History of South America

European states’ claimed sovereignty over South America, 1700 (this image does not animate)

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 of

  • Harvey, Robert. "Liberators: Latin America`s Struggle For Independence, 1810–1830". John Murray, London (2000). ISBN 0-7195-5566-3

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c d O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25
  2. ^ Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1999 pp.100
  3. ^ Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1999 (pp. 126-127)
  4. ^ Howe, Kerry R., The Quest for Origins, Penguin Books, 2003, ISBN 0-14-301857-4, pp 81, 129
  5. ^ "Historia" (in Español). Fundación Municipal "Turismo Para Cuenca". Retrieved 13 August 2015. 
  6. ^ Simon Romero (January 14, 2012). "Once Hidden by Forest, Carvings in Land Attest to Amazon’s Lost World". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ a b "Unnatural Histories - Amazon". BBC Four. 
  8. ^ Smith, A (1994). Explorers of the Amazon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  
  9. ^ a b Chris C. Park (2003). Tropical Rainforests. Routledge. p. 108. 
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Heckenberger, M.J.; Kuikuro, A; Kuikuro, UT; Russell, JC; Schmidt, M; Fausto, C; Franchetto, B (19 September 2003), "Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?", Science (2003) 301 (5640): 1710–14,  
  12. ^ a b c d Wunder, Sven (2003), Oil wealth and the fate of the forest: a comparative study of eight tropical countries, Routledge. p. 130, ISBN 0203986679.
  13. ^ This is disputed by modern Caribs.
  14. ^ David A. Love, Pope Benedict Argues Catholic Church 'Purified' Indigenous Peoples posted on AlterNet June 18, 2007
  15. ^ Zamora, Margarita (1993). Reading Columbus. University of California Press. pp. Voyage to Paradise.  
  16. ^ Cook, Noble David. Born To Die, p. 13.
  17. ^ a b c "Latin America's Left Turn". Foreign Affairs. 
  18. ^ Kenneth Rapoza. "Brazil's First Lady". The Nation. November 3, 2010.
  19. ^ Sperber, Joshua. "How the US Lost Latin America". CounterPunch. November 4, 2006.
  20. ^ (Portuguese) Giovana Sanchez. "Noam Chomsky critica os EUA e elogia o papel do Brasil na crise de Honduras". G1. September 30, 2009.


See also

In 2008, the Union of South American Nations (USAN) was founded, revealing South American ambition of economic integration, with plans for political integration in the European Union style. This was seen by American political commentators as a pivotal moment in the loss of U.S. hegemony in the region.[19] According to Noam Chomsky, USAN represents that "for the first time since the European conquest, Latin America began to move towards integration".[20]

The list of left wing South American presidents is, by date of election, the following:

Despite the move to the left, South America remains largely capitalist and is enjoying its best years of economic growth.[17] The Brazilian GDP, for instance, is expected to grow 7.5% in 2010,[17] second only to the People's Republic of China in the world.

In recent years, with deep economic and social crisis provoked by neoliberal policies, the right wing lost appeal in the region (with the major exception being Colombia)[17] and the election of a sequence of left wing presidents began with Hugo Chávez' victory on the 1998 presidential election in Venezuela. As a matter of fact, The Nation described Dilma Rousseff's victory in the 2010 Brazilian election as a defeat for the Washington Consensus.[18]

In the 1960s and 1970s, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay were overthrown or displaced by U.S.-aligned military dictatorships. These 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 now widespread. 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.

South America, like many other continents, became a battlefield for the superpowers during the Cold War in the late 20th century.

Presidents Hugo Chávez, Néstor Kirchner, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met on January 19, 2006 in Granja do Torto

Recent history

Timeline of military dictatorships in South America


20th century

French Guiana remains an overseas department of France.

A few countries did not gain independence until the 20th century:

Later conflicts between the South American nations continued to define their borders and power status. In the Pacific coast, Chile and Peru continued to exhibit their increasing domination, defeating Spain in the Chincha Islands War. Finally, after precariously defeating Peru during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), Chile emerged as the dominant power of the Pacific Coast of South America. In the Atlantic side, Paraguay attempted to gain a more dominant status in the region, but an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (in the resulting 1864-1870 War of the Triple Alliance) ended Paraguayan ambitions. Thereupon, the Southern Cone nations of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile entered the 20th century as the major continental powers.

