History of South America

History of South America

The history of South America is the study of the past, particularly the written record, oral histories, and traditions, passed down from generation to generation on the continent in the Earth's southern hemisphere and (chiefly) western hemisphere. South America has a history that spans the full range of human cultural and civilizational forms. While millennia of independent development were interrupted by the Spanish and Portuguese colonization drive of the late 15th century and the demographic collapse that followed, the continent's "mestizo" and indigenous cultures remain quite distinct from those of their colonizers. Through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, South America (especially Brazil) became the home of millions of people in the African diaspora. The mixing of races led to new social structures. The tensions between colonial countries in Europe, indigenous peoples and escaped slaves shaped South America from the 16th through the 19th Centuries. With the revolution for independence from Spanish crown during the 19th century, South America underwent another social and political change that lasted until the early 1900s.

Pre-Columbian era

The rise of agriculture and domestication of animals

South America is thought to have been first inhabited by people crossing the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, which is now the Bering Strait. Over the course of millennia, people spread to all parts of the continent.

The first evidence for the existence of agricultural practices in South America dates back to circa 6500 BCE, when potatoes, chilies and beans began to be cultivated for food in the Amazon Basin. Pottery evidence further suggests that manioc, which remains a staple foodstuff today, was being cultivated as early as 2000 BCE. [O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25]

South American cultures began domesticating llamas and alpacas in the highlands of the Andes circa 3500 BCE. These animals were used for both transportation and meat. [O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25] Guinea pigs were also domesticated as a food source at this time. [Diamond, Jared. "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." New York: Norton, 1999 pp.100]

By 2000 BCE, many agrarian village communities had been settled throughout the Andes and the surrounding regions. Fishing became a widespread practice along the coast which helped to establish fish as a primary source of food. Irrigation systems were also developed at this time, which aided in the rise of an agrarian society. [O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25] The food crops of this time were quinoa, corn, the lima bean, the common bean, peanuts, manioc, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes oca and squashes. [Diamond, Jared. "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." New York: Norton, 1999 (pp. 126-127)] Cotton was also grown and was particularly important as the only major fiber crop. [O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25]

The earliest permanent settlement as proved by ceramic dating, dates to 3500 BC by the Valdivia on the Coast of Ecuador. Other groups also formed permanent settlements. Among those groups were the Chibchas (or "Muiscas" or "Muyscas") and the Tairona, of Colombia, the cañari of Ecuador, the Quechuas of Peru, and the Aymaras of Bolivia were the 3 most important sedentary Indian groups in South America. In the last two thousand years there may have been contact with Polynesians across the South Pacific Ocean, as shown by the spread of the sweet potato through some areas of the Pacific, but there is no genetic legacy of human contact. [Howe, Kerry R., "The Quest for Origins", Penguin Books, 2003, ISBN 0-14-301857-4, pp 81, 129]


The Cañaris were the indigenous natives of today's Ecuadorian provinces of Cañar and Azuay. They were an elaborate civilization with advanced architecture, and religious belief. Most of their remains were either burned or destroyed from attacks by the Inca and later the Spaniards. Their old city was replaced twice, first by the Incan city of Tomipamba, and later by the Colonial city of Cuenca. The city was also believed to be the site of El Dorado, the city of gold from the mythology of Colombia. (see Cuenca) The Cañaris were most notable to have repelled the Incan invasion with fierce resistance for many years until they fell to Tupac Yupanqui. Many of their descendants are still present in Cañar with a reasonable amount not having mixed, and reserved from becoming Mestizos.

Caral Supe Civilization

The Caral Supe Civilization is among the oldest civilizations in the Americas, going back to 27th century BCE. See Caral. It is noteworthy for having absolutely no signs of warfare. It was contemporary with urbanism's rise in Mesopotamia.

Norte Chico

On the north-central coast of present-day Peru, the Norte Chico civilization emerged around the time of Caral-Supe Civilization.


