Brazilian manatees (re)discovered: Early modern accounts reflecting the overexploitation of aquatic resources and the emergence of conservation concerns

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The relationship between indigenous people and manatees in Brazil dates back to prehistoric times. It has been the subject of interdisciplinary research by specialists in marine environmental history, ethnozoology and anthropology. Manatee species, Thrichechus inunguis and Thrichechus manatus, form part of the local culture and traditions of their distribution regions: subtropical and tropical regions, as well as the entire Amazon basin and its Atlantic range. The estimated number of manatees in Brazil when the Europeans first arrived was in the tens of thousands. But the several uses of this exotic, large and strange New World creature not only meant that it featured from early times in literature, folklore and mythology, but also led to hunting and therefore falling populations. We have collected information from documentary sources that referred to manatees. These derived mainly from the early modern era, and included travel books, letters from Portuguese and Spanish missionaries and explorers, chronicles, scientific treatises, illustrated broadsheets, leaflets and images in naturalists’ records, sailors’ reports, folklore sources, poetry and literature. Our main goal was to frame and discuss the first historical accounts of the human exploitation, uses and perceptions of manatees in the Americas. This facilitated analysis of the abundance and uses of manatees from the sixteenth century to this day, as well as discussion of conservation issues, which started to emerge during the mid-eighteenth century, around overexploited resources in colonial Brazil. In focusing on manatees, and other aquatic animals, we offer paradigmatic case studies of past ecosystems and the historical relationships between people and nature.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-528
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Maritime History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017


  • aquatic animal exploitation
  • Atlantic history
  • early modern era
  • marine conservation
  • perceptions of nature


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