteiro. A Dança dos Números, in Tempo e Presença, São Paulo: CEDI, ano 16, n. 273, 1994

Some authors estimate the indigenous population in the 16th century between 2 and 4 million people, belonging to more than 1.000 different peoples; Darcy Ribeiro states that more than 80 indigenous peoples have disappeared only during the first half of the 20th century; according to this author, the total population would have decreased from 1.000.000 to 200.000 people.(2) The extermination of many indigenous peoples in Brazil due to armed conflicts, epidemics, cultural and social disorganization lead to a process of depopulation that cannot be treated without an analysis of the internal characteristics and the history of each one of these societies. Studies about the different impacts that one same epidemic had on different peoples are still to be conducted; the relationship between these peoples and the different indian offices or fronts of colonization and their impacts on their population's demographic dynamics have not yet been studied either.

According to demographic and anthropological analysis about autochthonous populations of different areas colonized by the europeans, we know that, after a long period losing people becaused of wars, epidemics and slavery, the indians started a process of demographic recovery, of which they were, many times, aware. Some exemplary studies show this tendency of recovery and, therefore, an accelerated growth of these populations, when we access sources of data with historical series.

Demographic recovery

According to the estimates provided by many scientists, anthropologists, demographers or health people, we observe that most part of the indigenous peoples has been growing, on average, 3,5% per year, much more than the average of 1,6% estimated to the period from 1996 to year 2000 for the brazilian population in general.

According to studies about the demographic transition of different peoples from all over the world, after the fall in the death rate, notably the fall in the infant death rate, due to the epidemiological transition that takes place with the vaccination of these populations together with a more efficient and modern health assistance, there is an increase in population during a certain period that varies according to structural components of each society.

Many authors point to the variations in the rhythm and profiles of the demographic transition of each society as a result of their economic systems, and some studies have already been conducted that point to components of the social structures, including models of marriage and family composition as contributors of this dynamics. This period of increase in population is followed by the fall in the levels of fertility, that is, a reduction in the average number of children by woman. Those who study this subject, state, undoubtedly, that the urbanization together with the change of the feminine status in the societies are important variants contributing to this fall. Nowadays, the demographic profile of some european countries shows that, with both the fall in the death rate and in fertility, there is a deep reduction in the rhythm of population growth, until there is the so-called demographic suicide, when the levels of fertility of some populations are below the level of replacement.

The question that is nowadays put to the demographic studies about indigenous populations in Brazil is whether these peoples are under accelerated growth due to the fall in the death rate provided by the improvement of the health assistance, but with their fertility still in levels very much superior to those of the non-indigenous population or whether this population growth is actually the result of a conscious demographic recovery, that is, whether the societies do realize that they lost people during a certain period of their recent history and are now trying to recover this population.

Below, there are some case studies about some specific indigenous peoples.

Case studies

Case studies carried out by anthropologists register the vital events of a given population during a long period of time, what allows to have some analysis on their population dynamics.

The Araweté

That is the case, for instance, of the work elaborated about the Araweté, by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. In his book (3) there is an appendix with the population data registered by some indianists or other people since the time of the contact with these indians in 1976. Registers allow us to observe an increase in population due to the fall in the death rate, notably the infant death rate and a slight increase in the birth rate, that would still have to be better demonstrated by further analysis. What calls our attention is the last chart, where the author compiles data about death before the contact according to the native categories that may cause it: illnesses; enemies (each people with whom the Araweté were in war), where most dead people and/or kidnapped or missing people are; spirits and accidents. This 'emic demography' would allow the indians to run some of their own politics incorporating western demographic techniques.

In a study about demographic dynamics of two indigenous peoples - Waiãpi and Enawenê-nawê - I tried to demonstrate how we could know the different profiles and dynamics of these autochthonous populations if we had, as in the case of these two societies, historical series of data about birth, death, marriages and migration. This study was published as a poster for the X Encontro de Estudos Populacionais da Abep (4), (Abep's 10th Meeting on Population Studies), in 1996, and was based on the data collected for the Waiãpi population by Dr. Ms. Dominique Gallois and Flora Dias Cabalzar; and for the Enawenê-Nawê population the data which were collected by Opan's team that worked with these peoples at that time.

These peoples had a relatively recent contact with the society around them, towards the 70's and both have medical assistance since the 80's. Data about vital events allow us to make some hypothesis about the future of these populations regarding their population growth.

