South America
South America Destination Guide

History of South America

Pre-Columbian Times Generally accepted wisdom holds that the first people to populate the Americas traveled from east Asia to Alaska over a land bridge across the Bering Strait. Estimates of when this epic migration occurred vary from as recently as 12,500 years ago to as far back as 70,000 years, but the oldest estimates are largely speculative. Before sea levels rose and resubmerged the bridge around 7000 BC, additional migrations distributed the population throughout North, Central and South America. Human artifacts from a site in southern Chile, carbondated to about 12,500 years ago, are among the oldest undisputed evidence of human occupation in the Americas.

Christopher Columbus

These first South Americans were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands. Agriculture likely developed gradually in the tropical lowlands, starting around 5000 BC with the planting of wild tubers such as manioc (cassava) and sweet potato under systems of shifting cultivation. About the same time, highland people began to farm seed crops, such as beans, and to domesticate beasts such as the llama. Evidence of seed agriculture in Peru's coastal lowlands dates from about 4000 BC. The cultivation of maize, probably imported from Mexico before 2500 BC (perhaps much earlier), is closely correlated with the development of settled agricultural communities in South America.

One of South America's greatest contributions to the world is the humble but versatile potato, a root crop domesticated in the Andean highlands. Today there are more than 6000 varieties of potato cultivated in the Andes, many of which travelers will come to know, if not love.

Coastal & Highland Civilizations

Complex societies developed first in the valleys of coastal Peru. Their growth was unsustainable, however - it's thought that the population of some of these valleys grew until all the cultivable land was occupied. The need to expand into neighboring valleys led the inhabitants to organize, innovate and conquer.

Not dissimilar from what would happen after Columbus' 'discovery,' conquerors became rulers and the conquered became their subjects, thus developing the social and economic hierarchies of these early states and beyond.

These embryonic societies ultimately developed into major civilizations, such as the Wari empire of the Peruvian central highlands, the Tiahuanaco (or Tiwanaku) culture of highland Bolivia, the Chimu of northern coastal Peru, and the Inca empire of Cusco, known more properly as Tahuantinsuyo (or Tawantinsuy). Most of what is known about these cultures is derived from archaeological remains, particularly ceramics.

Every so often new discoveries challenge or clarify both vogue and rogue theories of early South American civilizations. In the summer of 2000, a large temple complex submerged in Lake Titicaca, very near Bolivia's Isla del Sol, was excavated. Preliminary research indicates that the underwater ruins are about 1000 to 1500 years old, thereby pre-dating the Inca and likely belonging to the Tiahuanaco culture (see the Tiahuanaco section under Around La Paz in the Bolivia chapter). Or perhaps it's really Atlantis as some science fiction fans believe: Stay tuned.

Northern South America also had its share of developing cultures in the Carib and Arawak communities of the Venezuelan and Guyanese coasts. While these indigenous groups left nary a mark on the continent's history as a whole, they were formidable navigators and paddling seafarers, populating various Caribbean islands such as Trinidad & Tobago, St Vincent and Cuba long before the European conquest.

The Inca EmpireThe Inca were the most sophisticated (and short-lived) of South America's pre-Columbian highland civilizations. At the time of the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century, the Inca empire was at its peak, governing at least 12 million people from northern Ecuador to central Chile and traversing the Andes with more than 80OOkm of highways. This overextended empire managed to control peoples from 100 separate cultures and 20 different language groups for about a century, but was never able to significantly penetrate the Amazon lowlands. Spread too thin, the Inca dominion was wracked by dissension and civil war and proved vulnerable to invasion by a very small force of Spaniards.

Tropical Rain Forest Peoples

The inhabitants of tropical rain forest regions such as the Amazon Basin did not develop complex, centralized societies like those found in the Andes. Shifting agriculturists and warriors, the women worked while the men fought. The exact population of rain forest areas at the time of European contact is unknown, but there is evidence of villages of 5000 or more people, with total population estimates falling between two to seven million in Brazil alone. Archaeological remains are few because most tools and other artifacts were made of perishable materials such as wood and bone. Anthropological data for these groups is rich however: It's from these rain forest peoples that we get tales of formalized cannibalism and tribal warfare.

