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South America is the southern continent of the Americas, situated entirely in the Western Hemispheremarker and mostly in the Southern Hemispheremarker, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemispheremarker. It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Oceanmarker and on the north and east by the Atlantic Oceanmarker; North America and the Caribbean Seamarker lie to the northwest.

America was named in 1507 by cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann after Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first European to suggest that the newly discovered lands were not Indiamarker, but a New World unknown to Europeans.

South America has an area of 17,840,000 square kilometers (6,890,000 sq mi), or almost 3.5% of the Earth's surface. As of 2005, its population was estimated at more than 371,090,000. South America ranks fourth in area (after Asia, Africa, and North America) and fifth in population (after Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America).


Agriculture and animal domestication

South America is thought to have been first inhabited by people crossing the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, which is now the Bering Straitmarker. Some archaeological finds do not fit this theory and have led to an alternative theory of Pre-Siberian American Aborigines. The first evidence for the existence of agricultural practices in South America dates back to circa 6500 BC, when potatoes, chillies and beans began to be cultivated for food in the highlands of the Amazon Basin. Pottery evidence further suggests that manioc, which remains a staple food today, was being cultivated as early as 2000 BC.

By 2000 BC many agrarian village communities had been settled throughout the Andes and the surrounding religious 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.

South American cultures began domesticating llamas, vicuñas, guanacos, and alpacas in the highlands of the Andes circa 3500 BC. Besides their use as sources of meat and wool, these animals were used for transportation of goods.

Pre-Columbian civilizations

The rise of agriculture and the subsequent appearance of permanent human settlements allowed for the multiple and overlapping beginnings of civilizations in South America.

The earliest known settlements, and culture in South America and the Americas altogether, are the Valdivia on the Southeast coast of Ecuador.

One of the earliest known South American civilization was at Norte Chico, on the central Peruvianmarker coast. Though a pre-ceramic culture, the monumental architecture of Norte Chico is contemporaneous with the pyramids of Ancient Egypt. The Chavín established a trade network and developed agriculture by 900 BC, according to some estimates and archaeological finds. Artifacts were found at a site called Chavín de Huantarmarker in modern Peru at an elevation of 3,177 meters. Chavín civilization spanned 900 BC to 300 BC.

The Muisca were the main indigenous civilization in what is now modern Colombia. They established a confederation of many clans, or cacicazgos, that had a free trade network among themselves. They were goldsmiths and farmers.

Other important Pre-Columbian cultures include: Moche (100 BC – 700 AD, at the northern coast of Peru); Tiuahuanaco or Tiwanakumarker (100 BC – 1200 AD, Bolivia); the Cañaris (in south central Ecuador), Paracas and Nazca (400 BC – 800 AD, Peru); Wari or Huari Empire (600 – 1200, Central and northern Peru); Chimu Empire (1300 – 1470, Peruvian northern coast); Chachapoyas; and the Aymaran kingdoms (1000 – 1450, Bolivia and southern Peru).

Holding their capital at the great cougar-shaped city of Cuscomarker, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as Tawantin suyu, and "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.

European colonization

In 1494, Portugalmarker and Spainmarker, the two great maritime powers of that time, on the expectation of new lands being discovered in the west, signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, 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 league west of Cape Verde Islandsmarker, roughly 46° 37' W. In terms of the treaty, all land to the west of the line (known to comprehend 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 at 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 infectious diseases (smallpox, influenza, measles, and typhus)—to which the native populations had no immune resistance—and systems of forced labor, such as the haciendas and mining industry's mita, decimated the native population under Spanish control.

African slaves were brought in large quantities for several centuries for a number of reasons, both political and economical; however, it was mainly because they were much better fitted than the American natives for hard labor in tropical climate such as sugar cane plantations or gold mining.

The Spaniards were committed to convert their native 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 native groups simply blended Catholicism with traditional idolatry and their polytheistic beliefs. Furthermore, the Spaniards did impose their language to the degree they did their religion, although the Roman Catholic Church's evangelization in Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní actually contributed to the continuous use of these native languages albeit only in the oral form.

Eventually, the natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a mestizo class. Essentially all of the mestizos of the Andean region were offspring of Amerindian mothers and Spanish fathers. Mestizos and the Indian natives were often forced to pay extraordinary taxes to the Spanish crown and were punished more harshly for disobeying the law.

Many native artworks were considered pagan idols and destroyed by Spanish explorers; this included many gold and silver sculptures and other artifacts found in South America, which were melted down before their transport to Spain or Portugal.

Guyanamarker was a Portuguese, Dutch, and eventually a British colony. The country was once partitioned into three, each being controlled by one of the colonial powers until the country was finally taken over fully by the British.