The first few wars were fought for supremacy in the northern and southern parts of the continent. The Gran Colombia – Peru War of the north and the Cisplatine War (between the Empire of Brazil and the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata) ended in stalemates, although the latter resulted in the independence of Uruguay (1828). A few years later, after the break-up of Gran Colombia, the balance of power shifted in favor of the newly formed Peru-Bolivian Confederation (1836-1839). Nonetheless, this power structure proved temporary and shifted once more as a result of the Northern Peruvian State's victory over the Southern Peruvian State-Bolivia War of the Confederation (1836-1839), and the Argentine Confederation's defeat in the Guerra Grande (1839-1852).

A struggle for power emerged among the new nations, and several further wars were soon fought thereafter.

Unlike the Spanish colonies, the Brazilian independence came as an indirect consequence of the Napoleonic Invasions to Portugal - French invasion under General Junot led to the capture of Lisbon on 8 December 1807. In order not to lose its sovereignty, the Portuguese Court moved the capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, which was the Portuguese Empire's capital between 1808 and 1821 and rose the relevance of Brazil within the Portuguese Empire's framework. Following the Portuguese Liberal Revolution of 1820, and after several battles and skirmishes were fought in Pará and in Bahia, the heir apparent Pedro, son of King John VI of Portugal, proclaimed the country's independence in 1822 and became Brazil's first emperor (He later also reigned as Pedro IV of Portugal). This was one of the most peaceful colonial independences ever seen in human history.

The Spanish colonies won their independence in the first quarter of the 19th century, in the Spanish American wars of independence. Simón Bolívar (Greater Colombia, Peru, Bolivia), José de San Martín (United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, Chile, and Peru), and Bernardo O'Higgins (Chile) 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.

Countries in the Americas by date of independence

Independence and 19th century

Between 1806 and 1807, British military forces tried to invade the area of the Rio de la Plata, at the command of Home Riggs Popham and William Carr Beresford, and John Whitelocke. The invasions were repelled, but powerfully affected the Spanish authority.

On August 15, 1801, the Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt reached Fontibón where Mutis, and began his expedition to New Granada, Quito. The meeting between the two scholars are considered the brightest spot of the botanical expedition. Humboldt also visited Venezuela, Mexico, United States, Chile, and Peru. His observations of temperature differences between the Pacific Ocean between Chile and Peru in different periods of the year, he discovered the cold currents moving from south to north up the coast of Peru, which was named in his honor the Humboldt Current.

During the eighteenth century, the figure of the priest, mathematician and botanist José Celestino Mutis (1732–1808), was delegated by the Viceroy Antonio Caballero y Gongora to conduct an inventory of the nature of the Nueva Granada, which became known as the Botanical Expedition, which classified plants, wildlife and founded the first astronomical observatory in the city of Santa Fé de Bogotá.

In 1763, the African Cuffy led a revolt in Guyana which was bloodily suppressed by the Dutch. In 1781, the Revolt of the Comuneros (New Granada), an insurrection of the villagers in the Viceroyalty of New Granada, was a popular revolution that united indigenous people and mestizos. The villagers tried to be the colonial power and despite the capitulation were signed, the Viceroy Manuel Antonio Flores did not comply, and instead ran to the main leaders José Antonio Galán. In 1796, Essequibo (colony) of the Dutch was taken by the British, who had previously begun a massive introduction of slaves.

Between 1742 and 1756, was the insurrection of Juan Santos Atahualpa in the central jungle of Peru. In 1780, the Viceroyalty of Peru was met with the insurrection of curaca Condorcanqui or Tupac Amaru II, which would be continued by Tupac Catari in Upper Peru.

Between 1721 and 1735, the Revolt of the Comuneros of Paraguay arose, because of clashes between the Paraguayan settlers and the Jesuits, who ran the large and prosperous Jesuit Reductions and controlled a large number of Christianized Indians.

