Brasilia Before It Was Brasilia

Did you know that the Central Plateau region of Brazil was already inhabited before the construction of Brasilia? Let us tell you this little-known story.

By Museu do Cerrado

Lenora de Castro Barbo

Brigadeiro Raimundo Jozé da Cunha Mattos, século XIX (2000) by Paulo BertranMuseu do Cerrado


Travelers' reports constitute a precious set of documents about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and, as a whole, their impressions of the natural and human landscapes have broadened the geographical understanding and historical perspective of the region of the present Federal District. 

Roteiro de viagem de José da Costa Diogo em 1734 (2006) by Deusdedith Rocha Jr. et alMuseu do Cerrado

The diversity of the accounts, which span more than 150 years, and the richness of the details allowed consideration of a territory wrongly thought to be "without any history". 

The first journal to report the passage of a traveler/muleteer in the territory of the current Federal District mentioned the toponym SOBRADINHO.

Percurso de José da Costa Diogo em 1734 (2010) by Marco Antônio GalvãoMuseu do Cerrado

1734 - Travels of José da Costa Diogo

The muleteer leaves us certain that this region was not a desert. On the contrary, his travel journal allows us to say that in the first half of the 18th century it was already an important link between the coast and the mines of Goiás and Mato Grosso.

Mapa de Cunha Mattos com as estradas na atual região do Distrito Federal antes da construção de Brasília (2010) by Lenora BarboMuseu do Cerrado

"From Bandeirinha to Contage de São João das Três Barras [...] to Sítio Novo [...] to Pipiripao [...] to D'Armas [...] to Sobradinho [...[...] to São João das Três Barras, a place so cold that in the month of June it can actually snow, has very good fruits mainly coquinho (?), an excellent source of water. The farms are mostly plantations and mills in the hinterland."

Percurso de Luís da Cunha Menezes em 1778 (2010) by Marco Antônio GalvãoMuseu do Cerrado

1778 - Travels of Luís da Cunha Menezes

The governor of Goiás, Cunha Menezes, arrived by the Estrada Real leading from Bahia and followed the northern portion of the territory of the present-day Federal District. The toponymy of the places and natural accidents described along his journey allowed us to discern the traveler's path.

Retrato de Oscar Leal (1892) by Oscar LealMuseu do Cerrado

So, who were the travelers across the Central Plateau in the 18th and 19th centuries? We must not forget that in those days, travel meant spending weeks on horseback, often on steep trails; facing adverse weather conditions; sleeping outdoors or depending on hospitality in extremely modest dwellings. 

Travelers produced records of their journeys, in diaries, or reports. The main reasons for travel included: participating in exploratory expeditions to the Central Plateau; documenting and organizing information about the territory and crossing the region to take positions in the government of Goiás or Mato Grosso.

Carta ou Plano Geographico da Capitania de Goyas (1778) by Thomas de SouzaMuseu do Cerrado

Several maps of the 18th and 19th centuries mark the old communication routes of colonial Brazil which crossed the limits of present-day DF. 

1º mapa da capitania de Goyaz (1750) by Angelo dos Santos CardosoMuseu do Cerrado

As early as 1750, place names and watercourses existing within the present boundaries of the Federal District were recorded and, from 1778, the roads crossing the region were mapped.  

The first map of the captaincy of Goyaz marked the toponym SOBRADINHO inside the present territory of the Federal District.

Esboço do Quadrilátero Cruls (1894) by Antonio PimentelMuseu do Cerrado

Many of the place names and natural landmarks recorded in the area where the Cruls Quadrilateral was demarcated repeat references used by travelers who preceded the publication of the work of the Cruls Mission: Lagoa Formosa, Lagoa Feia, Rio Maranhão, Santa Luzia, Corumbá and Mestre d'Armas.

Bacias Hidrográficas Principais do Brasil (1948) by General Polli CoelhoMuseu do Cerrado

Main Hydrographic Basins of Brazil

The center of gravity of the political map of Brazil and also a symbolic point, because from it flow the waters that are distributed by the three great Brazilian basins - the Franciscana, the Tocantins-Amazon and the Platina. 

The Goiás plateau is the meeting point of the secondary peaks, which head north and southeast with the master peak, which, north of the Federal District, cuts the territory from east to west, high plateaus more than a thousand and a hundred meters above the sea, where old colonial roads ran. 

Mapa do Distrito Federal com reconstituição do percurso de oito estradas históricas (2009) by Lenora Barbo & Rômulo RibeiroMuseu do Cerrado

After cross-referencing satellite images, digital topography models and historical maps, it was possible to trace the stretch of the Estrada Real that cuts through the northern territory of what is now the Federal District.

