One of the most daunting reckonings with genocide is the attempt to enumerate victimhood. Nicole Froio’s introduction and following interview with geneticist Dr. Tábita Hünemeier situates the preliminary results of an ongoing national genome sequencing project in the popular reckoning with Brazil’s history of Indigenous genocide, African slavery, and racialized mass sexual violence.
Dr. Tábita Hünemeier is one of the leaders of Brazil’s largest genome sequencing project, “DNA do Brasil,” which aims to sequence the genomes of thousands of Brazilians to identify the unique genetic characteristics present in the country’s population. Aiming to answer questions about diverse populations that previous Euro-American-centered genome sequencing projects could not, Hünemeier’s multidisciplinary scope has also brought Brazil’s colonial histories into sharp focus: Brazil’s current population — and the composition of its collective genetic identity — is undeniably a product of those histories. Hünemeier’s interpretation of the project’s preliminary results poses a challenge to the Brazilian myth of racial democracy, where miscegenation is held up as proof of racial harmony as opposed to racial violence. Rather than perpetuating the long-existing national myth of a cordial relationship between races, what emerges is Brazil’s founding reality in the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the mass enslavement of kidnapped Africans, and a set of policies and ideologies that sought to whiten the population (known as branqueamento in Portuguese).
By contextualizing scientific results within already existing historical, anthropological, and sociological canons, Hünemeier’s work demonstrates how the evidence of these violent histories are literally carried in our bodies. Recognizing those histories is the first step to challenging current power structures. In contemporary Brazil, where racialized populations continue to be massacred by white elites, this reckoning is urgent. My hope is that this interview can, as visionary writer and audio-visual artist Jota Mombaça articulates, “force the normal to be confronted” so that we can “expose the regimes that sustain it, mess with the logic of its privilege, intensify its crisis, and deconstruct dominant and controlling ontologies.”
Nicole Froio: Could you tell me about the history of miscegenation in Brazil?
Tábita Hünemeier: Within a Latin American context, and even within the wider context of the Americas, Brazil has a different formative history. Indigenous communities have inhabited the continent for 15,000 years: in the year 1500, we estimate that the population of native people in Brazil was around four or five million people with thousands of different languages and ethnicities. It was immensely diverse.
A small number of Portuguese settlers arrived first: Europeans were less than 10% of the population [of what we now call Brazil] for the first few centuries, and they brought enslaved people from Africa — around five or six million, depending on how you estimate. At first, there were more Indigenous and African peoples in Brazil than Europeans. As the Portuguese began to settle the western coast of Brazil, government headquarters were established in Rio de Janeiro, which became the capital of the Portuguese imperial State of Brazil in 1763. The European population started growing, as did the number of enslaved Africans. Around the same time, in 1750, interracial marriage was legalized.
There’s been a dramatic decline in Indigenous populations because of enslavement, fighting against the Portuguese, and introduced diseases. For four centuries, we had a slavocracy and when slavery was abolished, documents were burned so that Black people who had been enslaved could not find their ancestors and former slaveholders could not demand reparations from the government. Much of that history was deliberately destroyed.
Around that time slavery ended in Brazil, there was a period of mass migration from Europe: around 1.5 million Italians and around 400,000 Germans arrived in Brazil [between 1820 and 1871]. Some of these Italians replaced enslaved people in agriculture through a system of indentured labor, and others went to Rio Grande do Sul in the south where land was being given to white settlers for two main reasons. The first was to protect the borders with Argentina and Uruguay, which was historically unstable territory. The second was a policy that had the goal of whitening the Brazilian population. The concept of eugenics was popular at the time, from the end of the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century, and in Brazil it remained popular into the 1930s as it was still a part of the constitution and being taught in schools. For example, there were contests to see which children had the most “acceptable” features. But then, of course, the Second World War began and because Germany was seen as fighting a eugenicist war, it became untenable for the Brazilian government to keep these policies because of their association with Nazism.
We, Brazilians, tend to forget this history: we pretend that we are a racial democracy, we pretend we are all friends and that we are happy about having this ”mixed” Brazilian identity and that we don’t have any internal racial conflicts.
NF: You lead a project called “DNA do Brasil,” which maps the genetic history of the Brazilian population. How does it relate to the history of miscegenation in Brazil?
TH: The existence of genomic studies is fairly recent, I’d say they’ve been around for 20 years. In the last eight years or so, we’ve been able to conduct studies on a large scale for a reasonable price. We’ve started having population studies like UK Biobank where they sequenced the genomes of half a million English people to investigate both genetic and environmental causes of disease, as well as others in Thailand, China, and Iceland. But many of these initiatives are being done in countries where there isn’t much diversity.
Because of the lack of variability, we can’t answer clinical questions that we tried to ask. We know some pathological issues are geographical: that some populations are more prone to specific conditions than others. We can’t take a study from one country in Europe and claim that the genetic basis of an illness will be the same across Europe, or in Africa, Asia and the Americas. In Brazil, however, we have a huge diversity of genomes because of how the population has been miscegenated.
From a historical point of view, it’s important to recover what has been lost: Afro-Brazilian populations descended from enslaved African people often don’t know their origins, which is very different from Europeans who normally know theirs or can find them more easily. Also, Indigenous populations aren’t generally studied from a genetic point of view. So “DNA do Brasil” is focused on obtaining a large number of genetic samples — we are aiming at 15,000-40,000 individual samples — because the Brazilian population is so large (over 211 million people). From there, the population will be studied from a clinical point of view so we can see origins and migratory movements of different groups, illnesses that are more prevalent amongst specific groups, and the various ways that Brazil is different from other national populations.
