Brazil: A Melting-pot Genetic Present and an Uncharted Deep Past

Glimpsing humanity’s genetic future in its 7th largest nation.

by Razib Khan at Unsupervised Learning: In 1494, the expansionary Iberian powers negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas to officially divvy up the planet’s freshly discovered regions beyond Europe. Over 370 leagues to Cape Verde’s west, a line was drawn down the globe. To the left lay lands discovered by Spain since Columbus’ explorations, and to the right African and Asian territories the Portuguese crown had scooped up in late medieval expansion, begun by Henry the Navigator two generations prior. Enacted ‌as a compromise to assuage Portuguese anxiety about its monopoly of an African route to the east, the most momentous long-term consequence of Tordesillas bisecting the globe along a line of longitude would actually prove to be an unforeseen one: the genesis of Brazil, a singularly multiracial and multicultural melting pot that within some five centuries would become one of the globe’s most consequential nations. At South America’s very easternmost edge, barely known to 16th-century cartographers, Brazil chanced to fall east of Tordesillas’ arbitrary meridian. This technicality allowed the lesser Iberian power to claim the new continent’s eastern edge, which it would later join to the vast Amazonian hinterlands in the interior, creating a singular nation-state of imperial scope. While Portugal counts just 10 million citizens today, Brazilians number over 200 million. The Treaty of Tordesillas, a largely forgotten artifact of early Renaissance Europe and its internecine conflicts, momentously altered the human geography of the planet.

Brazil resembles its hemispheric neighbors in its historical arc. One of the New World’s most oft recycled plot arcs is colonial and settler nations leaving the metropole in the dust, both in terms of prominence and population. Mexico has nearly three times Spain’s population, and is by far the most populous Spanish-speaking nation-state. The US counts five times the UK’s citizens, and succeeded the motherland as the world’s preeminent global economic and military power by the first half of the 20th century. But these two instances pale in comparison to how Brazil’s heft outweighs Portugal’s. Founded in 1822 by a cadet branch of the House of Braganza, the Empire of Brazil was a massive territory fully ninety times larger than Portugal and already more populous at independence.

Mushrooming from a population of under 20 million in the late 1800’s to over 200 million in 2024, Brazil’s massive demographic expansion has consolidated its role as a regional power, as it noses into global prominence, with its presidential politics regularly covered even in the notoriously provincial US press. But perennially buffeted by boom-bust economic cycles driven by an over reliance on commodities like sugar, coffee and rubber, not to mention enduring political instability, Brazil has been aptly described as “the country of the future [that] always will be.” But even setting aside the dismissive qualifier, the first part of the label is genuinely meaningful: South America’s largest nation is a microcosm of the world, with immigrants from across the Old World. It has the largest African-descended population outside Africa, the biggest Japanese population outside Japan, and the largest Lebanese-descended population in the world (dwarfing Lebanon itself).

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