The languages of the Tupi-Guarani linguistic family, which expanded across South America on an epic scale before the arrival of Europeans, probably emerged around 2,500 years ago, in the region where Santarém is today, in Pará. The estimate comes from a new study about the “genealogy” of these languages, which mapped their advancement in time and space and the kinship between them.
The research, which was recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, is a collaboration between linguists and archaeologists coordinated by Fabrício Ferraz Gerardi, a Brazilian who works at the University of Tübingen (Germany). The team used a methodology originally applied in evolutionary biology work, such as those that try to elucidate the relationships between different species, to see the transformations of the Tupi-Guarani family over time.
Contrary to what many people think, the term “Tupi-Guarani” does not designate a single language, but a group that encompasses around 40 languages still spoken today and at least a dozen more extinct languages. Before the European invasion, speakers of these languages had expanded within a radius of 4,000 km within South America.
These communities could be found from the mouth of the River Plate, between Uruguay and Argentina, to present-day French Guiana. According to Gerardi, in general, the similarity between the languages of the family, despite such a wide geographic distribution, was comparable to that which exists between the languages of the Romance family (which includes Portuguese and its “cousins” — Spanish, Italian, French , Romanian and several other languages with fewer speakers).
“You notice that many aspects of common origin were maintained in different languages that have been separated for a long time. There are reports about an ethnic group from Maranhão that could partially understand what indigenous people on the border of Amapá and French Guiana were saying, for example”, he says.
Despite this relative conservatism, it is inevitable that, as the centuries pass, languages descending from a common ancestor begin to diverge. In part, this happens through contact with languages from other language families.
“In the process of expansion, this certainly happened frequently, because we have increasingly realized that there were no population gaps in Brazil before the arrival of Europeans. In other words, wherever they went, speakers of the Tupi-Guarani family were finding other indigenous people”, says the researcher. Thus, borrowings occur — such as “football”, a word of English origin, in our language.
There are several other processes of linguistic change, such as changes in the sound of words over time. That’s why today we say “eu” and the Spanish say “yo” — and not “ego” like the ancient Romans.
This last detail is the key to the methodology used by the researchers. They put together a large list with hundreds of possible cognates, that is, words that, despite these sound mutations, most likely descend from the same common ancestral word in the origin of the Tupi-Guarani family. The process of survival or disappearance of these cognates throughout the different languages of the family is used to try to infer the family tree of the family as a whole.
For example, the word for “bat” in Tupinambá (also known as Old Tupi) is “anira”; in wayampi, “anila”. But in Guarani the term is “mopi”; in Kaiowá, “mbopiri” — which indicates a “mutation”, similar to that of DNA, in the divergence between the ancestor of the two pairs of languages.
After testing several possibilities, the researchers ended up opting to assemble the family tree of the group’s languages using what is commonly called a “relaxed clock” — a kind of “ticking” that measures the rate of transformation of languages over time. .
Again, this is an idea borrowed from evolutionary biology. The “relaxed clock” considers that the different branches of the tree can evolve at very different rates, explains Tiago Tresoldi, co-author of the study linked to Uppsala University (Sweden). “It is the expression of a family that has had very rapid expansion in some areas, but is still relatively young and less differentiated”, he says.
The analysis produced a tree with three major subdivisions and an expansion process that only took off centuries after the origin of the family, starting 1,700 years ago. The apparent birthplace of the group, between the upper reaches of the Tapajós and Xingu rivers and near Santarém, is interesting because the region would end up being the scene of the formation of large villages and refined styles of ceramic art centuries later. Were things connected somehow?
According to Gerardi, it is still too early to say what exactly was happening there to drive the Tupi-Guarani expansion, but it is already known that the region was home to a confluence of different peoples with an important role in Amazonian prehistory. One hypothesis is that members of the linguistic family combined the creation of an ideal agricultural package for the cultivation of tropical forest plants with a warrior ideology that facilitated their confrontation with other ethnicities over the centuries.