The South American possessions of the Spanish Crown won their independence between 1804 and 1826 in the South American Wars of Independence. Simón Bolívar of Venezuelamarker and José de San Martín of Argentina were the most important leaders of the independence struggles. Bolívar led a great uprising in northern South America, then led his army southward towards Limamarker, the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru.Meanwhile, San Martín led an army from the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata across the Andes Mountains, meeting up with General Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile, and then marched northward to gain the military support of various rebels from the Viceroyalty of Peru. The two armies finally met in Guayaquil, Ecuadormarker, where they cornered the Royal Army of the Spanish Crown and forced its surrender.

In the Portuguese colony of Brazil, 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.

Although Bolivar attempted to unify politically the Spanish-speaking parts of the continent into the "Gran Colombia", they rapidly became independent states without political connections between them, despite some later attempts such as the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation.

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

French Guianamarker remains part of Francemarker.

Recent history

The continent became a battlefield of the Cold War in the late 20th century. Some democratically elected governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay were overthrown or displaced by United Statesmarker-aligned military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. To curtail opposition, their governments detained tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were tortured and/or killed on inter-state collaboration. 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.

Colombia currently faces an internal conflict, which started in 1964 with the creation of Marxist guerrillas (FARC-EP) and now involves several illegal armed groups of leftist leaning ideology as well as the private armies of powerful drug lords.

Revolutionary movements and right-wing military dictatorships became common after World War II, but since the 1980s a wave of democratization came through the continent, and democratic rule is widespread now.Nonetheless, allegations of corruption are still very common, and several countries have developed crises which have forced the resignation of their governments, although, in most occasions, regular civilian succession has continued this far.

International indebtedness turned into a severe problem in late 1980s, and some countries, despite having strong democracies, have not yet developed political institutions capable of handling such crises without recurring to unorthodox economical policies, as most recently illustrated by Argentinamarker's default in the early 21st century.


During the first decade of the 21st century, South American governments have drifted to the political left, with socialist leaders being elected in Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela. Despite the move to the left, South America for the most part still embraces free market policies, and it is taking an active path toward greater continental integration.

Recently, an intergovernmental entity has been formed which aims to merge the two existing customs unions: Mercosur and the Andean Community, thus forming the third-largest trade bloc in the world.This new political organization known as Union of South American Nations seeks to establish free movement of people, economic development, a common defense policy and the elimination of tariffs.


A composite relief image of South America.

South America occupies the southern portion of the landmass sometimes referred to as the New World. The continent is generally delimited on the northwest by the Darién watershedmarker along the ColombiamarkerPanamamarker border, or (according to some sources) by the Panama Canalmarker which transects the Isthmus of Panama. Geopolitically and geographically all of Panama – including the segment east of the Panama Canal in the isthmus – is typically included in North America alone and among the countries of Central America. Almost all of mainland South America sits on the South American Plate.

Many of the islands of the Caribbean marker – e.g., the Leeward and Lesser Antilles – sit atop the Caribbean Plate, a tectonic plate with a diffuse topography. The islands of Arubamarker, Barbadosmarker, Trinidadmarker, and Tobagomarker sit on the northerly South American continental shelf. The Netherlands Antillesmarker and the federal dependencies of Venezuelamarker lie along the northerly South American shelf. Geopolitically, the island states and overseas territories of the Caribbean are generally grouped as a part or subregion of North America. The South American nations that border the Caribbean Sea—including Colombia, Venezuelamarker, Guyanamarker, Surinamemarker, and French Guianamarker—are also known as Caribbean South America. Other islands are the Galápagos islandsmarker that belong to Ecuadormarker and Easter Islandmarker (in Oceania but belongs to Chilemarker), Robinson Crusoe Islandmarker, Chiloé, and the Tierra del Fuegomarker.

South America is home to the world's highest waterfall, Angel Fallsmarker in Venezuela; the largest river (by volume), the Amazon River; the longest mountain range, the Andes (whose highest mountain is Aconcaguamarker at 6,962 m (22,841 ft)); the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desertmarker; the largest rainforest, the Amazon Rainforest; the highest capital city, La Paz, Boliviamarker; the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicacamarker; and, excluding research stations in Antarcticamarker, the world's southernmost permanently inhabited community, Puerto Toro, Chilemarker.

South America's major mineral resources are gold, silver, copper, iron ore, tin, and petroleum. The many resources of South America have brought high income to its countries especially in times of war or of rapid economic growth by industrialized countries elsewhere. However, the concentration in producing one major export commodity often has hindered the development of diversified economies. The fluctuation in the price of commodities in the international markets has led historically to major highs and lows in the economies of South American states, often causing extreme political instability. This is leading to efforts to diversify production to drive away from staying as economies dedicated to one major export.