Since the sixteenth century there were some movements of discontent to Spanish and Portuguese colonial system. Among these movements, the most famous being that of the Benkos Bioho. Brazil saw the formation of a genuine African kingdom on their soil, with the Quilombo of Palmares.

In 1624 France attempted to settle in the area of modern-day French Guiana, but was forced to abandon it in the face of hostility from the Portuguese, who viewed it as a violation of the Treaty of Tordesillas. However French settlers returned in 1630 and in 1643 managed to establish a settlement at Cayenne along with some small-scale plantations.

In 1616, the Dutch, attracted by the legend of El Dorado, founded a fort in Guayana and established three colonies: Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo.

17th and 18th centuries

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 (although all subjects paid taxes) 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 of gold and silver sculptures, which were melted down before transport to Europe.

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; 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.

European diseases (smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus) to which the native populations had no resistance were the overwhelming cause of the depopulation of the Native American population.[16] Cruel systems of forced labor (such as encomiendas and mining industry's mita) under Spanish control also contributed to depopulation. Following this, African slaves, who had developed immunity to these diseases, were quickly brought in to replace them.

Beginning in 1499, 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.

Great signs are these of the Terrestrial Paradise, for the site conforms to the opinion of the holy and wise theologians whom I have mentioned. And likewise, the [other] signs conform very well, for I have never read or heard of such a large quantity of fresh water being inside and in such close proximity to salt water; the very mild temperateness also corroborates this; and if the water of which I speak does not proceed from Paradise then it is an even greater marvel, because I do not believe such a large and deep river has ever been known to exist in this world.[15]

In 1498, during his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus sailed near the Orinoco Delta and then landed in the Gulf of Paria (Actual Venezuela). Amazed by the great offshore current of freshwater which deflected his course eastward, Columbus expressed in his moving letter to Isabella I and Ferdinand II that he must have reached heaven on Earth (terrestrial paradise):

Between 1452 and 1493, a series of papal bulls (Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, and Inter caetera) paved the way for the European colonization and Catholic missions in the New World, authorizing the ability of European Christian nations to take possession of non-Christian lands and encouraging the enslavement of the non-Christian people of Africa and the Americas.[14] In 1494, Portugal and Spain, the two great maritime powers of that time, signed the Treaty of Tordesilhas on the expectation of new lands being discovered in the west. Through the treaty 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. Because accurate measurements of longitude were not possible at that time, the line was not strictly enforced, resulting in a Portuguese expansion of Brazil across the meridian.

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

European colonization

The Arawak, lived along the eastern coast of South America, as far south as what is now Brazil, and up into Guayana. When first encountered by Christopher Columbus, the Arawak were described as a peaceful people, although the Arawak had already dominated other local groups such as the Ciboney. The Arawak had, however, come under increasing military pressure from the Caribs, who are believed to have left the Orinoco river area to settle in the Caribbean. Over the century leading up to Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean archipelago in 1492, the Caribs are believed to have displaced many of the Arawaks who previously settled the island chains, and making inroads into what would now be modern Guyana. The Caribs were skilled boatbuilders and sailors, and owed their dominance in the Caribbean basin to their military skills. Cannibalism formed a key part of the Caribs' war rituals: the limbs of victims may have been taken home as trophies. It is not known how many indigenous peoples lived in Venezuela and Colombia before the Spanish Conquest; it may have been approximately one million,[12] included groups such as the Auaké, Caquetio, Mariche, and Timoto-cuicas.[13] The number was reduced after the Conquest, mainly through the spread of new diseases from Europe.[12] There were two main north-south axes of pre-Columbian population; producing maize in the west and manioc in the east.[12] Large parts of the llanos plains were cultivated through a combination of slash and burn and permanent settled agriculture.[12]

Arawac and Carib civilizations

Holding their capital at the great puma-shaped city of Cuzco, 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 skull surgery in Inca civilization. The Incas had no written language, but used quipu, a system of knotted strings, to record information.


The Tiwanaku were settled in Bolivia in around 400 BC.


