South America

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World map showing South America (geographically)
World map showing South America (geographically)

South America is a part of the American continent traversed by the equator, with most of its area in the Southern Hemisphere. South America is situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.

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 previously undiscovered New World.

With an area of 17,818,508 km² and a population of 355,070,540, South America ranks fourth in each category, after Eurasia, Africa, and North America.

A satellite composite image of South America
A satellite composite image of South America



The classification of its geographic location is subject to dispute, as in some non-English speaking regions of the world, the Americas are a continent and North, Central and South America are its subcontinents. In English-speaking and certain other regions of the world, North and South America are considered to be continents and their union is referred to as the supercontinent of the Americas. The classification given to South America, as a subcontinent in a continent or a continent in a supercontinent, depends entirely on regional preferences.

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 rain forest, the vast Amazon River basin. The continent also contains drier regions such as Patagonia and the extremely arid Atacama desert.

The region of South America also includes various islands, most of which belong to countries on the continent. The Caribbean territories are grouped with 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.

Major natural resources are copper, iron ore, tin and oil.

South America is home to many interesting species of animals including parrots, tarantulas, snakes, and mammals.

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 Eastern South America.


Main article: History of South America

South America is thought to have been first inhabited by people crossing the Bering Land Bridge, now the Bering strait, though there are also suggestions of migration from the southern Pacific Ocean.


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.


Holding their capital at the great city of Cusco, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as Tahuantinsuyu, 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 and even successful brain surgery in Inca civilization.

European colonization

Before arrival of Europeans, an estimated 30 million people lived in South America.

The imaginary line of the Treaty of Tordesillas.
The imaginary line of the Treaty of Tordesillas.

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 cruel systems of forced labor, such as the infamous haciendas and mining industry's mita, decimated the American 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 American 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 American 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 Catholic Church's evangelization in Quechua, Nahuatl and Guarani actually contributed to the expansion of these American languages, equipping them with writing systems.

Eventually the Natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a Mestizo class. These and the original Americans 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.

Physical map of South America
Physical map of South America


The Spanish colonies won their independence in the first quarter of the 19th century, in the South American Wars of Independence. Simon Bolivar and José de San Martín led their independence struggle. In the 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 2005, and hosts the European Union'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 government of Chile was overthrown in the early 1970s, as a late (and peculiar) development of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Peru suffered from internal conflicts (see Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and Sendero Luminoso). Other revolutions and military dictatorships have been common, but starting in the 1980s a wave of democratization came through the continent, and democratic rule is the norm 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.


As of 2002, South America's gross domestic product declined by 0.3 percent, and its unemployment rate was 10.8 percent.

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 percent in Venezuela and 23 percent in Suriname. The exception is Chile, which had a head start from 1973 under Augusto Pinochet.

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.

In South America, the gap between the rich and the poor is tremendous. In Venezuela, Paraguay, Brazil, and many other South American countries, the richest 20 percent may own over 60 percent of the nation's wealth, while the poorest 20 percent may own less than 5 percent. 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.


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.

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:

South American nations have a rich variety of music. Some of the most famous genres include samba from Brazil and cumbia from Colombia.

Because of South America's ethnic mix, South American cuisine takes on African, American Indian, and European influences. Bahia is especially well-known for its West African-influenced cuisine.


Ethnic groups of South America include:

Indigenous peoples make up the majority of the population in Bolivia and Peru, 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. Argentina is 10 percent Indian.


"Mestizo" is a term of Spanish origin used to designate the peoples of mixed European and Amerindian racial strain inhabiting the region spanning the Americas.

Mestizos officially make up the majority of the populations of Chile (90%), Colombia (58%), Ecuador (65%), Paraguay (95%) and Venezuela (67%). Figures in other countries are Argentina (about 13%), Bolivia (30%), Brazil (about 12%), Uruguay (8%) and Peru (37%).

African ancestry

Africans first arrived with the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century. Most were brought as slaves and delivered to Brazil and the Caribbean. Brazil now has about 60 million black people. Venezuela and Colombia also have significant black population.

"Mulato" is a term of Spanish origin (Mulatto in English) describing Latin Americans of mixed African and White racial descent.

"Zambo" is a term of Spanish origin describing Latin Americans of mixed African and Amerindian racial descent. The feminine form is zamba.

Political divisions of South America

(Not included in the table are South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands which have no permanent inhabitants, only temporary visitors to research stations.)

Name Area (km²) Population
(2002-07-01 est.)
Population density
(per km²)
Argentina 2,766,890 37,812,817 14
Bolivia 1,098,580 8,445,134 7.7
Brazil 8,511,965 176,029,560 21
Chile 756,950 15,498,930 20
Colombia 1,138,910 41,008,227 36
Ecuador 283,560 13,447,494 47
Falkland Islands (UK 1) 12,173 2,967 0.24
French Guiana (Fr.) 91,000 182,333 2.0
Guyana 214,970 698,209 3.2
Panama 2 78,200 3,000,463 37
Paraguay 406,750 5,884,491 14
Peru 1,285,220 27,949,639 22
Suriname 163,270 436,494 2.7
Trinidad and Tobago 2 5,128 1,104,209 215
Uruguay 176,220 3,386,575 19
Venezuela 912,050 24,287,670 27
Total 17,818,508 355,070,540 19.9

1 Claimed by Argentina 2 These states have territory in both South and North America. See here

See also

Wikibooks has more about this subject:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

External links


Logo of SACN South American Community of Nations (SACN)
Argentina | Bolivia | Brazil | Chile | Colombia | Ecuador | Guyana | Paraguay | Peru | Suriname | Uruguay | Venezuela

Continents and regions of the World







North America




South America
Geological supercontinents :
Gondwana • Laurasia • Pangea • Rodinia

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