South America

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Central & South American Geography

"Southern America" may also refer to the Southern United States.
World map showing South America
World map showing South America
A satellite composite image of South America
A satellite composite image of South America

South America is a continent situated in the western hemisphere and, mostly, the southern hemisphere, bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north and east by the Atlantic Ocean; North America and the Caribbean Sea lie to the northwest.

As part of the Americas like North America, South America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first European to suggest that the Americas were not the East Indies, but a New World unknown to Europeans.

South America has an area of 17,840,000 km² (6,890,000 sq mi), or almost 3.5% of the Earth's surface. As of 2005, its population was estimated at more than 371,000,000. South America ranks fourth in area (after Asia, Africa, and North America) and fifth in population (after Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America).


South America is generally considered a continent forming the southern portion of the American landmass, south and east of the Panama Canal transecting the Isthmus of Panama. Depending on source, South and North America are sometimes considered a single continent or supercontinent, while constituent regions are infrequently considered subcontinents. Geologically, almost all of mainland South America sits on the South American Plate. Geopolitically, all of Panama – including the segment east of the Panama Canal in the isthmus – is often considered a part of North America alone and among the countries of Central America.

It became attached to North America only recently (geologically speaking) with the formation of the Isthmus of Panama some 3 million years ago, which resulted in the Great American Interchange. The Andes, likewise a comparatively young and seismically restless mountain range, run down the western edge of the continent; the land to the east of the Andes is largely tropical rainforest, the vast Amazon River basin. The continent also contains drier regions such as Patagonia and the extremely arid Atacama Desert.

The South American continent also includes various islands, many of which belong to countries on the continent. Many of the islands of the Caribbean (or West Indies) – e.g., the Leeward and Lesser Antilles – sit atop the Caribbean Plate, a tectonic plate with a diffuse topography. The islands of Aruba, Trinidad, and Tobago sit on the northerly South American continental shelf. The Netherlands Antilles and the federal dependencies of Venezuela lie along the northerly South American [[]]. 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, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana – are also known as Caribbean South America.

South America contains the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls, the largest river (by volume), the Amazon River, the longest mountain range, the Andes, the driest desert, Atacama, the largest rainforest, the Amazon Rainforest, the highest capital city, La Paz, Bolivia, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca, and the world's southernmost town, Puerto Toro, Chile.

South America's major natural resources are copper, iron ore, tin, and oil. The many resources of South America have become useful around the world. However, they often have hindered the development of diversified economies. This has led to major highs and lows in the economy of South American states, often also causing political instability.

South America is home to many interesting and unique species of animals including the llama, anaconda, piranha, jaguar, vicuna, and tapir. The Amazon rainforests possess high biodiversity, containing a major proportion of the Earth's species.

The largest country in South America by far, in both area and population, is Brazil, followed by Argentina. Regions in South America include the Andean States, the Guianas, the Southern Cone, and Brazil.


Map of South America. (1750) Geograph: Robert de Vaugondy.
Map of South America. (1750) Geograph: Robert de Vaugondy.

The rise of agriculture and domestication of animals

- South America is thought to have been first inhabited by people crossing the Bering Land Bridge, which is now the Bering Strait. The first evidence for the existence of agricultural practices in South America dates back to circa 6500 BCE, when potatoes, chillies and beans began to be cultivated for food in the Amazon Basin. Pottery evidence further suggests that manioc, which remains a staple foodstuff today, was being cultivated as early as 2000 BCE.

By 2000 BCE many agrarian village communities had been settled throughout the Andes and the surrounding 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 and alpacas in the highlands of the Andes circa 3500 BCE. These animals were used for both transportation and meat.

Pre-Columbian civilizations

The rise of agriculture and the subsequent rise of permanent settlements allowed for the beginnings of civilizations in South America. The Muisca were the main indigenous civilization in Colombia. They established a confederation of many clans, or cacicazgos, that had a free trade network among themselves. They were goldsmiths and farmers.

The Chavín established a trade network and developed agriculture by 900 BC, according to some estimates and archeological finds. Artifacts were found at a site called Chavín de Huantar in modern Peru at an elevation of 3,177 meters. Chavín civilization spanned 900 BC to 300 BC.

Other main cultures: Caral or Supe Valley Civilization (2500 Bc - 1500 BC, Central Peru), Valdivia (Ecuador), Moche (100 BC - 700 AC, at the northern coast of Peru), Tiuahuanaco or Tiwanaku (100 BC - 1200 BC, Bolivia), Paracas - Nazca (400 BC - 800 AC, Peru), Wari or Huari Empire (600 - 1200, Central and northern Peru), Chimu Empire (1300 - 1470, Peruvian northern coast), Chachapoyas, Aymaran kingdoms (1000 - 1450, Bolivia and southern Peru) and others

Holding their capital at the great city of Cusco, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as Tawantinsuyu, or "the land of the four regions," in Quechua, the Inca culture was highly distinct and developed. Cities were built with precise, unmatched stonework, constructed over many levels of mountain terrain. Terrace farming was a useful form of agriculture. There is evidence of excellent metalwork in Inca civilization.

