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 Strait. 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.
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 Peruvian 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 Huantar 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 Tiwanaku (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 Cusco, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as Tawantin suyu, or "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.
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 (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.
Guyana 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 Venezuela 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 Lima, 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, Ecuador, 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:
- Guyana, from the United Kingdom, in 1966
- Suriname, from Dutch control, in 1975
French Guiana remains part of France.
The continent became a battlefield of the Cold War in the late 20th century. Some governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay were overthrown or displaced by United States-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 Argentina'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.