The Chibcha linguistic communities were the most numerous, the most territorially extended and the most socio-economically developed of the Pre-Hispanic Colombian cultures. By the 3rd century CE, the Chibchas had established their civilization in the northern Andes. At one point, the Chibchas occupied part of what is now Panama, and the high plains of the Eastern Sierra of Colombia. The areas that they occupied were the Departments of Santander (North and South), Boyacá and Cundinamarca, which were also the areas where the first farms and first industries were developed, and where the independence movement originated. They are currently the richest areas in Colombia. They represented the most populous zone between the Mexican and Inca empires. Next to the Quechua of Peru and the Aymara in Bolivia, the Chibchas of the eastern and north-eastern Highlands of Colombia were the most striking of the sedentary indigenous peoples in South America.

In the Oriental Andes, the Chibchas were composed of several tribes, who spoke the same language (Chibchan). Among them: Muiscas, Guanes, Laches and Chitareros.


Some 5 to 7 million people lived in the Amazon region, divided between dense coastal settlements, such as that at Marajó, and inland dwellers. For a long time, it was believed that those inland dwellers were sparsely populated hunter-gatherer tribes. Archeologist Betty J. Meggers was a prominent proponent of this idea, as described in her book "Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise". However, recent archeological findings have suggested that the region was actually densely populated.

One of the main pieces of evidence is the existence of the fertile Terra preta (black earth), which is distributed over large areas in the Amazon forest. It is now widely accepted that these soils are a product of indigenous soil management. The development of this soil allowed agriculture and silviculture in the previously hostile environment; meaning that large portions of the Amazon rainforest are, rather than naturally occurring as has previously been supposed, probably the result of centuries of human management. [The influence of human alteration has been generally underestimated, reports Darna L. Dufour: “Much of what has been considered natural forest in Amazonia is probably the result of hundreds of years of human use and management.” “Use of Tropical Rainforests by Native Amazonians,” BioScience 40, no. 9 (October 1990):658. For an example of how such peoples integrated planting into their nomadic lifestyles, see Rival, Laura, 1993. "The Growth of Family Trees: Understanding Huaorani Perceptions of the Forest," Man 28(4):635-652.] In the region of the Xinguanos tribe, remains of some of these large settlements in the middle of the Amazon forest were found in 2003 by Michael Heckenberger and colleagues of the University of Florida. Among those were evidence of roads, bridges and large plazas. [Citation
date=19 September 2003
title= "Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?"


The Chavín, a South American preliterate civilization, established a trade network and developed agriculture by 900 BCE, according to some estimates and archeological finds. Artifacts were found at a site called Chavín in modern Peru at an elevation of 3,177 meters. Chavín civilization spanned 900 to 300 BCE.


The Moche thrived on the north coast of Peru 2000-1500 years ago. The heritage of the Moche comes down to us through their elaborate burials, recently excavated by UCLA's Christopher Donnan in association with the National Geographic Society.Skilled artisans, the Moche were a technologically advanced people who traded with faraway peoples, like the Maya. Almost everything we know about the Moche comes from their ceramic pottery with carvings of their daily lives. We know from these records that they practiced human sacrifice, had blood-drinking rituals, and that their religion incorporated non-procreative sexual practices (such as fellatio).


Holding their capital at the great puma-shaped city of Cusco, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as "Tawantin suyu", or "the land of the four regions," in Quechua, the Inca civilization was highly distinct and developed. Inca rule extended to nearly a hundred linguistic or ethnic communities, some 9 to 14 million people connected by a 25,000 kilometer road system. Cities were built with precise, unmatched stonework, constructed over many levels of mountain terrain. Terrace farming was a useful form of agriculture. There is evidence of excellent metalwork and even successful brain surgery in Inca civilization.

European colonization

Before the arrival of Europeans, an estimated 30 million people lived in South America.