European colonization

Physical map of South America
Physical map of South America

In 1494, Portugal and Spain, 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 leagues west of Cape Verde Islands, roughly 46° 37' W. In terms of the treaty, all land to the west of the line (which is now 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 diseases (smallpox, influenza, measles, and typhus) to which the native populations had no resistance, and systems of forced labor, such as the infamous haciendas and mining industry's mita, decimated the native population under Spanish control. After this, African slaves, who had developed immunities to these diseases, were quickly brought in to replace them.

The Spaniards were committed to converting 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 their traditional beliefs. On the other hand, the Spaniards did not impose their language to the degree they did their religion, and the Roman Catholic Church's evangelization in Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní actually contributed to the expansion of these native languages, equipping them with writing systems.

Eventually the Natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a Mestizo class. These and the original natives were often forced to pay unfair taxes to the Spanish government and were punished harshly for disobeying their laws. Many native artworks were considered pagan idols and destroyed by Spanish explorers. This included the many gold and silver sculptures found in the Americas, which were melted down before transport to Europe.


The Spanish colonies won their independence between 1804 and 1824 in the South American Wars of Independence. Simón Bolívar of Venezuela and José de San Martín of Argentina led the independence struggle. Bolívar led a great army southward while San Martín led an army across the Andes Mountains, meeting up with General Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile, and marched northward. The two armies finally met in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where they cornered the royal army of Spain and forced its surrender.

In Brazil, a Portuguese colony, 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 keep the Spanish-speaking parts of the continent politically unified, they rapidly became independent of one another as well, and several further wars were fought, such as the War of the Triple Alliance and the War of the Pacific.

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

French Guiana remains part of France as of 2006, and hosts the European Space Agency's principal spaceport, the Centre Spatial Guyanais.

Recent history

The continent, like many others, became a battlefield of the Cold War in the late 20th century. The governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay were overthrown or displaced by U.S.-aligned military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. Their governments detained tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were tortured and/or killed (on inter-state collaboration, see Operation Condor). 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 internal conflicts (see Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and Shining Path). Revolutionary movements and right-wing military dictatorships have been common, but starting in the 1980s a wave of democratization came through the continent, and democratic rule is widespread now. Allegations of corruption remain common, and several nations have seen crises which have forced the resignation of their presidents, although normal civilian succession has continued.

International indebtedness became a notable problem, as most recently illustrated by Argentina's default in the early 21st century.

In recent years South American governments have drifted to the left, with socialist leaders being elected in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, and a leftist president in Argentina and Uruguay. Despite the move to the left, South America is still largely capitalist.

With the founding of the South American Community of Nations, South America has started down the road of economic integration, with plans for political integration in the European Union style.


As of 2002, South America's unemployment rate was 10.8 %.

Due to histories of high inflation in nearly all South American countries, interest rates and thus investment remain high and low, respectively. Interest rates are usually double 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 successfully implementing free market economic policies since the 1980s and increased 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.

The South American Community of Nations is a planned continent-wide free trade zone to unite two existing free-trade organizations— Mercosur and the Andean Community.

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, Brazil, 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 next to skyscrapers and upper-class luxury apartments.

GDP per capita (PPP) 2005

Rank in world Country GDP
per capita
50 Argentina 14,109
57 Chile 11,937
65 Uruguay 10,028
68 Brazil 8,584
81 Colombia 7,565
96 Venezuela 6,186
97 Peru 5,983
99 Suriname 5,683
105 Guyana 4,612
107 Paraguay 4,555
114 Ecuador 4,316
125 Bolivia 2,817

Source: List of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita


Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion. French Guiana also has a large number of Protestants. Guyana and Suriname are exceptions, with three major religions: Christianity in general, Hinduism, and Islam.

Other branches of Christianity like Protestantism have grown steadily in South America. Jewish communities are found across South America, the largest are Sao Paulo, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina. There are significant numbers of Armenian, Greek and other Eastern Orthodox churches founded by immigrants from the Middle East. There are Jehovah's Witnesses scattered everywhere in South America.

Portuguese and Spanish are the primary languages of the continent. The majority of South Americans (51%) speak Portuguese. However, most South American countries are Spanish-speaking, and nearly all of the continent's Lusophones reside in Brazil. Among other languages used by many South Americans are:

In some countries the continent's upper classes and well-educated people study English and French. There are small Spanish speaking areas of Southernmost Brazil, due to the proximity of Uruguay. South Americans are culturally enriched by the historic connection with Europe, especially Spain and " pop culture" impact from North America. ( the U.S.).

