The Story Behind How the Amazon Rainforest Got Its Name

The Amazon rainforest | © Brazilian things
The Amazon rainforest | © Brazilian things
Photo of Sarah Brown
2 November 2017

The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most impressive and important natural habitats. Covering most of the Amazon basin, the forest encompasses an area of 5.5 million square kilometres with 60% of its total in Brazil. This sprawling jungle has long been of fascination to mankind, including the first explorers who allegedly gave it its name. Here’s the story behind how this huge rainforest was named the Amazon.

It is widely believed that the Amazon got its name due to a conflict between the Spanish explorer, Francisco de Orellana, and a native Amazon tribe, known as Tapuyas.

The Amazon rainforest | © Brazilian things

Orellana was the first known person to sail down the Amazon River from one end to the other in 1540. He is also remembered for founding the city of Guayaquil which now is a city in Ecuador. Orellana made two expeditions in the Amazon forest; the first was when the name Amazon was coined, and the second claimed Orellana’s life.

The Amazon river | © Pexels

Some historians believe Orellana was caught in conflict with the tribe Tapuyas where warriors were both female and male, although some historians argue that the male warriors may have been mistaken for women as they used makeshift grass skirts and had long hair. It was after this conflict that Orellana thought of the name Amazon, derived from the Amazons from the ancient Greek legend. In the battle of the Greeks and the Amazons, the women are often painted as beautiful, brave, and strong with shirt tunics and a bare breast. It’s likely that the warriors in the native Brazilian tribe reminded Orellana of these female warriors from the Greek stories.

The Amazon basin | © Neil Palmer/WikiCommons

One other theory is that the word Amazon came from a local indigenous word. The Amazon River was supposedly first called Rio Santa Maria de La Mar Dulce by the Spanish invaders of the 1500s. Mar dulce means freshwater sea that probably refers to the fact that the Amazon river is freshwater and so big that it seems like the sea. However, years later it was called the Amazon River, which is believed to come from the indigenous word from the Tupi or Guarani language. When translated into Portuguese, the word becomes amassona, meaning boat-breaker, which was used to describe the strong and complex root systems of local hydrophilic plants.

However, this theory is mostly speculation and it is widely believed the name of the Amazon came from Orellana and his belief that the local Amazon tribe looked like the Amazons in the Greek legend.