Mapa Hidrográfico do Distrito Federal (2006) by Secretaria de Estado de Meio Ambiente e Recursos Hidricos do Distrito FederalMuseu do Cerrado

An analysis of the 2006 environmental map of the Federal District leaves no doubt. It is undeniable that colonial roads ran through this region, within the limits of the present Federal District. The nature of the landscape and location of the hills influenced the direction of the paths. 

Novo Distrito Federal - Planta Índice Cadastral (1958) by Comissão de Mudança da CapitalMuseu do Cerrado

Registration of expropriated farms in Goiás

The delimitation of the Federal District incorporated lands of three Goiás municipalities: Formosa, Planaltina, and Luziânia and, besides a significant number of farms, two urban settlements were included: Brazlândia and Planaltina. 

Mapa do IBGE - Novo Distrito Federal em 1960 (2010) by Lenora BarboMuseu do Cerrado

Rural Houses

Considering that the rural dwellings were mainly located on the slopes and the roads went mainly through the tablelands, to a traveler’s eye the region would seem more deserted than it really was, as they could go for many kilometers without seeing a single house.

Fazenda Sobradinho I (2008) by PROAU/FAU/UnBMuseu do Cerrado

Sobradinho I Farm

The construction of the New Capital was confronted with a traditional way of life and of production. The then inhabitants were mainly engaged in extensive livestock farming to earn their livelihoods. Agricultural activity was mainly oriented towards self-sufficiency, due to the isolation and difficult communication that hindered outside trade.

Planta da Fazenda Sobradinho (1928) by Cartório de Planaltina de GoiásMuseu do Cerrado

Estrada Real a Goyazes and rural houses marked Fábrica da Fazenda Sobradinho inscribed in the Register of Planaltina de Goiás.

Fazenda Sobradinho II (2008-08) by PROAU/FAU/UnBMuseu do Cerrado

Sobradinho II Farm

The rural houses inventoried were centennial examples, remnants of the agricultural world that existed before the construction of Brasilia. They are simply one-story, compact buildings with few rooms, constructed of adobe between wooden frames and covered with clay tiles. The houses were utilitarian and without decoration.

Fazenda Curralinho (2008) by PROAU/FAU/UnBMuseu do Cerrado

Curralinho Farm

The backyards, an extension of the domestic space, were places for raising animals, with a small vegetable garden, fruit trees, and medicinal plants. They were a fundamentally important resource for food supply. The old dwellings were not at the edge of roads, but on the banks of streams or watercourses, to facilitate household chores.

Casa da Fazenda Gama (2008-09-06) by PROAU/FAU/UnBMuseu do Cerrado

Gama Farm

Gama Farm House, one of the farms expropriated in 1955 to create the Federal District, housed President Juscelino Kubistchek and his entourage when they visited the Central Plateau for the first time in 1956.

Museu do Catetinho by Arquivo Público do Distrito FederalMuseu do Cerrado


Gama Farm House is 300 meters from the Catetinho Museum, designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built in ten days to house Juscelino Kubistchek and the Novacap engineers, it symbolically marks the transfer of the Federal Capital to Brasília.   

Museu Artístico e Histórico de Planaltina by Arquivo Público do Distrito FederalMuseu do Cerrado

Mestre d'Armas (current Planaltina)

The Historic and Artistic Museum of Planaltina was the headquarters of the pioneers of the occupation of the Central Plateau. The Monteiro Guimarães family, who donated the property to the government, have been in the region since the 18th century. 

Fazenda Velha - Fachada Leste (2008) by PROAU/FAU/UnBMuseu do Cerrado

Old Farm

Even today, these rural houses preserve their traditional characteristics and clearly show the contrast between their vernacular heritage and the modernist architecture of Brasilia, demonstrating that the heritage of the federal capital goes beyond what was in the Pilot Plan.

Despite the importance of its past, the territory of the Central Plateau, within the current limits of the Federal District, after the implantation of the New Capital, had its history obscured by the history of Brasilia.

Credits: Story

Curator: Rosângela Azevedo Corrêa

Text and selection of images: Lenora de Castro Barbo
Doctorate and Masters in Architecture and Planning from the University of BrasIlia. Architect and urban planner at the Catholic University of Goiás. Received Honorable Mention in the second José Aparecido de Oliveira Prize, granted by the State Secretariat of Culture of the Federal District, for her monograph on the colonial roads of the Central Plateau (2009). This exhibition is the result of the dissertation by Lenora de Castro BARBO. Before Brasilia: reconstructing the land to construct amemory. 2010. 373 f., il. Dissertation (Masters in Architecture and Planning) - University of Brasília, Brasilia, 2010. This dissertation received an Honorable Mention in the National Association for Research and Postgraduate Architecture and Planning Prize - Anparq 2010.

Museu do Cerrado
Director General: Rosângela Azevedo Corrêa
Technical Director: Bruno Corrêa

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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