South America is one of the most biodiverse continents on earth. South America is home to many interesting and unique species of animals including the llama, anaconda, piranha, jaguar, vicuña, and tapir. The Amazon rainforests possess high biodiversity, containing a major proportion of the Earth's species. Regions in South America include the Andean States, the Guianas, the Southern Cone, and Brazilmarker which is the largest country by far, in both area and population.


Descendants of Indigenous peoples, such as the Quechua and Aymara, or the Urarina of Amazonia make up the majority of the population in Boliviamarker and Perumarker. Also are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies.

People of Venezuela and Colombia show a population of about 25% white and European descendants. While thepeople of European descent are more of a majority in Argentinamarker, Uruguaymarker and Chile.

South America is also home to one of the biggest population of Africans.This group is also significantly present in Guyanamarker, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guiana, and Ecuador.Mestizos (mixed white and Amerindian) are the largest ethnic group in Paraguaymarker, Venezuelamarker, Colombiamarker and Ecuadormarker. East Indians form the largest ethnic groups in Guyana and Surinamemarker. Brazil followed by Peru also have the biggest Japanese and Chinese communitiesmarker in South America.

Brazilmarker is the most diverse country in South America, with large population of Whites, Black, Mestizos and Mulattos, also having a sizeable community of Middle Easterns and Asian.

Country or

territory with flag

(km²) (per sq mi)

(July 2009 est.)
Population density

per km²
40,482,000 Buenos Airesmarker
9,863,000 La Pazmarker La Pazmarker is the administrative capital of Boliviamarker;

191,241,714 Brasíliamarker
Includes Easter Islandmarker in the Pacific Oceanmarker, a Chileanmarker territory frequently reckoned in Oceania. Santiagomarker is the administrative capital of Chile; Valparaísomarker is the site of legislative meetings.

16,928,873 Santiagomarker
45,928,970 Bogotámarker
14,573,101 Quitomarker
(United Kingdommarker)Claimed by Argentinamarker.

3,140 Port Stanleymarker
(Francemarker) 221,500 Cayennemarker
772,298 Georgetownmarker
6,831,306 Asunciónmarker
29,132,013 Limamarker
Claimed by Argentina; the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islandsmarker in the South Atlantic Oceanmarker are commonly associated with Antarcticamarker (due to proximity) and have no permanent population, only hosting a periodic contingent of about 100 researchers and visitors.

20 Grytvikenmarker
472,000 Paramaribomarker
3,477,780 Montevideomarker
26,814,843 Caracasmarker
Total 21.5/km²

Indigenous peoples


Because of histories of high inflation in nearly all South American countries, interest rates remain high and investment remains low. Interest rates are usually twice that of the United States. For example, interest-rates are about 22% in Venezuela and 23% in Suriname. The exception is Chile, which has been implementing free market economic policies since establishing military dictatorship in 1973 and has been increasing its social spending since the return of democratic rule in the early 1990s. This has led to economic stability and interest rates in the low single digits.

South America relies heavily on the exporting of goods and natural resources. On an exchange rate basis Brazil (the seventh largest economy in the world and the second largest in America) leads the way in total amount of exports at $137.8 billion dollars followed by Chile at 58.12 billion and Argentina with 46.46 billion.

The economic gap between the rich and poor in most South American nations is considered to be larger than in most other continents. In Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia and many other South American countries, the richest 20% may own over 60% of the nation's wealth, while the poorest 20% may own less than 5%. This wide gap can be seen in many large South American cities where makeshift shacks and slums lie adjacent to skyscrapers and upper-class luxury apartments.

Country GDP of 2009 GDP of 2009 Source GDP per capita of 2009 HDI of 2007
(Francemarker) N/A (nominal, 2007) N/A


Tourism has increasingly become a significant source of income for many South American countries. Historical relics, architectural and natural wonders, a diverse range of foods and culture, vibrant and colorful cities, and stunning landscapes attract millions of tourists every year to South America. Some of the most visited places in the region are Machu Picchu, the Amazon Rainforest, Rio de Janeiromarker, Salvador, Isla Margaritamarker, Natal, Buenos Airesmarker, São Paulomarker, Angel Fallsmarker, Cuzco, Lake Titicacamarker, Patagoniamarker, Cartagenamarker and the Galápagos islandsmarker.


South Americans are culturally influenced by the historic connection with Europe, especially Spainmarker and Portugalmarker, and the impact of mass culture from the United States of Americamarker.