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 B. 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).


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 de Huantar in modern Peru at an elevation of 3,177 meters. Chavín civilization spanned 900 to 200 BCE.


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

Norte Chico

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

The ancient city of Moche with the "Huaca del Sol" in the background

Caral Supe

Andean civilizations

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 probably the result of centuries of human management, rather than naturally occurring as has previously been supposed.[10] 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.[11]

The first European to travel the length of the Amazon River was Francisco de Orellana in 1542.[8] The BBC documentary Unnatural Histories presents evidence that Francisco de Orellana, rather than exaggerating his claims as previously thought, was correct in his observations that an advanced civilization was flourishing along the Amazon in the 1540s. It is believed that the civilization was later devastated by the spread of diseases from Europe, such as smallpox.[7] Some 5 million people may have lived in the Amazon region in 1500, divided between dense coastal settlements, such as that at Marajó, and inland dwellers.[9] By 1900 the population had fallen to 1 million and by the early 1980s it was less than 200,000.[9]

For a long time, it was believed that Amazon forest 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. From the 1970s, numerous geoglyphs have been discovered on deforested land dating between 0–1250 AD, leading to claims about Pre-Columbian civilizations.[6] The BBC's Unnatural Histories claimed that the Amazon rainforest, rather than being a pristine wilderness, has been shaped by man for at least 11,000 years through practices such as forest gardening.[7]

Geoglyphs on deforested land in the Amazon rainforest


In Colombia's Eastern Sierra, the Chibchas were composed of several tribes who spoke the same language (Chibchan). Among them: Muiscas, Guanes, Laches and Chitareros.

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, Norte de Santander, Boyacá and Cundinamarca, which were also the areas where the first farms were developed. Centuries later it was in the area of these departments where the independence movement originated and the first industries were developed. They are currently the richest areas in Colombia. They represented the most populous zone between the Mexica and Inca empires. Next to the Quechua of Peru and Ecuador 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.


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 "Guapondelig", was replaced twice, first by the Incan city of Tomipamba, and later by the Colonial city of Cuenca.[5] The city was also believed to be the site of El Dorado, the city of gold from the mythology of Colombia. The Cañaris were most notable to have repelled the Incan invasion with fierce resistance for many years until they fell to Tupac Yupanqui. It is said that the Inca strategically married the cañari princes Paccha to conquer the Cañaris. Many of their descendants are still present in Cañar with a reasonable amount not having mixed and have been reserved from becoming mestizos.

Distribution of the chibchan languages
Ingapirca, Ecuador, Caħari ruins: astronomical stone (left), tomb (right) and reconstructed house (background)


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.[4]

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.[1] The food crops were quinoa, corn, lima beans, common beans, peanuts, manioc, sweet potatoes, potatoes, oca and squashes.[3] Cotton was also grown and was particularly important as the only major fiber crop.[1]

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.[1] Guinea pigs were also domesticated as a food source at this time.[2]

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.[1]

The Americas are 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.

Agriculture and domestication of animals

Pre-Columbian era

Later on, South America connected with North America. This caused several migrations of tougher, North American mammal carnivores. The result was that hundreds of South American species became extinct. However, some species were able to adapt and spread into North America. These species include the giant sloths and the terror birds.

In the Paleozoic era, South America and Africa were connected. By the end of the Mesozoic, South America was a massive, biologically rich island. Over millions of years, the type of life living in South America became radically different than that of the rest of the world.


  • Prehistory 1
  • Pre-Columbian era 2
    • Agriculture and domestication of animals 2.1
    • Cañaris 2.2
    • Chibchas 2.3
    • Amazon 2.4
    • Andean civilizations 2.5
      • Caral Supe 2.5.1
      • Norte Chico 2.5.2
      • Chavín 2.5.3
      • Moche 2.5.4
      • Tiwanaku 2.5.5
      • Inca 2.5.6
    • Arawac and Carib civilizations 2.6
  • European colonization 3
  • 17th and 18th centuries 4
  • Independence and 19th century 5
  • 20th century 6
    • Dictatorships 6.1
  • Recent history 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10


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