History of South America

The South American continent was populated from the north about 11,000 years ago. Two immigration paths appear to be documented: along the west coast and the Andes, and over Venezuela’s plain (los llanos), along the northeast coast as far as the Amazon.


The first hunter groups must have settled in South American territory already around 15,000 BCE, but the southern tip was not reached until the inland ice had finally retreated. The coast and the highlands provided the best conditions for a population most accustomed to fishing and hunting large herds. The tropical forest, on the other hand, has appeared as a barrier. This was therefore later populated, and then primarily from the east coast and inland along the major rivers, where resources were more easily accessible. Check ABBREVIATIONFINDER to see all abbreviations about Latin America and South America.

Prehistory of South America

The best conditions for production growth and population growth were found on the dry coastal strip in the west. Here the first farming occurred, probably regardless of a similar invention in Mesoamerica. It was not edible plants that earlier were subject to the protection and processing, but cotton to fishing nets and bottle gourds (gourd) into yarn floats. In the north, some had also managed to tame guinea pigs, which provided an additional subsidy to the food supply.

On this basis, villages and small towns grew up. This permanent settlement took place from 2500 BCE. Sometime later, the fishermen began growing maize. This plant must have come from Mesoamerica along with beans and various species of cucumber and pumpkin. The many rivers from the Andes that crossed sandy plains, formed fertile strips or oases suitable for agriculture, which were now intensified.

The Incarctic

It was in this area that larger ceremonial centers and city states emerged. Here, different crafts were given development conditions. There were local traditions in pottery, stone sculpture and textiles, followed by metalwork in gold, silver, copper and bronze. About 900 BCE It seems that a certain style, chavín, was widely used, and from the time just before and after our time, two important centers appeared, moche (mochica) in the north and nazca in the south.

The first more extensive state formation, Tiahuanaco, had its seat in the highlands. It later had to give way to Chimú’s place on the north coast, which in turn was conquered by the Incas and incorporated into their empire.

The colonial past

It was first and foremost the hacienda, huge plantations, that changed the indigenous communities of South America. These huge goods on thousands of targets needed cheap labor. Indigenous peoples worked on the goods for a wretched salary, which they most often received in the form of food, clothing and agricultural implements. They were, in effect, bound to the estate as viable, and eventually lost touch with their original way of life. The photo shows the owner of a hacienda and his wife. The landowners in South America could live as princes if the estate was large enough.

Following earlier voyages to the Caribbean and the coast of Central America, Christopher Columbus arrived on the coast of present-day Venezuela in 1498. It was the pursuit of precious metals for the Spanish crown and the soulful conquest of the Catholic Church that was the driving force of the earliest colonists. The first Spanish settlements were created along the coast of the Caribbean in the 1520s by Venezuela and Colombia, and from there a conquest voyage was organized inland on the continent.

From Panama, the conqueror Francisco Pizarro departed with his campaign, submitting himself to the highly developed Incaricet during the period 1531-1534. From the Atlantic side, the present Argentina and Paraguay became subject to the Spanish crown. The Spanish colonization was completed with Chile in 1553. Brazil was the site of the Portuguese colonial advance from around 1530. The huge rainforests in Brazil as well as the sparsely populated Patagonia on the southern tip of the continent were spared colonization at this time.

The military conquest was led by caudillos with their “companions” who had the crown’s right to rule over the territories and peoples they were under. The tendency for constant expansion was more common than permanent settlements in the early days. One fifth of the conquered treasures was transported to the Spanish court, while tithes were paid to the church, which in this way became a rich institution also in the colonies. The indigenous people were used as slaves in the extraction of precious metals. As these were killed in large numbers due to overwork and epidemic diseases brought by Europeans, slaves from Africa were introduced.

With the slave trade, Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands also gained interest in the area, and South America became the scene of rivalry between the European powers. Vice kingdoms and nobility were created according to the model of the motherland. Alongside mining, large estates were established based on forced labor from the local population (encomienda) that had been deprived of land ownership. Power had its basis in the gradually magnificent urban communities where a large colonial bureaucracy emerged. This led to the development of a local aristocracy with the unwillingness to obey the Spanish court, especially during periods when Spain had trouble exercising its power in Europe.

The rivalry between the aristocracy and the loyal bureaucracy laid the foundation for the liberation movements in the early 1800s. The economy was based on urban communities with surrounding agricultural areas, and not on trade as in other European colonies. Plantations were founded to some extent to supply the market in Europe.


