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Home to the Amazon rainforest, Inca ruins tucked high in the Andes Mountains, and cobble-stoned Spanish colonial towns, South America is a fascinating continent.

Read on to discover the complex history and memorable facts of the world’s fourth largest continent!

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History of South America

According to most theories, nomadic hunter-gatherers migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia into the Americas approximately 20,000 years ago. Eventually, some of these groups reached South America and began to settle into their new surroundings. The varied landscape led to diverse communities. In the valleys of the Andean Mountains, civilizations like the Nazca mastered irrigation. Amidst the Andes, chiefdoms like the Inca mastered terraced agriculture. In the tropical forests, small farming villages hunted, fished, and gathered wild plants.

Map of South America
Map of South America

Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492 led to a race for European domination of the continent. Spain and Portugal decided to ‘play nice’ and divide the land of the entire world between them. Their agreement, known as the Treaty of Tordesillas, drew a boundary line at 46°30° W of Greenwich. Everything east of the line (Africa & Asia) was given to Portugal and everything to the west (Central & South America) was given to Spain. They didn’t know at the time that Brazil’s east coast was on Portugal’s side of the dividing line. When this was discovered, it gave Portugal a chance to make their claim in the Americas also.

Between 1496 and 1526, Panama was used by the Spanish as a base for exploration into South America. Fantasies of gold, silver, and other riches lured Spanish explorers like Francisco Pizarro southward. There were even stories of a kingdom made of pure gold! By 1572 Pizarro and his men had toppled the mighty Inca Empire. Over time, South American native rebellions were squashed and lands were taken. Natives were used as slave labor to work in mines and fields.

Diseases such as small pox reduced the indigenous population by millions. Eventually, African slaves were imported for labor, particularly in Brazil and Bolivia.

A depiction of Spanish conquerors in the Americas
conquistador

In 1814, Argentina and Venezuela were the first South American countries to gain their independence from Spain. Other countries followed this example over the next decade, including Brazil, which declared independence from Portugal in 1822.

The years following independence were tough for South America. Struggles for power between elite landowners led to a need for stability. Unfortunately, this so-called ‘stability’ was brought by a series of dictators, who also brought oppression and social injustice. The poverty gap between the rich and the poor grew and grew. Countries like Colombia and Peru became hotbeds for guerrilla movements and outbreaks of violence.

Unstable governments looked to their wealthier neighbors for loans throughout the late 1900s, which led to foreign debt and even weaker economies. Even now, the effects of colonization weigh heavy on the countries of South America.

South American Countries

The following table includes South American countries and their capital cities. The list includes twelve independent countries, two British territories, and one French territory.

Country Name Capital City Language Population as of 2013
Argentina Buenos Aires Spanish 41.45 million
Bolivia La Paz Spanish 10.67 million
Brazil Bras;lia Portuguese 200.

4 million

Chile Santiago Spanish 17.62 million
Colombia Bogot; Spanish 48.32 million
Ecuador Quito Spanish 15.74 million
Guyana Georgetown English 799,613
Paraguay Asunci;n Spanish 6.

8 million

Per; Lima Spanish 30.38 million
Suriname Paramaribo Dutch 539,276
Uruguay Montevideo Spanish 3.41 million
Venezuela Caracas Spanish 30.41 million
South Georgia ; South Sandwich Islands (British) King Edward Point English 30*
Falkland Islands (British) Stanley English 2,932**
French Guiana (French) Cayenne French 250,377***

*As of 2006**As of 2012***As of 2014

South America Facts

South America, which is named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, is the world’s fourth-largest continent, measuring at 17,840,000 square kilometers (6,890,000 sq. mi). As of 2015, the total population is over 387 million people.

The continent’s highest mountain peak is Mt. Aconcagua in the Andes (6,962 m), and its longest river is the Amazon River. Nearly 3 million square miles of South America is covered by rainforests. They produce around 20% of the world’s oxygen, and they are home to roughly half of the world’s plant and animal species.

The Amazon River
amazonriver

South America is a pretty unique place! Angel Falls, Venezuela, is the highest waterfall in the world, and the Atacama Desert in northern South America is the driest desert in the world. Machu Picchu (Peru), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Christ the Redeemer (Brazil), and the Amazon rainforest are considered ‘Wonders of the World.’ Other places in South American include the Galapagos Islands and the Easter Islands, as well as Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.Last but not least, pink dolphins are only found in South America.

Lesson Summary

Originally home to native peoples like the Inca and the Nazca, South America was conquered and ruled by European powers (namely Spain and Portugal) for hundreds of years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.

The Treaty of Tordesillas drew a boundary line at 46;30; W of Greenwich and said that everything east of the line (Africa ; Asia) was given to Portugal and everything to the west (Central ; South America) was given to Spain. However, it was later discovered that Portugal had a claim to Brazil’s eastern shore. Spanish explorers like Francisco Pizarro moved south through the continent and over time the natives were subjected to slave labor and disease.In the early 1800s, South American countries began to gain their independence from the European powers, starting with Argentina and Venezuela in 1814 and later Brazil in 1822. However, power struggles resulted in dictatorships, a poverty gap, and guerrilla warfare that has continued into the 21st century.

South America is the fourth-largest continent and has a population of over 387 million people. It is home to Mt. Aconcagua, the Amazon River, and tropical rainforests that produce about 20% of the world’s oxygen.

It also has four ‘Wonders of the World,’ and pink dolphins swim in the Amazon River.

Learning Outcomes

When you are done, you should be able to:

  • Describe the civilizations of South America before Europeans arrived
  • Summarize the history of colonial presence in South America
  • Understand the struggles South American countries faced following their independence
  • Name the countries that are found in South America
  • Discuss some of the unique features found in South America
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