Inca Empire Southern South America Inca rule just grazed central Chile and northern Argentina. Native peoples of the Araucanian language groups, including the Picunche and Mapuche peoples of Chile and Argentina, fiercely resisted incursions from the north. The Picunche lived in permanent agricultural settlements, while the Mapuche, who practiced shifting cultivation, were more mobile. Several groups closely related to the Mapuche (Pehuenches, Huilliches and Puelches) lived in the southern lake district, while the Cunco fished and farmed on the Chilean island of Chiloe and along the shores of the gulfs of Reloncavi and Ancud.

In the forested delta of the upper Rio Parana, Guarani shifting cultivators relied on ever-prodigal maize and tuber crops. In the Pampas to the south and well into Patagonia, highly mobile peoples hunted the guanaco (a wild relative of the llama) and the rhea (a flightless bird resembling the ostrich) with bows and arrows or boleadoras (a length of material into which a rock is nestled, swung at high speed and then launched).

South of the mainland, on the islands of Tierra del Fuego, small indigenous populations subsisted on hunting and fishing, including the Chonos, Qawashqar (Alacalufes), Tchuelches, Yamana and Onas (Selknam). These isolated, archipelagic peoples long avoided contact with Europeans, but were steadfastly annihilated as the land was settled; the last pure-blood Yamana and Onas died in the past few years.

European Contact

Christopher Columbus (known in Spanish as Cristobal Colon) was the first recorded European to happen upon the Americas.This'discovery' was quite by mistake rather than design, as he was actually seeking a new route to Asia's spice islands. Bankrolled by Queen Isabella of Spain and given at! exceedingly broad grant of authority over any territory he might stumble upon, the dubiously qualified Genoese mariner sailed westward, making landfalls on several Caribbean islands he believed to be part of Asia. It was actually the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama who tacked his way around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to found the new sea route to Asia; the Spanish discovery of the New World was second prize. These spectacular discoveries raised the stakes in the brewing rivalry between Spain and Portugal.

Treaty of Tordesillas When Portugal protested that Spanish voyages were encroaching on its Atlantic sphere of influence, the Spanish monarchs asked Pope Alexander VI to resolve the dispute. In 1494, representatives of the two countries met in the northern Spanish town of Tordesillas, where they established a line of demarcation at about 48' west of Greenwich, giving Africa and Asia to Portugal and all of the New World to Spain. Significantly, however, this agreement placed the coast of Brazil (not discovered until six years later) on the Portuguese side of the line, giving Portugal access to the new continent. The treaty was ratified in 1506, though no other European maritime power, and certainly none of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, ever agreed to the arrangement.

Exploration & Conquest

The island of Hispaniola (today shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) became the first European settlement and Columbus' base for further exploration. Between 1496 and 1518, he and other stalwarts charted the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, the Venezuelan and Guyanese shores all the way to the mouth of the Amazon, and the Brazilian coastline. This phase of coastal exploration effectively ended when Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan sailed down South America's east coast, through the strait that now bears his name, and across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines in 1521. This demonstrated once and for all that America was no shortcut to Asia, and Europeans refocused their efforts on occupying, plundering and otherwise profiting from the new territories.

Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico followed Hispaniola as early Spanish settlements. Hernan Cortes' conquest of Mexico led to further land expeditions through Central America and beyond. One of these expedition returned with ' rumors of a golden kingdom, Biru (Peru), to the south of Panama. After Francisco Pizarro's preliminary explorations down South America's Pacific coast (1524 and 1526) lent credence to some of these rumors, he went to Spain and convinced authorities to finance an expedition of 200 men and grant him authority over the lands he would survey. About the same time, rumors of a glorious 'Gilded Man' dubbed El Dorado enraptured the conquistadors who embarked on Quixotic journeys throughout the continent in search of this legendary city or personage of gold both of which they failed to find.

Conquest of the Inca Pizarro's second South American incursion was rapid and dramatic. His well-armed soldiers terrorized the population, but his deadliest weapon was infectious disease, to which indigenous people lacked any immunity. About 1525, the Inca ruler Huayna Capac died, probably of smallpox contracted through messengers who had met with the Spaniards.