We are using this populational data to salvage some of our actual history because, historically speaking, we already know the results. The problem is that the archives are scarce and they’re not available to the general population.
NF: In Brazil, there is a strong tradition of sociological, anthropological and historical studies about colonialism. What would “DNA do Brasil” add to this scholarship?
TH: Even when we are talking about historical records, they’re circumstantial. We don’t have enough documents to estimate certain things like, for example, the proportions of genetic mixtures. We have census information but the people who collected it were priests, so the records are heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. Many of the ethnographic materials that were in the National Museum were incinerated [in the fire of 2018]: many things in that museum weren’t digitized and we lost a lot of history in that fire. I think DNA can help clarify some of the historical and anthropological processes of this country because Brazil was an exploratory colony for four centuries and the Portuguese didn’t care to keep records of many things. Indigenous peoples didn’t have written languages and the documents referencing enslaved Africans were burned, so there is a gap. The idea isn’t to place genetics in opposition to historical archeology, but to gather data so we can make new interpretations of the past. I think interpreting history always depends on who witnesses it and there will always be failures in those interpretations.
NF: Preliminary results of your project revealed that the maternal heritage of the foundational population of Brazil is predominantly African at 36% and Indigenous at 34%, while the paternal heritage is 75% European. Could you explain what these results mean?
TH: When we look at the mitochondrial DNA (genetic material transferred from the mother to the offspring through the egg cell), we see what you’ve just described: 70% of our Indigenous and African genes are passed down through the maternal lineage and 75% of our European genes are passed down through the paternal lineage. Here we are looking at the founding lineages [of Brazil] and we are seeing how the dynamic of [enforced] miscegenation played out in the beginning. It reveals an absurd asymmetry because we have to remember that the population of the country was only around 10% European during that time, yet European men contributed to 75% of Y chromosomes. This means there were disproportionately more European men having children with Indigenous and African women.
And what’s really essential to note, at least for me, is that the paternal Indigenous lineage is at 0.5%. From a historical point of view, this is a man-made phenomenon. When a population is being dominated, the strategy is to kill the men — or exclude them in some way to make it impossible for them to have children — and assimilate the women. When it comes to the violent process of slavery, it becomes evident that [interracial] marriage wasn’t really marriage: it was a kind of breeding.
When these results were published in Brazil, I remember many people argued that these interracial marriages happened because Black and Indigenous women preferred to marry European men. That’s nonsense! Since Europeans were only 10% of the immediate population, it is obviously not about preference: it’s about the politics of a slave-holding society, and I would say this is the result of violence or forced relationships that came to be because of social pressures.
NF: I want to talk about the sample population for the project. One of the objectives of the project was finding more diverse samples of genetic material, so you collected, for example, samples from the ribeirinho people and minorities in urban centers [Ribeirinhos are traditional and Indigenous communities in Brazil who live near and along rivers in the Amazon Basin]. Could you tell us why you were so specific about your sampling and how that relates to the overwhelming focus on European populations in genetics more generally?
TH: When we looked at the samples we already had, we realized there was an absence of samples from the Amazon region. We discussed it and realized we had two options: we could go to the urban centers in that area like Manaus, Pará, or Belém, or we could try to access the ribeirinho people. These are populations that probably have high Indigenous percentages, but we don’t know for sure.
The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation [a public institution for research and development in biological sciences located in Rio de Janeiro, considered a preeminent public health institution both in Brazil and internationally] already had a strategy for sample collection via boat, including boat laboratories that can process samples in the boats. It’s very difficult to collect samples in the Amazon because mobility is limited, so having those boats that allow us to collect samples from a population that has never been studied this way is really important. There are also big urban centers where we can collect many samples but each region of the country is different. So you’ll have quilombolas [Quilombolas are the Afro-Brazilian residents of the quilombo settlements. Today, quilombolas are the mostly poor direct descendants of Africans who escaped enslavement and sheltered in quilombos until the abolition of slavery in 1888], you’ll have ribeirinho people, Romani communities, and other marginalized populations.
We have to try to study this diversity. If I collected all my samples in Porto Alegre, for example, what would that represent? Porto Alegre is 90% European. It’s important to seek out variability, and you need a deliberate strategy to do that.
NF: And when you were studying those samples and mapped them all out, did you find genetic variations that had never been found before?
TH: We have analyzed 4,500 individual samples so far, and we found a lot of variability, especially in terms of the number of new mutations: we found millions of them. Many mitochondrial lineages, especially Indigenous ones, can no longer be found in presently existing Indigenous populations, but we can find them in mixed populations. That makes sense to us because, by the end of this miscegenation process, 90% of Indigenous peoples had been killed, but those lineages still remained in the population. I think that’s another one of the main focuses of exploring this genetic reservoir: understanding these ancestral lineages.
NF: We are living a complicated political moment in Brazil today. In my view, what’s happening is the reimposition of colonial values, or rather, a reaffirmation of those values. Considering this political situation, have you encountered any obstacles in conducting this project?
TH: We don’t have any funding going into this project presently, and the funding we had preceded the current disaster government. We will probably survive by requesting international subsidies. As for the social impact of the project, it was twofold for me. On one hand, people started reading our results and interpreting them as we had hoped, like “this was violence, even though in my family we have told those stories dismissively.” But on the other hand, when the results were being widely publicized, people felt personally offended by this history, and that’s because they are too comfortable with the racist and sexist structures they live in right now. There are two options: a person can learn these difficult histories or they can insist on the histories that make them comfortable until they die. I think the more facts we have, the more we can transform education to clarify this erased history. Eventually things will begin to get better. ■