Tupi, a linguistic trunk composed of seven distinct language branches, among which the Tupi-Guarani family is by far the most widespread. Tupi speakers were the principal indigenous inhabitants of early colonial Brazil, occupying much of the coast between the Río de la Plata and the mouth of the Amazon. While the early literature pointed out the cultural and linguistic unity of these peoples, it also emphasized their fragmented political relations, portraying indigenous Brazil as a patchwork of shifting alliances and animosities. Specific ethnic denominations emerged within this context, and colonial sources divided the coastal Tupi into diverse subgroups, including the Tupinikin, Tupinambá, Tememinó, Tupiná, Amoipira, Caeté, Potiguar, and Tobajara.
Though these larger tribal agglomerations emerged clearly in the context of warfare, the semi-sedentary agrarian village remained the basic unit of Tupi social and political organization. Composed of four to eight communal malocas (lodges), sixteenth-century Tupi villages varied greatly in size and population, ranging from around 100 to over 1,000 inhabitants. Soil exhaustion, growing scarcity of game or fish, political factionalism, or the emergence of a charismatic new leader contributed to the constant fragmentation and subsequent regeneration of villages.
Each village had a headman, often the founder of the community, whose prestige rested on oratorical skills and prowess as a warrior, but whose authority was limited mainly to the military sphere. Shamans also wielded considerable authority in daily life, while the occasional presence of wandering prophets also played an important role in Tupi-Guarani spiritual affairs. Warfare, motivated by constant vendettas between indigenous factions, was a central element in Tupi society and history. The main objective was to obtain prisoners in order to avenge past wrongs, as enemy captives were sacrificed and subsequently eaten in an elaborate ritual ceremony.
During the sixteenth century, the coastal Tupi faced a series of new challenges that ultimately led to their defeat and near extinction. The Portuguese conquest, initially carried out through the intricate mechanism of intertribal relations, eventually found more effective allies in the fatal triad of disease, slavery, and confinement to missions. However, even facing such formidable odds, Tupi peoples reached into their past and developed new forms of resistance. Local groups joined warrior forces to form "confederations," traditional leaders organized violent uprisings against colonists and Jesuit missionaries, and messianic leaders inspired migrations in retreat from areas of Portuguese influence. Nonetheless, the combined effects of colonial oppression, epidemic disease, and migration resulted in the depopulation of the coast by the first half of the seventeenth century. While a few, small groups remain on the coast, several Tupi societies continue to flourish to this day in central Brazil and the Amazon.
In spite of the relatively rapid decline of coastal Tupi populations, their impact on the formation of Brazilian society and culture was great. Peasant populations throughout Brazil, in many cases the result of Tupi-Portuguese miscegenation, preserved indigenous agricultural techniques and crops along with customs and folk beliefs. In the nineteenth century, romantic and naturalist literature and art adopted Tupi symbols, while nationalists such as Couto de Magalhães and Emperor Dom Pedro II actively promoted the use of nhengatú (vulgar Tupi) as a national language. In the twentieth century, the modernist generation of 1922 evoked the Tupi past, particularly in the creative use of cannibalism as a metaphor for Brazilian culture.
On Tupi languages, Aryon Dall'igna Rodrigues, Línguas brasileiras (1986), is an excellent starting point. The coastal Tupi are described and analyzed exhaustively in two seminal works of Brazilian anthropology by Florestan Fernandes, A organização social dos Tupinambá (1948) and A função social da guerra na sociedade Tupinambá (1951). Two recent studies introduce new perspectives on Tupi culture: Manuela Carneiro Da Cunha, ed., História dos índios no Brasil (1992); and Eduardo Viveiros De Castro, From the Enemy's Point of View (1992). A general account of the conquest may be found in John Hemming, Red Gold (1978). Stuart Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society (1985), provides an excellent discussion of the decline of native societies in sixteenth-century Bahia. Warren Dean covers the southern coast in "Indigenous Populations of the São Paulo—Rio de Janeiro Coast: Trade, Aldeamento, Slavery, and Extinction," in Revista de História 117 (1984). On the Tupi in literature, see David Miller Driver, The Indian in Brazilian Literature (1942).
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John M. Monteiro
Tu·pi / ˈtoōpē; toōˈpē/ • n. (pl. same or -pis) 1. a member of a group of American Indian peoples living in scattered areas throughout the Amazon basin.2. any of the languages of these peoples, a branch of the Tupi-Guarani language family.• adj. of or relating to these peoples or their languages.DERIVATIVES: Tu·pi·an / -pēən/ adj.