South America

South America Description

South America History

It is theorized that the continent of South America emerged when the supercontinent of Pangea broke apart, some hundreds of millions of years ago. This theory states that throughout the Paleozoic Era and the Mesozoic Era, South American and Africa shared the same land. It is because of this fact that modern-day Africa and South America share many of the same fossils and rock types.

Historians believe that the earliest inhabitants of South American land were people who had crossed over from the Bering Strait to reach North America. Over the years, these humans eventually settled in South America. There are some anthropological signs that point back to humans inhabiting South America since at least the year 9000 BCE. Throughout South America's early history of human inhabitants, it was widely an agrarian society, meaning that its residents survived off of the land, using staples such as fish and beans for food. Animals like llamas and alpacas were also domesticated around this time.

From this agrarian society, early civilizations were born. Out of the settlements that we are today aware of, the earliest ones were in what is today modern day Peru. Some of these early cultures included the Chavín, the Norte Chico, the Moche, the Nazca and the Paracas. In later decades, societies such as that of the Incha civilization and the Mapuche, which actually refers to a diverse group of indigenous residents who lived in what is today known as Argentina and Chile.

Many of these civilizations resisted the arrival of European colonizers, who began to seek out South America in the year 1494. The resistance to colonization shown by the Mapuche resulted in the Arauco War, which lasted from the years 1536 and 1818 and is known as one of the longest wars to ever occur in history. Before the arrival of European settlers, many of the early societies in South America had built road systems, cities, and complex agricultural systems.

It was the approval of the Treaty of Tordesillas that led European explorers to South America. The Treaty of Tordesillas was signed with the intention of allocating land in South America to both Spain and Portugal. The intention was to give all of the land that was west of the islands of Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic Islands to Spain. However, due to the lack of precision of the era's geography tools, this distinction was not easily enforceable, nor was it always followed. This is why the area that we know now today as Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese.

Unfortunately, European settlers brought with them diseases like typhus, influenza and smallpox. The native inhabitants of South America did not have the proper immunities to fight these diseases, and many populations perished as a result. As a way to fill the gap in the (forced) workforce in places like mines, factories, and plantations, enslaved people from Africa were brought over by colonies predominantly controlled by French, Portuguese, and Spanish settlers. The number of enslaved people brought over from Africa to South America during this time is estimated to be around five million. In 1823, Chile became the first country in South America to abolish slavery. The next countries to ban slavery were Uruguay in 1830, Bolivia in 1831, Colombia in 1851, Ecuador in 1851, Peru in 1854, Venezuela in 1854, Paraguay in 1869, and Brazil in 1888.

Simón Bolívar, for whom the country of Bolivia is named, and José de San Martín are two figures credited with their role in fighting for South America countries to receive independence from Spain and Portugal. Bolívar was active in leading uprisings in the northern part of the continent, while San Martín led uprisings in the south. When the two armies met in Ecuador, they forced the surrender of the Spanish Crown. Brazil gained its independence from Portugal through a mediation in 1825.

The 19th century saw a time of great conflict in the South American continent. Some of the largest of these wars included the Cisplatine War, against Brazil and the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, which would eventually become Argentina, the Ragamuffin War, which was an uprising in southern Brazil, the War of the Confederation against the Peru-Bolivian Confederation and Chile, Argentinian civil wars, the Uruguayan War between Uruguay and the Empire of Brazil, and the War of the Pacific between Chile and Bolivia (with the help of Peru).

The 20th century brought fewer wars to the continent, but still included many decades without peace. Unrest included fighting between Peru and Ecuador, as well as World War II battles. Brazil, who was the only South American country to fight in World War I, was also the only South American country to fight in the Second World War as well. Brazil declared war on the Axis in 1942. In 1982, the United Kingdom and Argentina fought in the Falkland War.

After periods of dictatorships affecting countries like Chile and Argentina, South America today remains relatively stable across the continent. Much of its 420 million people can be found on the periphery of the continent. The influence of indigenous identities is still seen in many areas of South America today, as well as the effects of colonialism. Most South Americans speak either Spanish or Portuguese as a first language. Two of the world's top 25 largest economies, Brazil and Argentina, are located in South America. It is an important location for tourists from across the world, a popularity that continues to grow as years progress.

South America Geography Notes

South America is the world's fourth largest continent by land area and the fifth largest continent by population. Located within the continent are 12 independent countries and 3 territories. Unique geographical features of South America include its biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest, the Andes, and the Atacama Desert. The continent contains the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls in Venezuela, and the the largest river (by volume), the Amazon River. In addition, it also includes the highest capital city, La Paz, Bolivia, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca, and, excluding research stations in Antarctica, the world's southernmost permanently inhabited community, Puerto Toro, Chile.

The 12 independent countries of South America are:

The 3 territories of South America are:

South America Geography Facts

  • Suriname is South America's smallest country by land area.
  • Brazil is South America's largest country by land area.
  • Brazil is South America's most populated country.
  • Suriname is South America's least populated independent country; The Falkland Islands are the least populated territory.
  • South America's highest Point is Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina.
  • South America's lowest point is Laguna del Carbón in Argentina.


South America Outline Map

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This page was last updated on December 14, 2017.