The Pantanal is home to a rich archaeological past with recognized sites of three cultural traditions: the Pantanal tradition, the Tupiguarani tradition, and the Descalvados tradition. The occupation of the Upper Paraguay Basin dates back 8,000 years and has been strongly influenced by migratory cultures from the Andes, the Center-West, the South and Southeast of Brazil, and the Amazon. The intensification of the occupation of floodable areas occurred two thousand years ago.
The first archaeological site registered in the Pantanal was the “Gaíva” sign, found in the Gaíba Bay (or Gaíva, as it was spelled in the past). The site is in a region that European explorers of the 16th century recognized as densely populated and where today there are several archaeological research on the occupation and life of the first inhabitants of the Pantanal.
It was in this area, between Guaíba and Uberaba bays up to the confluence of the Jauru River with Paraguay, that numerous landfills with cemetery sites were excavated, built by the first inhabitants of the Pantanal, before the 8th century. The region is known as the possible territory of the Xaraiés, Orijone, Bororo, and Guató peoples, among other pre-colonial indigenous peoples of the Pantanal.
The indigenous way of life and many of the traditions of these first inhabitants still withstand in the culture of the riverside people of the Pantanal, especially the elements related to the Guató peoples. Great canoe travelers and fishermen, known as the Argonauts of the Pantanal, were excellent jaguar hunters. The use of the “zagaia” – a kind of spear to hunt jaguars in the past – is also attributed to these peoples.
The first city in the Pantanal was Santiago de Xerez (1580) that appeared on the banks of the Miranda River, in Mato Grosso do Sul. The city suffered from a lack of supply and constant indigenous attacks until 1632. From its ruins came the Itatim Mission, when the Jesuit dominion of the Paraguay River began. The missions suffered droughts and diseases like the plague. In 1647, the Monções Paulistas, expeditions of the Portuguese Crown that sought new territories, gold, and indigenous people, dominated this territory and expelled the Jesuits.
With the discovery of gold in the Cuiabá Mines and in Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade, the Paraguay River became a definitive Monsoon Route and La Laguna de Los Xarayés became known definitively as the Pantanal.
The culture of the Pantanal man emerged about 200 years after the definitive occupation of the territory of the Upper Pantanal, with the foundation of the cities of Vila Maria (1748), today Cáceres, and Vila Real do Bom Jesus de Cuiabá (1719), the current capital of the State of Mato Grosso. During this period, the first cities of the Pantanal attracted and integrated the indigenous people. The nations that refused were wiped out in the so-called Righteous Wars.
The sesmarias are the concessions of land by the Portuguese crown designated for agricultural production. In the Pantanal, they date from the first half of the 18th century and were granted by the governor of São Paulo, Rodrigo César de Meneses, between 1726 and 1728. The Captain-General should formalize possessions and encourage land appropriations for agricultural and livestock production in the Pantanal as one of his first actions.
Between 1880-1960 another important pole of cattle raising appears in the Pantanal. João Carlos Pereira Leite founded the farm Descalvados, in another important point of settlement of the Upper Pantanal, in the region that today is Cáceres, with easy access to river transport of products to export to Europe. The delegations are a cattle management system for the high areas of the Pantanal and were an efficient mechanism to ensure the survival of large herds during the historical floods, such as those of the 1960s and 1970s. In the past, groups of cowboys coordinated the practice. They led long trips of herds through the bays of the Pantanal to Corumbá in Mato Grosso do Sul, where they sold the cattle.