The Tupi: Explaining Origin and Expansions in Terms of Archaeology and of Historical Linguistics

By Noelli, Francisco Silva | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Tupi: Explaining Origin and Expansions in Terms of Archaeology and of Historical Linguistics


Noelli, Francisco Silva, Antiquity


Interest in explaining scientifically the enormous territorial expansion of the Tupi has been an issue since 1838, now with a consensus: a common centre of origin existed, from which the Tupi fanned out, differentiating through distinct historic and cultural processes whilst keeping several common cultural features. But there is no consensus as to where the centre was located and where passed the routes of expansion.

Scholars have often asserted this hypothesis, but contributed very little scientific proof. Since 1960, archaeological (site location, radiocarbon and thermoluminescent dating) and linguistic data (giottochronology, relationships among languages) have been brought to the scene. In this article, I also intend to show:

* Enough elements now link prehistoric to historic Tupian groups, setting the ground for understanding origins, continuities, changes and/or extinction;

* Chronology can now be based on archaeological and linguistic evidence rather than on Martius', Metraux's and other speculations, which distort prehistoric events.

In his study of the Indo-European question (1987), Renfrew concluded that linguists and archaeologists had for a long time used archaeological and linguistic results acritically; it was time for methodologies integrating both approaches. The same is true of research on the Tupi. Underlying the debate are two hypotheses:

* material differentiations followed linguistic derivations;

* material and technological differentiations did not occur in isolation, but stemmed from culturally chained phenomena.

Between 1838 and 1946, the hypotheses were developed with historical and ethnographic data, and influenced by theories ranging from degenerationism to racial and geographic determinism to evolutionism. Most were based on the historic location of known Tupian peoples.

From 1946 to the present, with the publication of the Handbook of South American Indians, archaeological information was interpreted in frameworks of ecological determinism and diffusionism. During the same period, historical linguistic methods were introduced (Dyen 1956; Rodrigues 1963; 1986; Swadesh 1971; Ehret 1976; Camurn, Jr 1979a; 1979b), especially to identify the relationships among kin languages.

The Tupi

The word Tupi is used to denominate a linguistic stock that encompasses approximately 41 languages which spread, several millennia ago, throughout eastern South America (Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay). Tupi is also used to refer to the speakers of these languages. Of those 41 languages, the two most frequently mentioned since the arrival of Europeans have been Guarani and Tupinamba.(1)

Migration or expansion?

Terminology used for population shifts of the Tupi has regarded these simply as migrations (see Anthony (1990) for general principles in studying migrations). Etymologically, the term migration means a moving from one place to another, a leaving of the original region. This term is appropriate for the movement the Tupi undertook when pressed by other peoples, for instance the migrations after 1500 - regarded as escape movements from Europeans (Metraux 1927).

The term 'migration' does not cover adequately those Tupian peoples who moved in other ways, possibly for other reasons - demographic growth, the breaking-up of villages, forestry management, etc. According to archaeological studies, the Tupi held possession of their domains for long periods, expanding to new territories without abandoning old ones (Brochado 1984; Scatamacchia 1990; Noelli 1993b). Studies in ethnobiology and Native South American history demonstrate that territories under the domain of some Tupian peoples were slowly conquered, managed and tapped for a long time in an important aspect to expansion (Noelli 1993a; 1993b). The better term for these population shifts is expansion, meaning distention and spreading, a conquering of new regions without abandoning previous ones. …

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