In 1493, the papal bull Inter caetera was the third of a series that paved the way for the European colonization and Catholic missions in the New World, authorizing to take possession of non-Christian lands, and encouraging the enslavement of the non-Christian people of Africa and the Americas.David A. Love, " [http://www.alternet.org/story/54407/ Pope Bendedict Argues Catholic Church 'Purified' Indigenous Peoples] " posted on "AlterNet" June 18, 2007]

In 1494, Portugal and Spain, the two great maritime powers of that time, on the expectation of new lands being discovered in the west, signed the Treaty of Tordesilhas, by which they agreed that all the land outside Europe should be an exclusive duopoly between the two countries. The Treaty established an imaginary line along a north-south meridian 370 leagues west of Cape Verde Islands, roughly 46° 37' W. In terms of the treaty, all land to the west of the line (which is now known to include most of the South American soil), would belong to Spain, and all land to the east, to Portugal. As accurate measurements of longitude were impossible by that time, the line was not strictly enforced, resulting in a Portuguese expansion of Brazil across the meridian.

Beginning in the 1530s, the people and natural resources of South America were repeatedly exploited by foreign conquistadors, first from Spain and later from Portugal. These competing colonial nations claimed the land and resources as their own and divided it into colonies.

European diseases (smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus) to which the native populations had no resistance and cruel systems of forced labor (such as the infamous encomiendas and mining industry's mita) decimated the American population under Spanish control. Following this, African slaves, who had developed immunity to these diseases, were quickly brought in to replace them.

The Spaniards were committed to converting their American subjects to Christianity and were quick to purge any native cultural practices that hindered this end. However, most initial attempts at this were only partially successful, as American groups simply blended Catholicism with their traditional beliefs. The Spaniards did not impose their language to the degree they did their religion. In fact, the missionary work of the Roman Catholic Church in Quechua, Nahuatl, and Guarani actually contributed to the expansion of these American languages, equipping them with writing systems.

Eventually the natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a Mestizo class. Mestizos and the native Americans were often forced to pay unfair taxes to the Spanish government and were punished harshly for disobeying their laws. Many native artworks were considered pagan idols and destroyed by Spanish explorers. This included a great number gold and silver sculptures, which were melted down before transport to Europe.


The Spanish colonies won their independence in the first quarter of the 19th century, in the South American Wars of Independence. Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín led their independence struggle. Although Bolivar attempted to keep the Spanish-speaking parts of the continent politically unified, they rapidly became independent of one another as well, and several further wars were fought, such as the War of the Triple Alliance and the War of the Pacific. In the Portuguese colony Dom Pedro I (also Pedro IV of Portugal), son of the Portuguese king Dom João VI, proclaimed the country's independence in 1822 and became Brazil's first Emperor. This was peacefully accepted by the crown in Portugal, upon compensation.

A few countries did not gain independence until the 20th century:
* Panama, from Colombia, in 1903
* Guyana, from the United Kingdom, in 1966.
* Suriname, from the Dutch control, in 1975
* Trinidad and Tobago, from the United Kingdom, in 1962

French Guiana remains an overseas département of France.

Recent history

The continent, like many others, became a battlefield of the Cold War in the late 20th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay were overthrown or displaced by U.S.-aligned military dictatorships. These dictatorships detained tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were tortured and/or killed (on inter-state collaboration, see Operation Condor). Economically, they began a transition to neoliberal economic policies. They placed their own actions within the U.S. Cold War doctrine of "National Security" against internal subversion. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Peru suffered from an internal conflict (see Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and Shining Path). Revolutionary movements and right-wing military dictatorships have been common, but starting in the 1980s a wave of democratization came through the continent, and democratic rule is widespread now. Allegations of corruption remain common, and several nations have seen crises which have forced the resignation of their presidents, although normal civilian succession has continued.

International indebtedness became a notable problem, as most recently illustrated by Argentina's default in the early 21st century.

In recent years South American governments have drifted to the left, with socialist leaders being elected in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, and a leftist president in Argentina and Uruguay. Despite the move to the left, South America is still largely capitalist.

With the founding of the Union of South American Nations, South America has started down the road of economic integration, with plans for political integration in the European Union style.


South_America_in_topic|History of

ee also

* Gran Colombia
* Peru-Bolivian Confederacy

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