Before he died, Huayna Capac split his empire, giving the northern part (around Quito, Ecuador) to his son, Atahualpa, and the more southerly Cusco area to another son, Huascar. Civil war followed, and after several years of fighting, Atahualpa's troops defeated and captured Huascar outside Cusco.

Meanwhile, Pizarro himself had landed in northern Ecuador, conquering and killing as he marched south into Peru, meeting up with Atahualpa on November 16, 1532 in Cajamarca. Atahualpa was double-crossed, ambushed and captured by the Spanish army, who killed thousands of unarmed Inca. In an attempt to regain his freedom, Atahualpa offered a handsome ransom - one room full of gold and two of silver. In early 1533, Pizarro sent a trio of soldiers to Cusco, where they proceeded to strip Coricancha, the Gold Courtyard,' of its splendid ornamentation, melting and crushing beautiful artifacts in the process. Despite the ransom, the Spanish put Atahualpa through a sham trial, and he was executed by strangulation.

When Pizarro entered Cusco on November 8,1533, he was permitted into the heart of the empire by a people whose sympathy lay more with the fallen Huascar than with Atahualpa. Pizarro appointed Manco Inca, Huascar's half-brother, as a puppet Inca ruler. In 1536, Manco Inca fled from the Spanish and raised a huge army, estimated at far more than 100,000 people, and laid siege to Cusco in an effort to rout the foreigners. Only a desperate breakout and a vicious battle saved the Spanish troops from defeat. Manco Inca retreated to Vilcabamba, Ecuador where he was killed in 1544. For lack of a leader, the Inca Empire's ferocity waned until Atahualpa's nephew, Tupac Amaru, rose to the fore and fought valiantly against the Spanish some 30 years after Manco Inca. Alas, he too was beheaded in Cusco in 1572, though his name (if not his legacy) survives via fallen rap star Tupac Amaru Shakur.

Spanish Empire

Lima, founded in 1535 as the capital of the new Viceroyalty of Peru, was the base for most of the ensuing exploration and conquest of the continent. Sebastian Benalcozar traveled from Lima via Quito to the highlands of Colombia in 1538, and by 1540, Pedro de Valdivia had penetrated as far as Chile's Rio Biobio. Expeditions south founded Tucuman and Mendoza in Argentina. Pedro de Mendoza formed a settlement at the mouth of the Rio de ]a Plata in 1535, which later moved upriver to what is now Asuncion, Paraguay The coast of Venezuela was settled using Hispaniola as the jumping-off point, and it later became part of the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada.

The Viceroyalty of Peru was the seat of all power in Spanish South America. As the monarch's representative in Lima, the viceroy commanded a hierarchy of lesser officials. Only peninsulares (those born in Spain) could hold any senior positions. Criollos (creoles), born in the New World of Spanish parents, could hold a commission in a colonial army or serve on a cabildo (town council). As the peninsulares generally spent only a term in the colonies before returning to Spain, the criollos became the primary landholders, merchants and entrepreneurs. People of mixed parentage (usually a Spanish father and an Indian mother) were known as mestizos and were generally excluded from higher positions. Indigenas (Native Americans) made up the bottom stratum of society.

Spanish Subjugation Above all else, the Spaniards wanted gold and silver, and they ruthlessly appropriated precious metals through outright robbery, and by other brutal means when necessary.

The Spaniards exploited indigenous populations through such mechanisms as the enconuenda (best translated as 'entrustment'), by which the Spanish Crown granted Spanish individuals rights to Indian labor and tribute in a particular village or area. In theory, Spanish legislation required the holder of the encomienda, the encomendero, to reciprocate with instruction in the Spanish language and the Catholic religion, but in practice, imperial administration could not ensure compliance or avoid serious abuses. Spanish overseers worked Indians mercilessly in the mines and the fields.The inhumane conditions perpetuated by the encomienda motivated Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas to lobby the Spanish Crown to abolish the practice. His book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indes was a call for indigenous rights that fell mostly on deaf ears.