South American nations have a rich variety of music. Some of the most famous genres include samba from Brazil, tango from Argentina and Uruguay and cumbia from Colombia. 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 in various forms. The Peruvian coast is the creator of the fines guitar and cajon duos or trios in the most mestizo (mixed race) of South American rhythms such as the Zamacueca (from Lima), the Tondero (from Piura), the 18th century popular Creole Valse or Peruvian Valse and the soulful Arequipan Yaravi

In the late 20th century, Rock en Espanol emerged by young hipsters influenced by British pop and American rock in Argentina and Chile. However, this music genre has grown to include Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Brazil which has a Portuguese-language pop rock industry.

Because of South America's ethnic mix, South American cuisine takes on African, American Indian, and European influences. Bahia, Brazil, is especially well-known for its West African-influenced cuisine. Argentines and Chileans regularly consume wine, while Argentina along with Paraguay, Uruguay and people in southern Chile and Brazil enjoy a sip of Mate a regional gourd cultivated for its drink. Pisco is a distilled liquor enjoyed in Peru and Chile.


Ethnic groups and indigenous peoples of South America include:

  • Alacalufe
  • Atacameños
  • Aymara
  • Africans
  • Awá
  • Banawa
  • Caiapos
  • Chibcha
  • Cocama
  • Diaguitas
  • Chayahuita
  • Enxet
  • Pehuenche
  • Quechuas
  • Shipibo
  • Xucuru
  • Urarina
  • Yagua
  • Zaparos
Urarina shaman, 1988
Urarina shaman, 1988

Indigenous peoples, such as the Urarina of Amazonia, make up the majority of the population in Peru and Bolivia, and are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies. Exceptions to this include Argentina and Uruguay. At least three of the Amerindian languages ( Quechua in Peru and Bolivia, Aymara also in Bolivia, and Guarani in Paraguay) are recognized along with Spanish as national languages.


The countries in this table are categorised according to the scheme for geographic regions and subregions used by the United Nations, and data included are per sources in cross-referenced articles. Where they differ, provisos are clearly indicated.

Name of territory,
with flag
(1 July 2005 est.)
Population density
(per km²)
Argentina Argentina 2,766,890 39,537,943 14.3 Buenos Aires
Bolivia Bolivia 1,098,580 8,857,870 8.1 La Paz, Sucre
Brazil Brazil 8,514,877 187,550,726 22.0 Brasília
Chile Chile 756,950 15,980,912 21.1 Santiago
Colombia Colombia 1,138,910 42,954,279 37.7 Bogotá
Ecuador Ecuador 283,560 13,363,593 47.1 Quito
Falkland Islands Falkland Islands (UK) 12,173 2,967 0.24 Stanley
French Guiana French Guiana (France) 91,000 195,506 2.1 Cayenne
Guyana Guyana 214,970 765,283 3.6 Georgetown
Paraguay Paraguay 406,750 6,347,884 15.6 Asunción
Peru Peru 1,285,220 27,925,628 21.7 Lima
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Georgia and
South Sandwich Islands
3,093 Grytviken
Suriname Suriname 163,270 438,144 2.7 Paramaribo
Uruguay Uruguay 176,220 3,415,920 19.4 Montevideo
Venezuela Venezuela 912,050 25,375,281 27.8 Caracas
Central America:
Panama Panama 75,517 3,232,000 21.3 Panama City
Total 17,846,948 371,814,437 20.8


  1. ^ O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25
  2. ^ O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25
  3. ^ O'Brien, Patrick. (General Editor). Oxford Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. pp. 25
  4. ^ La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia; Sucre is the judicial seat.
  5. ^ Includes Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, a Chilean territory frequently reckoned in Oceania. Santiago is the administrative capital of Chile; Valparaíso is the site of legislative meetings.
  6. ^ Claimed by Argentina.
  7. ^ Also claimed by Argentina, the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean are commonly associated with Antarctica (due to proximity) and have no permanent population, only hosting a periodic contingent of about 100 researchers and visitors.
  8. ^ Continental region as per UN categorisations/map; depending on definitions, Aruba, Netherlands Antilles, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago have territory in one or both of South and North America.
  9. ^ Panama is generally considered a transcontinental country in Central America (UN region) and South America; population and area figures are for South American portion only, east of the Panama Canal.

Sources: GeoHive: The population of continents, regions and countries


Among people in some English-speaking countries, there is a tendency to confuse the linguistic and geographic divisions of the Americas: thus, Mexico, some Central American and Caribbean territories, despite their location in North America, are mistakenly included in South America. The term Latin America is correctly used when referring to those territories whose official or national languages come from Latin (namely Portuguese, Spanish, and French). Conversely, Anglo-America is used to refer to areas whose major languages are Germanic (namely English) such as Guyana, Suriname, Belize, Jamaica, and much of the West Indies. Similarly, areas where English is prominent are considered part of the Anglosphere.

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