South America is the fourth-largest continent in the world, with a total area of about 6,890,000 square miles (17,840,000 square km). With twelve countries rich in history, beautiful landscapes, and archaeological sites, it’s no surprise the continent is a popular destination for tourists. In fact, UNESCO lists over 70 South American locations as World Heritage Sites, which means they are seen as culturally, historically, or scientifically significant. Here are five things you should know about South America.
1. The almost forgotten heroism of Simón Bolívar, The Liberator
One of the continent’s greatest military leaders was a Venezuelan soldier named Simón Bolívar. Dubbed the George Washington of South America, Bolívar was influential in the revolutions against the Spanish empire. He helped liberate what are now the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Despite Bolivar’s accomplishments, he died in 1830 a failure, and his political enemies in Venezuela outlawed the mention of his name. It took almost 40 years before his impact was realized. Venezuela’s then-president Antonio Guzman Blanco helped restore Bolivar’s legacy. He had Bolivar’s body reburied in the National Pantheon of Venezuela’s hall of heroes and named the modern Venezuelan currency after Bolívar.
2. Many languages other than Spanish or Portuguese are spoken
South America is perhaps one of the most linguistically diverse continents in the world. A 2015 World Bank study says about 560 Indigenous languages are spoken in South America, with around 200 found in Brazil alone.
The top three most spoken Indigenous languages in the continent are Quechua, Guarani, and Aymara, while the most spoken immigrant languages are Spanish, Portuguese, and English. A small percentage of people speak other languages such as German, Italian, and Japanese.
3. The oldest known civilization flourished at the same time as Mesopotamia
While the Inca Empire was one of the largest ancient civilizations in South America, the Caral-Supe/Norte Chico is the oldest known advanced civilization in the Americas. It developed around the time as those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India civilizations.
The Caral-Supe formed in four valleys in northwestern Peru about 6,000 years ago, totalling 30 human settlements. The archaeological site of Caral, located approximately 112 miles north of Lima, Peru, was created about 5,000 years ago and is considered the oldest city in the Americas.
4. It is a serious biodiversity hotspot
South America is full of biodiversity as it spans two hemispheres and four major climatic zones: tropical, temperate, arid, and cold. Also, out of the 17 megadiverse countries worldwide, five are found in South America: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela.
While the Amazon Rainforest and the Galapagos Islands are well-known for their unique flora and fauna, five other hotspots are abundantly biodiverse as well: the Atlantic Forest, the Cerrado, the Chilean Winter Rainfall-Valdivian Forests, the Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena, and the Tropical Andes.
5. Some Indigenous tribes are still uncontacted
Many of the world’s uncontacted tribes are in South America, with many living deep within the Amazon Rainforest. According to the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), a Brazilian government agency, it is thought that at least 100 uncontacted groups live in the Amazon.
Some of the uncontacted tribes found in the continent include the Awa in Brazil, Mashco Piro in Peru, Ayoreo in Paraguay, and Yanomami in Venezuela. The Awa is considered the world’s most endangered tribe because they constantly face threats from illegal hunters and loggers. The Ayoreo live isolated in the Chaco and are considered South America’s last uncontacted group outside of the Amazon.
South America's diversity is demonstrated in its environment just as much as in its nations and inhabitants. Rainforests, mountains, cities, Indigenous villages, hundreds of languages, hundreds of cultures await a travellers to this mysterious continent teeming with life and history.