In the most densely populated parts of the Americas, some encomenderos became extraordinarily wealthy, but the encomienda system itself ultimately failed when Native American populations declined rapidly due to introduced diseases such as smallpox, influenza and typhus. In some parts of the New World, these diseases reduced the indigenous population by more than 95%.

This demographic collapse had a lasting impact on South American societies and economies. As encomiendas became worthless, landholders assembled latifundios (large properties) from the holdings of the depleted indigenous communities. In several parts of the continent, African slaves were introduced to make up for the lack of indigenous labor, notably in the plantations of Brazil and the mines of Bolivia.

Colonial Economy After the initial period of plunder, mines became the principal source of revenues one-fifth of all precious metals, the quinto real or 'royal fifth,' went to the Spanish monarchy. To discourage piracy and simplify taxation, all colonial exports had to go to Spain by way of the of ficials of Lima and the ports of Veracruz (Mexico), Cartagena (Colombia) and Portobelo (Panama).

Under a crown monopoly, a merchant guild based in Spain controlled all trade with the colonies. With their related guilds in Lima and Mexico, Spanish merchants fixed high prices for European goods in the colonies, and taxes were levied on the imports. This restrictive taxation and trade policy caused major discontent within the colonies. particularly among criollos, whose prosperity depended more on local development than on generating wealth for Spanish merchants and the crown.

The Church

The conversion of indigenous people to the Catholic faith provided the moral rationale for the Spanish Conquest. The Catholic Church was an active partner in the Iberian domination of the continent and even held encomiendas in its own right. Of the various Catholic orders active in South America, the Jesuits worked most closely with indigenous populations, especially in the Southern Cone. They recorded native languages, established missions in which Indians were resettled and defended their charges against the worst excesses of the colonial system. Their actions antagonized both Spanish and Portuguese authorities, who eventually expelled the Jesuits from Brazil in 1759 and from the entirety of the Spanish colonies in 1767. One Brazilian statesman wrote that 'without the Jesuits, our colonial history would be little more than a chain of nameless atrocities.

Other European Colonies

Portugal's colonization of Brazil was far less systematic than Spain's. Whereas Spain set up a colonial bureaucracy accountable to the crown, Portugal divided the country into parallel strips extending to the Line of Tordesillas, and established capitanias (donated or inherited captaincies), which made the chosen rulers omnipotent within their domains. When this proved unsatisfactory, the crown assumed direct control.

Brazil's unequaled riches (precious metals, hardwoods and, later, sugar) created a frenzied demand for cheap labor. Once the local labor supply was exhausted or nearly dead, the trade in Africans exploded: An estimated 3.5 million blacks (38% of the hemisphere's total) were brought to Brazil from 1550 to 185.0, forever altering its makeup.

Other European powers to claim territory in South America were Britain, Holland and France, all of which sought to extend their influence from the Caribbean to the mainland. Though the Spanish and Portuguese always regarded the presence of these countries as an incursion, the territories on the northeast coast of the continent were, relatively, so unattractive that neither peninsular power wanted to spare the resources to eject the rivals. See the Guianas chapter for details.

Revolution & Independence

Spanish Colonies Pressure for independence came mainly from criollos, who resented both the political and social dominance of the peninsulares and the restrictive trade practices of the colonial administration. Some criollos were educated, and their awareness of the American and French Revolutions contributed to their pro-independence attitude. Events in Europe, though, were the real catalysts for the independence movement.

In 1796, Spain formed an alliance with France, thereby making Spanish vessels a target for the British navy (in addition to the unofficial privateers who had been attacking Spanish ships for years). This disrupted Spain's communication and trade with the Americas, forcing the colonies into practical, if not official, independence. The defeat of a British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806 added to the colonists' growing selfconfidence and sense of self-sufficiency.

The following year, Napoleon forced the abdication of Spanish monarch Charles IV. replacing him with Napoleon's brother, Joseph. Criollo leaders managed to force royal officials to cede power to local juntas, supposedly until the restoration of a legitimate monarch. Not surprisingly, the criollos were reluctant to relinquish power when, after Napoleon's defeat in 1814, Ferdinand VII became King of Spain. The end of the European wars enabled more troops to be deployed in the Americas, but the burden was on the Spanish to reassert control, particularly in Venezuela and Argentina, both of which had effectively declared independence.

