Most of us know that Brazil is one big melting pot, but what kind of percentages are we talking about? How do Brazilians define themselves and do their genes “betray” that self-portrait? Does the discrepancy, if any, between the two even matter?
Sérgio Danilo Pena, a well-known geneticist from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, has been quoted as saying, “Only a few genes are responsible for someone’s skin colour, which is a very poor indication of ancestry.” A new study coordinated by Dr. Pena shows just that.
Despite the significant presence of “African genes” in the Brazilian population, Brazilians are more European than African. The percentage of European ancestry found in Brazilians varies from 60% in the Northeast to 77% in the South, according to a recently-published article in O Globo on the findings of the study.
In a 2009 census by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), 6.9% of Brazilians self-identified as negro (black), as opposed to other options such as branco (white), pardo (multiracial, brown), amarelo (yellow, East Asian) and indígena (Amerindian). In the face of such a low percentage of self-identified blacks, the recent study shows that Afro-Brazilians in Bahia actually have over 50% European roots.
One also must consider that, between 1500 and 1900, 12 million Africans traversed the Atlantic under slavery. Of the 10 million that survived the journey, an enormous 35% of them were brought to Brazil, compared to 6% that were brought to the United States. Given such statistics, the belief that Brazilians would, in fact, be more African than anything else wouldn’t seem too far-fetched.
In terms of Europeans, within roughly the same period (though with more migrating towards the latter half), over 5 million Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, German and Polish immigrants came to Brazil. If by the time the majority of Europeans settled in Brazil, a large portion of the African population had given way to pardos, this would explain the diluted presence of a genetic make-up reflecting African DNA.
The newest study is based on paternal ancestry and during the period of European migration, more men than women likely made their way to Brazil, especially since men were to replace the need for labor that the abolition of slavery left open. Previous studies by Dr. Pena have shown that, on the maternal side, things are more ‘democratic’ with results that show a more or less equal lineage of Amerindian, African and European ancestry.
Somehow, I doubt that any such DNA studies will change the ‘average’ Brazilian’s self-portrait. It is not as if those who first considered themselves as pardo would start considering themselves negro, or even branco. Genetics aside, it is evident that culture, tradition and upbringing in general all play a large role in who one becomes…to say nothing of economics.
Originally written for Street Smart Brazil