South American nations have a rich variety of music. Some of the most famous genres include cumbia from Colombia, samba and bossa nova from Brazil, and tango from Argentina and Uruguay. Also well known is the non-commercial folk genre Nueva Canción movement which was founded in Argentina and Chile and quickly spread to the rest of the Latin America. People on the Peruvian coast created the fine guitar and cajon duos or trios in the most mestizo (mixed) of South American rhythms such as the Marinera (from Lima), the Tondero (from Piura), the 19th century popular Creole Valse or Peruvian Valse, the soulful Arequipan Yaravi, and the early 20th century Paraguayan Guarania. In the late 20th century, Spanish rock emerged by young hipsters influenced by British pop and American rock. Brazil has a Portuguese-language pop rock industry as well a great variety of other music genres.

The literature of South America has attracted considerable critical and popular acclaim, especially with the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise of authors such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez in novels, and Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges in other genres.

Because of South America's broad ethnic mix, South American cuisine takes on African, American Indian, Asian, and European influences. Bahia, Brazil, is especially well-known for its West African-influenced cuisine. Argentines, Chileans, Uruguayans, Brazilians and Venezuelans regularly consume wine, while Argentina along with Paraguay, Uruguay, and people in southern Chile and Brazil enjoy mate, a regional brewed herb cultivated for its drink, the Paraguayan version, terere, differing from the others in that it's served cold. Pisco is a liquor distilled from grapevine produced in Peru and Chile; however, there is a recurring dispute between those countries regarding its origins. Peruvian cuisine mixes elements from Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, African, Andean, and Amazonic food.


Romance languages in Latin America:

Portuguese, is the most spoken language in South America, a geographic region which is part of the bigger cultural region of Latin America. Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, which holds over 50% of the South American population. Spanish is the official language of most countries of the continent. Dutch is the official language of Surinamemarker; English is the official language of Guyanamarker, although there are at least twelve other languages spoken in the country such as Hindi and Arabic. English is also spoken in the Falkland Islandsmarker. French is the official language of French Guianamarker.

Indigenous languages of South America include Quechua in Ecuador, Peru, Chile Argentina and Bolivia; Guaraní in Paraguay and, to a much less extent, in Bolivia; Aymara in Bolivia, Peru, and less often in Chile; and Mapudungun is spoken in certain pockets of southern Chile and, more rarely, Argentina. At least three South American indigenous languages (Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani) are recognized along with Spanish as national languages.

Other languages found in South America include, Hindi and Indonesian in Suriname; Italian in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Chile; and German in certain pockets of Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Paraguay. German is also spoken in many regions of the southern states of Brazil, Riograndenser Hunsrückisch being the most widely spoken German dialect in the country; among other Germanic dialects, a Brazilian form of Pomeranian is also well represented and is experiencing a revival. Welsh remains spoken and written in the historic towns of Trelew and Rawson in the Argentine Patagonia. There are also small clusters of Japanese-speakers in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and Ecuador. Arabic speakers, often of Lebanesemarker, Syrian, or Palestinian descent, can be found in Arab communities in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and less frequently in Colombia and Paraguay.

In most of the continent's countries, the upper classes and well-educated people regularly study English, French, German, or Italian, and are typically well-traveled. In those areas where tourism is a significant industry, English and some other European languages are often spoken. There are small Portuguese speaking areas in northernmost Uruguay because of the proximity of Brazil.


See also


Content notes


  1. " South America. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2001–6. New York, Columbia University Press": "fourth largest continent ..., the southern of the two continents of the Western Hemisphere."
  2. LANIC country page
  3. O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25
  4. "The Cambridge History of Latin America", edited by Leslie Bethell, Cambridge University Press (1995) ISBN 0-521-39525-9
  7. Cohen, Saul Bernard. 2003. "North and Middle America" (Ch. 5). Geopolitics of the World System (ISBN 0847699072)
  8. "Americas" Standard Country and Area Codes Classifications (M49), United Nations Statistics Division
  9. "North America" Atlas of Canada
  10. North America AtlasNational Geographic
  11. "Panama". Britannica Concise Encyclopedia
  12. Geography: Panama CIA World Factbook 2008.
  13. South America Atlas National Geographic
  14. North America Atlas National Geographic
  15. Unstats Americas
  17. Dean, Bartholomew 2009 Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia, Gainesville: University Press of Florida ISBN 978-081303378 [1]
  18. Composición Étnica de las Tres Áreas Culturales del Continente Americano al Comienzo del Siglo XXI
  19. Latinoamerica.
  20. Genetic epidemiology of single gene defects in Chile.
  21. The Chilean population is rather homogeneous with 95.4 % of its population having European ancestors.
  22. Land areas and population estimates are taken from The 2008 World Factbook which currently uses July 2007 data, unless otherwise noted.
  23. Falkland Islands: July 2008 population estimate. CIA World Factbook.
  24. (Jan. 2009)
  25. Source
  26. Latin American tourism growth
  27. Backpackers destination


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