The two main currents of the independence movement converged on Peru from these two areas. Argentina overcame Spain's attempted reconquest, and its forces, under the command of Joss de San Martin, crossed the Andes to liberate Chile (1817-18) and finally sailed up the coast to take Lima (1821). From 1819 to 1821, Simon Bolivar and his followers advanced overland to Peru from Venezuela via Colombia and Ecuador.

At their famous meeting in Guayaquil in 1822, the apolitical San Martin found himself in conflict with Bolivar, who had strong political ambitions. San Martin considered the installation of a powerful leader, even a monarch, as essential to avoid the disintegration of Peru, while Bolivar, insisted on a constitutional republic. In a complicated exchange, which aroused ill-feeling in both camps, Bolivar won the day and San Martin returned to the south. In the long run, both were disappointed. The proliferation of caudillos (local warlords or strongmen) set a deplorable pattern for most of the 19th century.

Brazil Brazil became autonomous in 1807, when the Portuguese prince regent, exiled after Napoleon's occupation of Portugal, established himself in Brazil. He later returned to Europe, leaving his son Pedro as prince regent, but when the Portuguese parliament tried to reclaim the colony, Dom Pedro proclaimed himself emperor of an independent Brazil.

After Independence

Following independence, the former colonies became separate countries whose borders generally adhered to colonial administrative divisions, modified by the ambitions of the independence leaders. The consolidations, secessions and territorial disputes that followed (and in certain areas persist) are discussed in the Geography section and in individual country chapters.

The social structures of the new countries changed slowly and in many cases imperceptibly. Criollos replaced peninsulares at the apex of the hierarchy, while mestizos and indigenous people continued to occupy the lower socioeconomic strata. Within the crioilo elite, divisions emerged between educated, urban liberals and rural landholders who maintained traditional, conservative

Spanish-Catholic values. The former group favored a centralized government that looked to Europe for inspiration, while the latter group preferred isolationism and the privileges it had acquired under colonial rule.

Conservative, rural landowners prevailed in the short run: Powerful caudillos with private armies flexed political muscles on the national scene and filled the power vacuum left by the departed colonial regime. Because this strong leadership was based on the cult of personality rather than on ideology or collective interest, it did not offer any continuity beyond each individual leader. The instability and violence that have characterized South American republics have many roots in this period.

While each country has developed separately since independence, there have been common elements, particularly the fluctuation between strong dictatorships and periods of instability, and the gross inequality between powerful elites and the disfranchised masses. Indigenous populations have fared badly in almost every country, suffering marginalization at best, genocide at worst. Only recently have some groups been able to reassert their identities and exercise political power.

Modern Times

Oppression, poverty, corruption and economic instability bred violent guerrilla movements in many countries, most notably Peru and Colombia. In Peru, the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) made much of that country a no-go zone in the late, 1980s and early 1990s. Though the movement was squelched when its leader Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992, political chaos still afflicts Peru (see the Peru chapter for more information). in Colombia, no fewer than four major guerrilla groups have been actively terrorizing that country since the late 1970s. The violence there is perhaps worse than ever, with drug traffickers, gueffillas and government forces all shooting it out in a national turf war (see the Colombia chapter for details).

Foreign intervention has also influenced the political and economic development of most South American countries. though overt military involvement has been rare. Still, since Washington declared its high profile War on Drugs in the 1980s, concerns over drug trafficking have had the United States meddling in the mix. In early 2000, the US stepped up its Bolivian and Colombian coca eradication program, sparking strikes and rioting in those countries. In March 2001, President George W Bush tightened the noose when he announced his Andean Plan - a $731 million coca eradication project, including military support, for Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru. Brazil, Venezuela and Panama.

Falkland Islands
French Guiana (Fr.)
Trinidad and Tobago
Amazon Rainforest
Amazon River
Angel Falls
Easter Island
Nazca Lines
Lake Titicaca
Iguazu Falls
Machu Picchu
Petrohue Falls
South America History
Inca Civilization
Travel Warnings
Travel Tips