Before the contact with the colonizers, the indigenous peoples lived in areas where the limits were given by the very environment and by other native peoples who lived in neighboring areas, with whom they traded or fought. When the brazilian state is born, the land is demarcated and the indians find themselves in a new situation: they now have to live in that area, with well-known and demarcated limits. From this moment on, to some indigenous populations that had only their home cells demarcated as I.L.s (as in the south of Brazil) the question that is put is to find out how they are going to survive in a tiny area with the traditional technology and a growing population. Regarding the indigenous peoples of Amazon, whose land is demarcated, including areas to exploit natural resources, it is necessary to think the increase in population (which happens, in general, after a decrease, soon before, and after the contact) together with the technology and the environment they occupy, structuring elements of their cultures.

Evolution of the population

As to the evolution of the total population, table1 and graph 1 and 2 prove that both populations show an increase from 1985 on, which is confirmed by the evolution of the number of births, possibly caused, not only because the absolute number has increased but also due to the fall in the infant death rate, provided by the vaccination programs on which both peoples can count.

Table 1 - Evolution of the total Enawenê and Waiãpi populations

Enawenê Waiãpi
Year Male. female. total year male. female. total
1985 75 82 157 1985 159 149 308
1987 88 89 177 1987 175 168 343
1989 94 97 191 1989 190 184 374
1991 108 107 215 1991 206 200 406
1993 114 124 238 1993 228 216 444
1995 128 130 258 1995 239 222 461

Gender ratio

The gender ratio - proportion of women and men in a certain population, in a certain year, in different age groups -, for the two populations, shows that, in the elderly ages the proportion of men increases in comparison with that of women, although it is difficult to visualize a pattern, because the absolute number of the cohorts (that is , generations) over 60 years is still very small. In the younger ages, it seems that, among the Enawenê-Nawê, the proportion of women is slightly bigger than among the Waiãpi. See graphs 3 and 4:


With regard to the parturition, the average number of children per woman is 4, considering the total population along the different years, observed by the average and the median in both cases. For the Enawenê-Nawê the custom is 2 and for the Waiãpi, 1. Probably, among the latter it is due to the number of young mothers with only one child. To both peoples, it is more common to see the woman having her first child when she is between 15 and 19 years old, in average. Among the Enawenê, the women seem to have their first child a little later than among the Waiãpi, which is confirmed according to what the indians themselves report, the young women who are not married make use of a contraceptive (beverage made out of some plant) so that they will not get pregnant. The same contraceptive is used by the women who do not want to have children any more, according to the reports, after having had 7 children. The ideal number of children must be 10, since that, according to their own perception about infant mortality, out of these 10, only 7 survive.

Parturition begins between 10 and 14 years, and the largest number of births occurs between 15 and 19 years old, to both populations. Among the Waiãpi, if we confirm that the women have children younger, the proportion of women having children between 10 and 14 years is a little bigger than among the Enawenê-Nawê; in a second study, an age pattern will be introduced in order to check this hypothesis. With regard to the intergenetic interval, the average and the median for both populations is 3, and the custom in both cases is 2.

Indigenous conceptions, academic studies and public politics

According to the Waiãpi, their population must grow even more so that they will be able to occupy all of their land. They say that, because in the past many waiãpi died, now many will die again. It seems that the Enawenê-Nawê are also aware of their increase in population. They say that the women must have a lot of children (10, as an ideal number). The fact that both tribes have lost a lot of people prior to the contact seems to encourage their wish of increasing in number in different ways. The fact that the land still has a lot of natural resources to be used by the whole population does not lead them to question the idea of constantly increasing their number. What worries those who study these peoples is the pression they make to keep on increasing in number now that the land and its resources are limited.

This example of a preliminary demographic study attempts to show, in the scope of this article, the possible tools for academic, anthropological and demographic studies, besides other important studies such as analysis about the interface of the population dynamics and the exploitation of natural resources as well as the planning of public politics directed to these populations.


(1) Jonh Monteiro: “A Dança dos Números” in Tempo e Presença, São Paulo: CEDI, ano 16, n. 273, 1994.

(2) Darcy Ribeiro: “Culturas e Línguas Indígenas do Brasil”, in Educação e Ciências Sociais, 1957.

(3) Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Araweté - o povo do Ipixuna, São Paulo: CEDI, 1992.

(4) Marta Azevedo, Márcia Pivatto e Isabella Carneiro: “Análise demográfica de duas populações indígenas no Brasil” - X Encontro de Estudos Populacionais, 1996.

[December, 2000]