Flag of Brazil
Circumcision in Brazil
Coat of Arms of Brazil

Location and cultural history

Brazil (officially the Federal Republic of Brazil, República Federativa do Brasil in Portugese) is the world’s fifth largest country, both by geographical area and by population. It is the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Americas and the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world. It borders with all other South American countries except Ecuador and Chile. The Brazilian economy is the world’s eighth largest economy by nominal GDP.

Location map, Brazil Map, provinces of Brazil
Brazil - Location within South America. The States and Regions of Brazil (map legend in Portugese)

The land now called Brazil was claimed by Portugal in April 1500, on the arrival of the Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral. The first settlement was founded in 1532 and colonial rule was effectively begun in 1534. The Portuguese encountered stone age natives divided into several warring tribes, but nothing equivalent to the established civilizations of the Inca or Aztec peoples discovered by the Spanish. Brazil remained a colony of Portugal nominally until 1815, when it was elevated to the status of a united kingdom with Portugal and Algarves, but the colonial bond was effectively broken in 1808 when the capital of the Portuguese Kingdom was transferred from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro after Napoleon invaded Portugal.

Formal independence from Portugal was achieved in 1822, initially as the Empire of Brazil with Prince Pedro de Alcântara, the elder son of King João VI of Portugal, becoming Emperor Dom Pedro I. The country has been a republic since 1889. Its current Constitution defines Brazil as a Federal Republic, formed by the union of the Federal District of Brazilia, the 26 States, and 5,564 Municipalities. The cultural consequence of this history is a strong Portugese and Roman Catholic influence in language, religion and architecture.

Indigenous inhabitants

If the evolution of humans from apes is represented by the loss of body hair, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin are the most highly evolved of all humans. Men have no facial hair, women have no pubic hair (hence Brazilian waxing). Traditionally they have lived a simple life in the forest, and have strong ties with it - the forest provides their needs and they in turn regard themselves as guardians of the forest. They hunt, fish and have a simple agriculture. This way of life is seriously under threat and white farmers are clearing vast swaths of rainforest for (unsustainable) agriculture.

Shavante man Sherente boy

Left, Shavante man wearing the traditional cap over the glans. Right, Hmowen, a young Sherente boy practising his archery skills with a bow much taller than him! Pictures from The Savage and the Innocent by David Maybury-Lewis. [1]

In tribes which still live the tradional lifestyle no clothes are worn by men or women (thought this, of course, is changing). Unlike many other native Americans they do not practise circumcision and, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, they have the taboo that exposure of the naked glans is indecent. Howver, they are not well-endowed with foreskin - even young boys have no overhanging prepuce - so from puberty steps must be taken to cover the glans. One solution - shown here in the Shavante people - is to wear a cap over the glans. Another, adopted by many tribes, is to tie up the foreskin with a string which is then looped round the waist or tied to a belt, holding the penis in an upright positon. This is an uncanny echo of the ancient Greek kynodesme commonly worn by athletes. To urinate the cap or tie needs to be removed, and to avoid unseemly exposure adult men therefore squat to pee. Women, on the other hand, always stand - a neat reversal of Western tradition [1].

Modern Brazil

The population of Brazil today is very diverse. As well as Portuguese colonists and indigenous Americans there has been a large influx of Africans, presumably originallly imported by the colonists as slaves, as in the USA. According to the National Research by Household Sample (PNAD) of 2008, 48.43% of the population (about 92 million) described themselves as Branca (White); 43.80% (about 83 million) as Pardo (Brown), 6.84% (about 13 million) as Preta (Black); 0.58% (about 1.1 million) as Amarela (Asian); and 0.28% (about 536 thousand) as Indígena (Indigenous), while 0.07% (about 130 thousand) did not declare their race [2]. Understand that this is self-description and will be hugely biased by the social standing of the different ethnicities. Genetic analyses show that almost everybody is a mix - and of course the popular category of Pardo (almost half the population) does not actually represent any specific ethnic origin. The census does not include the inhabitants of Amazonas and other remote areas - in other words it largely reflects the urban population.

Brazil is also a spectacularly scenic country - put it on your bucket list! (Photo JB)

The question of circumcision is a complex one - perhaps not surprising given the mix of races and traditions. For the elite, circumcision is a status symbol. Thus only 5% of boys attending state (public) schools are circumcised, while 50% of those attending private schools have been cut [3]. For most Brazilians circumcision is just done to relieve phimosis. Here there comes a problem for, to many, a partly-covered glans is the norm. They therefore want a loose or partial circumcision, and that leads to a high incidence of problems such as secondary phimosis [3]. An education program could be very beneficial - protection from HIV and cancer apply just as much in Brazil as elsewhere.


1. David Maybury-Lewis, The Savage and the Innocent. Evans Brothers, London, 1965. 270pp
2. IBGE - Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios (Brazillian Census, 2008) - PNAD
3. L.E. de Jesus & J.L. Pippi Salle, 2009. The Brazilian point of view. Dialogues in Pediatric Urology 30, 4-5. Available on Academia.

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