The Enlightenment and the French Revolution of the late 18th century aroused the demand for freedom in South America as well. Already in 1749, traders in Venezuela protested against the monopoly that Spain had on trade with the colonies. As ties with Spain weakened in the context of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, nationalism in South America was strengthened. The UK encouraged the liberation claim because of the prospects for free trade. Several local uprisings took place, and Paraguay was the first country to declare independence (1811).

It was mainly the elite of the colonies, especially the business community, who were eager for independence. The poor masses had little advantages to gain. Nationalist military leaders such as Simón Bolívar (Venezuela), Bernardo O’Higgins (Chile), José de San Martín (Argentina) and Antonio José de Sucre have been awarded the main honor for independence in South America. These can all be considered in the same category as the Spanish caudillos of the former colonial period.

From the south, the army of San Martín took over from Argentina to Chile, which gained its independence in 1817, and continued to the colonial loyal bastion of Peru in 1820. From the north, the campaign of Bolívar fought through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The release is considered completed in 1826, when the Spanish garrison in Callao, Peru, surrendered.

Portugal’s colony Brazil gained its independence in a different way and with little bloodshed when the son of Portuguese emperor Dom Pedro 1 proclaimed emperor of Brazil in 1822. Britain took over most of Spain’s and Portugal’s trade. Therefore, in 1823, a new superpower in emning, the United States, promulgated the Monroe Doctrine to prevent the former colonial powers from doing business in America. The ruling elite of the new states divided themselves into conservative and liberal camps. To provide the countries with revenue, US and European companies were now given great freedom to continue the extraction of raw materials and agricultural products. Progress was measured in the wealth the new elites gained.

The nation states were based on a strong military force that constantly interfered with the political process, and military leaders held great prestige as liberation was identified with the army. Violent takeovers were more common than elections, and violence was maintained to retain power. Strong alliances were therefore formed between the army, the church and the landlords. Stable political conditions were important in attracting capital from the US and Europe. In this way, the traditional structure was upheld, and the poor majority did not get better in the first century of independence. The conservatives would retain the power of the church and the aristocracy, while the liberals would have a stronger state power.

Social reforms took place in some countries during periods of liberal rule. The biggest obstacle to social improvement was the large-scale tradition in rural areas, where landlords continued to enrich themselves at the expense of landless land workers. Agriculture was largely based on export products such as coffee, sugar, cocoa and livestock. Towards the end of the 19th century, a large number of southern Europeans emigrated to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, where land was available for settlers and also some industrial development.

American imperialism

From the mid-1800s, the United States showed clear signs of expansion in former Spanish America. Northern Mexico was incorporated into the United States, and the Panama Canal was a result of US support for the detachment of the Panama Province from Colombia. In the Caribbean, the United States gained control of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and countless military invasions from the United States characterized Central America and the Caribbean between 1898 and 1925.

With industrialization in the United States, South America was considered a natural raw material supplier and a market for the finished products. In this way, the United States had a significant influence on the economy of South America. This was particularly true of oil production that was initiated in Venezuela and later in Mexico, but also mining, plantation and other export-oriented industries. The South American citizenship did not promote the national economy, but rather its own privileges as supporters of foreign investors. Consequently, there was little economic progress among workers and farmers, and in the 1920s the unions became very active. There was a stronger nationalism.


In the worldwide economic crisis of 1929, the countries of South America were also affected. Imports from the United States failed, and prices for export products dropped to bottom levels. To offset this, a successful national industrialization was initiated, with emphasis on products the countries themselves needed. Especially Argentina, Brazil and to a certain extent Colombia experienced a flourishing of new initiative where among other things the state went in with large investments.

The large influx of cities began, and in this optimistic atmosphere, political movements emerged that strongly appealed to the working class. This populism has clear parallels to the political situation in Germany and Italy in the 1930s. In this way, the dictator Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina and José Maria Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador dominated politics for 20-30 years.

After World War II, and even more so after the Korean War, the United States came back strong. Multinational corporations took up competition with the weak national industry that had grown up, and with the strong capital forces behind it, South America was soon back in dependence. In 1948, the Rio Treaty was signed. It committed all US states, including the United States, to military cooperation and led to the establishment of military bases in many countries and significant US military assistance. The army’s role in South America has not primarily been the defense of the individual country, but inward control of its own population.

