Arawak elements in eastern Brazil: a study on long-range cultural diffusion

[With Jonas Gregorio de Souza and Henrique Valadares; to be presented at the symposium 'Arawakan linguistic and cultural identities' during the 54th International Congress of Americanists (Viena, 2012)]

An investigation into language contact in eastern Brazil reveals a puzzling piece of linguistic evidence: the words for ‘maize’ in languages of three different families (Purí, Karirí, and Iatê, all of which are included in the Macro-Jê stock) are of Arawak origin (cf. Ribeiro 2009), even though the nearest Arawak-speaking tribes are found thousands of miles away, in the Upper Xingu area. In addition to these three families, the Arawak loan also occurs in another Macro-Jê family, Karajá (Araguaia River). While the existence of an Arawak loan for ‘maize’ in Karajá may indicate direct cultural contacts with the Xingu region, its presence in the eastern Macro-Jê families is likely due to indirect diffusion. The challenge lies in determining possible diffusion routes for the loan, since the vast areas between eastern and central Brazil are among the least-known ethnographic areas in South America, as indicated by wide blank swaths in Nimuendajú’s classic map (Nimuendajú 1982). Such scarcity of ethnographic information, however, does not correspond to an archaeological emptiness. Such areas are actually rich in archaeological sites of the Aratu tradition, associated with the diffusion of agriculture and circular villages (Prous 1992), cultural innovations which have been largely associated with an Arawak center of diffusion in Central Brazil. Thus, instead of an isolated case, the occurrence of linguistic Arawak loans in eastern Brazil may be part of a wider pattern of Arawak cultural influence extending from central to eastern Brazil. Combining evidence from archaeology, ethnography, and linguistics, this paper aims at tracing possible routes and timelines for the introduction of Arawak cultural elements in eastern Brazil, providing a better understanding of the cultural networks which may have existed before the European invasion.

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