Military dictatorship

The modern history of South America has been marred by oppression and social unrest. Argentine revolutionary politician Che Guevara was one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution. He left Cuba in 1965 to conduct revolutionary business in other Latin American countries, and was killed in a meeting with Bolivian soldiers in 1967. After his death, Che Guevara has emerged as the symbol of revolution in Latin America and as a male ideal among revolutionary Latin Americans. The picture shows the body of Che Guevara (1967).

The era of military regimes of the 1960s began with the coup in Brazil in 1964 which deposed President João Belchior Marques Goulart. New militarism was characterized by its own ideology. First, the brutal authorities were a guarantee against further land reform and nationalization that Goulart had sought to introduce. Furthermore, the military was important to the multinational companies in need of workers’ stability and order. The military dictatorships were also an expression of the need to curb any development inspired by the 1959 revolution in Cuba.

The military devised an ideology based on “national security” in defense of the family, the church and the free enterprise against the “communist threat”. All opposition was therefore labeled as dangerous and as communism. Radical politicians, trade unionists and other opposition groups received harsh treatment with imprisonment, torture or murder. Brazil rightfully saw its country as a giant in South America, and the military leadership had a finger in the game during the military coups in neighboring Bolivia and Uruguay. The military also took power in Peru in 1968, but a radical reform policy was formulated there.

The military regime in Brazil opened for colonization of the vast Amazon area, where several Native American communities have been destroyed and the ecological effects are unclear. Military coups also followed in Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976. The 1970s were the darkest decade in the continent’s history after independence, and human rights violations were extreme.

Democratic opening

During the long period of military rule, the countries of South America have acquired a huge debt to foreign banks. The economy has been characterized by falling prices for commodities in the international market and short-term planning based on large loans. Corruption, expensive military equipment and luxury consumption have contributed significantly to the expenditure. During the 1970s, most countries in South America were the scene of guerrilla activities, especially in metropolitan cities.

Due to a lack of will for land reform, the big cities experienced explosive growth. Unemployment and poverty increased. Due to the economic situation and internal pressure, Brazil began a gradual democratic opening from 1979, resulting in the first open elections in 1985. In Peru, civilians came to power in 1980, in Bolivia in 1982. The Falklands War with the United Kingdom in 1982 became a scandal for the military in Argentina and led to the transition to civilian rule in 1983. In Uruguay, too, the military surrendered power to civilians in 1984. The last military dictatorships were liquidated in Paraguay and Chile in 1989.

The 1990s were therefore the beginning of a new era for South America, based on democratic governance and stabilization of the economy. Neoliberalism and the demands of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) marked the change and contributed to even greater social differences. All countries on the continent carried out the privatization of public services. Through the sale of state cornerstone companies sanitized the authorities divide the foreign debt. The desperate situation that prevailed in the 1980s was replaced with positive economic perspectives for the dynamic middle class in the countries. Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia in particular were able to show good financial results and a growing interest from international companies and the banking industry to invest in these countries.

Stability was also reflected in the political system, where, unlike previous military coups, it was now commonplace for re-election of presidents. Of revolutionary movements, only the guerrillas in Peru and Colombia made themselves known in the 1990s.

Left Rotation

At the beginning of the 2000s, South America was still characterized by a relatively stable democratic development. A new and striking feature of the picture was that leftist parties – outside the traditional hegemony of the liberals and conservatives – won the elections country by country. However, the range was considerable among the new heads of state, from Chile ‘s social democracy following a European pattern to Hugo Chávez’s peculiar left-wing populism in Venezuela. Brazil, under President Lula da Silva, took on a leadership role early in South America’s political reorientation, but was challenged here by the more radical Chavez.

A common denominator in the “left turn” has been to counterbalance US influence on the continent. US attempts to form an all-American free trade organization ( FTAA, Free Trade Area of the Americas, Spanish abbreviation: ALCA), support against plans to develop the South American Mercosur – and the vision of South America as a heavy international player in interaction with China, India, Indonesia and the EU. Central to all of this was a reaction against the International Monetary Fund ‘s (IMF) unilateral neo – liberalist economic policy requirements to get South America’s debt-ridden country on its feet. In 2003, the IMF’s so-called “Washington consensus” gained its counterpart in Brazil and Argentina’s “Buenos Aires consensus” on a more radical tax and benefit policy.

Economically, too, progress was tracked, despite setbacks such as Argentina’s brief but dramatic “tango crisis” in the early 2000s. Several countries in the continent have good economic growth, but the poverty gap is a persistent problem. In 2005, as many as 220 of South America’s 550 million inhabitants fell under the UN poverty definition.